THE FIRST TIME JERRY JONES TOOK his future wife, Gene Chambers, on a date, he knew he was in trouble. Jones, then a University of Arkansas junior, was eager to impress Chambers, who had just been named Miss Arkansas 1960, but as they made their way through a county fair he failed repeatedly to win her a teddy bear. "I'm sitting there empty-handed with this young lady I'm so proud to be with," Jones recalls. "So I said to her, 'I'm gonna try one more time. I got an idea about how to throw the ball.' So I ran back behind that tent to find somebody. I bought her that teddy bear."

One way or another, Jerry Jones, 53, usually gets what he wants. In 1989, as a tycoon oilman, he bought the Dallas Cowboys and their home field, Texas Stadium, for $140 million—the most anyone had ever paid for a sports franchise. Since then, the feisty businessman with a 10-gallon ego—who spends most Cowboy home games glad-handing players on the sidelines or entertaining celebrities in his owner's box—has won two Super Bowls and more than his share of attention. Jones raised eyebrows last month when he paid flashy free agent Deion Sanders a record $12.99 million signing bonus to lure him from the San Francisco 49ers. But it's his other gambit that has truly ruffled the football establishment.

Jones, who prides himself on being a maverick, announced late this summer that he had signed merchandising and promotion deals with Nike, PepsiCo Inc. and Dr. Pepper for $2.5 million per year and $25 million over 10 years, respectively. (PepsiCo and Dr. Pepper products are now the only soft drinks sold at Texas Stadium, and Nike has painted its logo on the building's facade.) Then, on Oct. 5, Jones announced a multimillion-dollar agreement with American Express, giving cardholders special ticket-buying privileges. Shortly after the first two deals were signed (and before they struck their own deal with Nike earlier this month), the NFL, which has exclusive contracts with Reebok, Coca-Cola and Visa, hit Jones with a $300 million lawsuit charging that Jones's arrangements violated the league's joint-marketing agreement, which is designed to maintain the NFL's competitive balance. Jones didn't flinch. "These guys are cheapskates," he said mockingly of the NFL. "I've been sued for a billion before and won."

If Jones wins this battle—which many following the case consider likely—it could undermine the NFL's longstanding policy of sharing revenue among the league's 30 teams. It would also give the Cowboys, who account for 21 percent of all NFL merchandise sold, a decided edge in the marketplace. "Jerry's attitude is, 'What's mine is mine, and what's yours is ours,' " New York Giants owner Wellington Mara told the Wall Street Journal.

Indeed, Jones wants it all, including respect. In March 1994, two months after the Cowboys' second straight Super Bowl win, Jones clashed with head coach Jimmy Johnson at an NFL function following an unseemly tug-of-war over who deserved credit for the team's success. When Johnson snubbed Jones by not inviting him to join his table with some former Cowboy personnel, Jones began sounding off about firing him. Within days, Johnson saved him the trouble and quit. "The problem I had with Jimmy was lack of loyalty," says Jones. "When I realized that wasn't there, I didn't want to invest any more of my time." Johnson, now a Fox commentator, no longer speaks with Jones and refuses to comment on the rift.

Jones immediately hired himself a new coach, Barry Switzer, and set about proving who was really the indispensable man in the Dallas organization. "I'm not having fun—that's not the word," he says now. "I think the word is 'challenged.' It's like saying drilling for oil is fun. Well, there's nothing fun about getting that phone call late at night and learning that you've just lost a million on a dry hole. You have to get your voice back, pick up the other phone and go after another hole."

That drive was first instilled in him by his parents, J.W. "Pat" Jones and his wife, Arminta, who ran a North Little Rock grocery store where Jerry worked long hours as a boy. As a junior-high football star, he got his first taste of publicity—with a foreshadowing of controversies to come. In a newspaper article, he recalls, "one of my coaches said that I was the most contentious kid he had ever seen. I ran to the dictionary to see what 'contentious' meant."

In 1960, as a 210-pound high school fullback, he won a football scholarship to the University of Arkansas (in college he played guard and linebacker). That's where he met Johnson, his road-game roommate. In his junior year, he found time to wed Gene, with whom he has three children: Stephen, 31, and Charlotte, 29—both Cowboy vice presidents—and Jerry Jr., 26, a recent law-school graduate. "I can't say that I ever really enjoyed playing college football," admits Jones. "I'd look around and see the guys going by the practice field in their convertibles having fun while I was on the field getting knocked down."

Following graduation in 1965, Jones took over one of his father's new companies—Modern Security Life Insurance in Springfield, Mo.—and made his first financial killing. After adding to his stake with investments in real estate, the poultry business and pizza franchises, he returned to Arkansas in 1970 to go into the oil and gas business, where he made $50 million during the 70s. In 1986 he and partner Mike McCoy sold their company Arkoma to Arkla, a natural gas company, for $175 million.

Through it all, Jones remained obsessed with football. When his sons were in high school, he moved Arkoma's Little Rock headquarters across the street from the football field so he could watch Stephen practice from his office. Even on the road, he would call his secretary and ask her to look out the window with binoculars and report what was happening.

Now Jones, who shares a condo with Gene in the affluent Turtle Creek section of Dallas while their nearby mansion is being remodeled, devotes all of his considerable energy to the game, often going three straight nights without sleep when he's crafting a deal. Jim Dent, author of the forthcoming unauthorized biography King of the Cowboys, says Jones "works harder than anyone I've ever seen. Some of his employees tell stories about Jerry waking up at 3 a.m. with an idea and telling them to meet him at the airport in 2 hours. He's obsessed with money and power."

And success, of course. But what really drives Jones? "Fear is what motivates me," he says, sitting in his sparsely decorated office in Irving, his Super Bowl trophies gleaming across the room. "When I bought the Cowboys, no one in the history of sports had put that much money on the line. But had the team lost money, I would have bankrupted my self-confidence and not been able to hold up my head before my family. I would have forever been known as the guy who wanted a team so bad that he blew $140 million. And that scared me to death."

PETER CASTRO
JOSEPH HARMES and CARLTON STOWERS in Irving

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes,
  • Carlton Stowers.