Judging by the fact that he made a trade with San Francisco for Jim Ridlon in 1963, Cowboys Coach Tom Landry was evidently impressed with the seventh-year veteran defensive back. The feeling was mutual.
“Going down to Dallas and playing for Tom Landry was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” said Ridlon. “When I heard Landry talk about football for the first time, I was like born again. The first meeting he says, ‘They run sweeps in the National Football League four ways. Let’s see, Jim, you’ve been around the longest. Come up and draw those up for us.’ I couldn’t do that. And he was embarrassed for me, actually. He says, ‘I’ll see you after the meeting.’
“So after the meeting was over, he says, ‘I traded for you because you don’t make mistakes. You’re one of the smarter players in the league. I can’t believe that you know so little about football. But I’ll tell you what. You hang with me for a couple weeks and for the first time in your life you’re going to be playing with your mind as well as your body. You’re going to love football.’
"And that’s what it was like. You learn so much you were like a walking computer by the time you get done with the meetings. It was really an enlightening and wonderful experience to be in Dallas and have Tom Landry as my coach.”
Ridlon matched a career-high with four interceptions during his second season with the Cowboys. And for the first time, he scored a touchdown. During a November game against the New York Giants, Ridlon picked off former 49ers teammate Y.A. Tittle and returned the ball 74 yards to paydirt.
“That was nice because my family and all my friends lived just outside of New York City, so there must have been 100 people from my hometown [Nyack, NY] at that game,” Ridlon said. “Bob Lilly put a good rush on Tittle, and he lobbed the ball to the tight end. I intercepted it on a dead run and ran it into the end zone. I was very excited about it so I punted the ball up into the bleachers. And we went on to win.
“In our meeting on Monday, Tom Landry runs the play (on film). I make the interception and he ran it back a second time. And he never, ever ran back good plays a second time. If you missed a tackle, you might see it 10 times.
“Cornell Green is sitting next to me and says, ‘Jim, you’re going to get a compliment.’ Landry never gave compliments. And then, very sarcastically, Landry says, ‘Nice punt, Ridlon.’ You don’t show off. That’s the way Landry was.”
Four games later in Philadelphia, Ridlon scored another touchdown on a 63-yard fumble return. “And I didn’t punt the ball,” laughed Ridlon. “I just laid it down in the end zone like I should have the first time. I learned my lesson.”
Following the 1964 campaign, his eighth, Ridlon chose to walk away from the game and return to his alma mater, Syracuse, to earn a master’s degree. “I was a part-time football coach and part-time faculty member. I had to make up my mind which field I wanted to go into. It was the art field and teaching, and I’ve never resented a minute of that.”
A sign that Ridlon would have a career in the art field – as a professor for 35 years at Syracuse and as one of the country’s leading sports sculptors – presented itself early in his life.
“As a kid, I was dyslexic. I couldn’t read or write,” Ridlon said. “They wanted to send me to a [special needs] school, but my father saved me because I was better at math than my teacher or the principal. He insisted that they keep me. I only excelled in three areas: math, playground, and with paint and brushes. I could express myself there without having to verbalize. I was pretty sure of an art career from the time I was in the fifth grade.”
An athlete, artist, and, well, clearly a prophet, Ridlon’s award-winning career seldom touched on sports. But when it did…
“The United States Sports Academy has a collection of work that I exhibited,” said Ridlon. “And when Tom Landry was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (in 1990), the Canton Art Institute gave me an exhibition and I did some football imagery. It was the first time and last time I’ve ever done that. One of the works I did was entitled Tom Landry: What’s Under That Hat? I gave the Hall of Fame a choice of the show for their collection, and that’s the one they took.
“They also had another work of mine that was commissioned by ABC, a Monday Night Football piece. That was kind of fun. It was incredible because on Monday Night Football, you could have had the best game of your life in that game, and you would have been featured in this assemblage I did. There are people that were featured that you might not have ever heard of again.”
In addition to the Hall of Fame, an assemblage Ridlon produced in 1986 to commemorate ABC’s Wide World of Sports’ 25th anniversary is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
It consisted of 750 pieces such as Minnesota Fat’s pool cue, Pele’s final goal soccer ball, Peggy Fleming’s ice skates, Arnold Palmer’s driver, and a piece of Vinko Bogataj’s ski from when he missed the end of the ski jump, which is otherwise known as ‘the agony of defeat.’
“Art is not easy. I think it’s harder than anything I’ve ever tried to do. It’d be much easier doing something else because with art, you set a goal, you set a challenge, and a lot of times you don’t get there. But I just enjoy work. I’m a workaholic. I love my studio. It’s a very peaceful, wonderful world for me.”