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Tim Cowlishaw | April 18, 2013


An excerpt from Tim Cowlishaw's memoir, 'Drunk on Sports'

“Handcuffs” is the tale of what happens when a concierge level regular finds himself in a crowded, un-air conditioned jail in Hunt County, Texas on a Saturday night. It’s what happened to me in July, 2007. The arrest caused me to, among other things, miss a tee time the next morning, fly for a year without a driver’s license and move closer to bars.

I was not wrongfully accused. It was not my first time in handcuffs.

It’s also Chapter 9 in my book “Drunk on Sports” which details how alcohol consumption fueled my career as a sportswriter for years before nearly destroying my life until I stopped drinking in 2009. Charles Barkley is a friend of mine and former drinking buddy. He wrote the foreword. It is not a self-help book. I don't know what those are. It’s just my story. And I guess my dad’s. And, apparently, countless others’ story as well.

Photo Credit: Appleswitch

"Here’s to waking up at night
Half drunk in a ditch by the side of the road
You’re still thinking that you can’t go on like this
Headed for a break down."

— "Before I Break" by Uncle Tupelo

It was 3:16 a.m. on July 21, 2007 – too damn early to have to be up on a Saturday or just way too late to be driving on a Friday in Caddo Mills, Texas, depending upon one’s point of view – when James Ammons of the Hunt County Sheriff’s Department flipped the switch on his overhead lights.

The Toyota Highlander in front of him was not speeding. It was not weaving. It wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary other than driving on the wrong side of the road. Of course, if you’re accustomed to driving in Dallas, two-lane frontage roads along highways are one way. In Hunt County, just across the Dallas County line, they are two- way roads.

"Why you driving on the wrong side of the road?" Ammons asks in a friendly tone as he approaches the driver’s window. The response of the driver, already handing the officer his license and registration, is inaudible.

Ammons: "Where you headed to tonight?"

Driver: "I’m going home."

Ammons: "Where you live at?"

Driver: "Coppell."

Ammons: "You know where you’re at?"

Driver: "Yeah."

Ammons: "Where?"

Driver: "Uh. Not in Coppell."

Ammons asks the driver to step out of the vehicle and that’s when I make my appearance in what may one day find its way into the archives of "World’s Most Absolutely Boring Police Videos."

It’s not my best work. And if you’ve ever seen "Around the Horn" when we are forced to talk European Premier League soccer, you know that’s saying something.

I own what I believe to be the only copy of this video. My lawyer Keith, who strongly advises me not to mention the video to anyone, thinks another one might be floating around in the Hunt County Sheriff’s Department. But he is not sure.

All I can say to anyone whose time management is so poor that they locate a copy is that I hope to God you’re an insomniac. You’re sure as hell not going to make any money out of it.

"I’ve seen worse,’’ he said. "But I’ve seen a lot better. You were fucked up."

It was more than two years after this incident before I ever watched it. Certainly I didn’t want to see any part of it while I was still drinking on a nightly basis. And my lawyer’s review of the tape, just days after my incarceration, had not been encouraging.

"I’ve seen worse," he said. "But I’ve seen a lot better. You were fucked up."

At 3:18 a.m., Ammons asks me to follow the light of his pen with my eyes without turning my head. For three minutes, I do this reasonably well although Ammons catches me cheating near the end. "Follow it all the way," he says.

Well, shit, if you do that, you have to turn your eyes so far they will fall out of your head, but whatever.

Next comes the heel-to-toe drill.

If there were any questions up to this point as to where this wee-small-hours-of-the-morning encounter was headed, it ends right here. I may have bluffed my way through the "follow with your eyes" portion of the exam.

Once we get into walking a straight line, connecting heel to toe for nine steps, turning and then walking back towards my car, arms to be at my sides the entire time, well…just rename the video "Sportswriter on Wire."

It may be a semi-flat frontage road but the way my arms are flailing, I might as well be Philippe Fucking Petit tightroping from one World Trade Center tower to the other. The highlight of this segment is Ammons walking beside me and dictating into his microphone in an east Texas twang that conjures images of Slim Pickens in "Dr. Strangelove" : "Missed heel to toe, missed heel to toe, missed heel to toe, improper turn, missed heel to toe, missed heel to toe."

Improper turn? What, I was supposed to signal or something?

By the third part of the test, you can see from the sag in my shoulders I have entered total give-up mode. Facing a ditch which at that point looks like a pretty comfortable place to go lie down and start life over again in the morning, I am supposed to extend either foot out in front of me six inches off the ground and count until Ammons tells me to stop.

OK, you know what? You go do this on a slight elevation facing downhill completely SOBER and see if your arms don’t move from your sides or there isn’t just the slightest wobble in your hips while keeping that foot steady.

Go ahead…..

So how’d you do? Not that easy, is it?

Admittedly, I delivered more than a slight wobble as I waited for the test period to end so we could move on to something else like maybe reciting the alphabet backwards, an odd custom I have practiced for years and can do quite well even when slightly drunk. Instead, the test is over. Strangely, when Ammons advises that he is placing me under arrest for suspicion of Driving Under the Influence, my head snaps back. I am stunned to have failed the test.

If you were scoring my performance on a scale of 1 to 100, I might have earned about a 12. Yet somehow I thought I had a chance to skate on this whole thing.

Photo Credit: Lionel Allorge

At 3:27 a.m., my hands are cuffed behind my back as I look out over the empty fields of a small east-of-Dallas town called Caddo Mills. I’m wondering if my future isn’t somewhere behind me in those cuffs as well.

I’m wondering if my future isn’t somewhere behind me in those cuffs as well.

An arrest on my record…figuring out how to post bond…getting my car back…finding a lawyer…keeping this out of the Dallas Morning News, not to mention the hallowed halls of Bristol, CT where I was just a few months into a 2-year contract with ESPN’s "Nascar Now" on top of my regular job on "Around the Horn"…

There was a lot to consider at this very moment.

And so after pondering all of this while the officer got my money out of my car and waited for the tow truck to arrive, what’s the first thing I asked him when he got into the car to drive me to jail?

"I have a question," I said. "These are not your priorities, I know. How do I expedite this situation so I can play golf in the morning? I have an early tee time."

Unexpected use of the word "expedite" raises my drunk test score to 14, but understand that by now it is 3:50 a.m. We are miles away from the jail. When we arrive, there will be finger-printing, an interview and a fair amount of standing around before I even see the jail cell. In the morning –remember it’s a Saturday – I’m going to have to wait for the judge to arrive, then be hauled in front of him to hear the charges and enter a plea, then call a bail bondsman, wait for him to arrive at the jail to get me out, find someone else to give me a ride to my car in Royse City, pay to get it back, figure out exactly where the fuck in east Texas I am…

And I am wondering if I still have a shot at a 9 a.m. tee time in Dallas. You gotta love the single-minded purpose of the dedicated golfer.

Before we continue the Tim-bashing segment of this chapter, let me speak on my behalf for a moment. Caddo Mills is 34 miles from downtown Dallas. I left the Corner Bar just off North Central Expressway and McCommas, about 2 miles north of downtown, before 2 a.m.

That’s a long way to drive when you’re drunk without hitting anything, without weaving, without bothering anyone. Kudos to me for that.

Now the fact that it’s the ABSOLUTE WRONG DIRECTION TO BE GOING…well, I have to accept a points deduction for that.

My goal that night had to be to meet a few friends at the Porch on Henderson Ave., eat at the bar, have three or four beers (I guess that’s the "three or four beers" I told the officer I had consumed) and drive home to get some rest before golf.

It was the Dallas Morning News annual sports department challenge. Writer vs. Editors. There will be blood. David Moore and I were set to kick some editing ass.

You ever have those nights that just get away from you though? You’re convinced it’s going to be a quiet night, a few beers or couple glasses of wine, then bed. Before you know it, you’re standing next to a jukebox singing at the top of your lungs and telling a complete stranger you can’t believe they have the audacity to close this fucking place at 2 a.m.!

If that’s happened to you once or twice, well, try to avoid it in the future. It’s not healthy for the liver, the wallet or anything else you can think of. If it happens to you a lot…stick with me for a few more chapters. You need to read this book as much as I need to write it.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

It was nearly 5 a.m. by the time I was escorted down a winding Hunt County hallway behind the locked doors to the holding cell. With absolutely no buzz and only a thick tongue remaining from a drunken evening, this was becoming a slightly uncomfortable experience.

This was becoming a slightly uncomfortable experience.

While I had not even begun to figure out how my evening had ended in east Texas, I had at least pondered what I figured to be the positives of the situation. Had I been hauled in on a Friday night in Dallas, the holding tank figured to be overcrowded. Wandering so far off course would at least give me my own cell for the night, I assumed.

Oops. Missed it by eight.

Actually, I was only the seventh to enter a 24 by 12 room with cement slabs projecting from the walls on each side and a toilet open to all with one roll of paper at the far end. But two more would join us before breakfast, so, I considered it a party of nine.

Slightly surprised to see three of my new roommates sleeping on the floor, I grabbed the last piece of slab available. Not that I slept. Mostly I laid there in a fetal position and thought about how much I didn’t belong in this room.

There were people in here that looked like common criminals. Where the hell was the platinum level at this joint, anyway?

For the first two hours, there was no conversation. Snoring provided our limited soundtrack. And it occurred to me that all of us were sweating. The room was hotter than hell.

You have to understand something here. I like my hotel rooms cool. Some would say I like them cold. Beyond that, even if the temperature’s ideal, there has to be a fan in place or some substantial sound emanating from the air conditioning vents. Otherwise sleep comes very slowly.

So, yeah, we had a whole list of hurdles to clear before I could even begin to contemplate the serious ones that I would face in the morning.

One question I have for the policymakers at the Hunt County facility – and maybe this happens elsewhere, I’m not a regular jailhouse resident so I’m not certain – but why did they have to take my CVS +150 reading glasses from me?

Was the risk that great that I would attack my fellow inmates with a tiny metal piece of the frame?

"Look out, boys, Cowlishaw’s made himself a shiv. That motherfuckin’ writer is crazy."

Or was it a case of not wanting to be embarrassed when they found out I had dug my way out behind the toilet while my eight homies stood guard?

The reason I ask is that once morning came and the judge appeared and we all heard our charges and pled not guilty, an officer that had recognized me a few hours before told me I could call one of the bondsmen listed next to the phone on the jail wall.

He also asked me some Cowboys questions and said how much he enjoyed reading my columns in the Morning News. I thanked him as he left.

"You write for the paper?" asked one of my newfound friends.

I answered in the affirmative.

"Well, you need to write about this shithole," he said. A couple others perked up. Heads nodded.

"Tell people there’s a nice air-conditioned room across the hall that sits empty just so they can throw all nine of us in here," he said.

I said I would be happy to if someone could help me with the phone since I couldn’t read the names or numbers on the bail bond list.

The cellmate who had been identified by another as a registered sex offender during a conversation I did not carefully follow obliged.

It was 11 a.m. by the time I bonded out of jail.

The Morning News boys were making the turn by now, cursing my name and laughing about just how messed up I must have been the night before that I would lose my cell phone and couldn’t answer their texts.

The editors repeated as champions of the sports department. I was held responsible. There were problems of a much greater scale on the horizon, but to be honest, I thought a lot about how I had let my friends and co-workers down. It really pissed me off.

And I guess it was a lot easier than thinking about the shit I had really started the night before.

I guess it was a lot easier than thinking about the shit I had really started the night before.

It was a week before I met Keith Willeford, a Greenville attorney who had been recommended to me. He said he handled plenty of cases opposite the D.A. and felt confident that we could get the sentence reduced. But he didn’t guarantee anything. And right off the bat he offered a warning that I should have already known but didn’t.

"A DUI is a misdemeanor," he said, "but it really isn’t any more. MADD has made it so it’s a lot more than that. I would have an easier time getting you off if you had broken into your neighbor’s house and gotten caught."

I told him I just wanted him to do the best he could and that I really only cared about two things.

"One is to get the charge reduced to something else since I don’t have a record," I said. "The other is to keep this out of the papers. I can’t handle any publicity."

Again, there were no guarantees. In fact, the chances of the latter didn’t sound good at all.

"The D.A.’s a big Mavericks fan," Keith said. "Huge. He already knows you were in here last Friday night."

Well, crap. This was one instance where taking pictures or doing shots with someone who wanted to meet me just probably wasn’t going to be enough.

There are some things most people know about driving while intoxicated from the television ads and the billboards. It’s not as though the word hasn’t leaked out in the last 10 years or so that drinking and driving will get you into some serious shit.

But I think there are lots of things people don’t know as well. Certainly I didn’t. Did you know that in Texas if you refuse to take a field sobriety test, you lose your driver’s license for a longer period than if you fail one?

I didn’t.

I had always heard not to take the test if you thought you were going to flunk. Well, I knew if I couldn’t walk a straight line, I was way the hell past .08, so I declined the opportunity to take the test.

Boom. Six months without a license.

Now that’s what happens to you AFTER your case is adjudicated. While it’s pending, you don’t have your license, either. You have a yellow piece of paper that says this is your temporary license given to you when you refused to take a sobriety test after being arrested for DUI.

Now that’s not exactly the sort of information you want to share with the woman behind the Avis counter or the customers in line behind you every time you need to rent a car in Bristol, Tenn., or Darlington, S.C., or Los Angeles or Phoenix or anyplace else.

And so even before we got around to the part where I might lose my license for six months, I didn’t have anything but that damned incriminating piece of paper for seven months.

I didn’t need to rent cars that often while traveling for the Morning News. But to cover the races I was assigned to for "Nascar Now" or to get from the Hartford airport to ESPN’s Bristol headquarters 40 minutes away, I definitely needed cars.

Let’s just say, in happy hindsight, it became an adventure. And the car rental counter was minor compared to another issue.

I had let my passport lapse in early 2007 because, frankly, I didn’t have any overseas trips planned and didn’t want to pay the fee. I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of my driver’s license being locked in a drawer in the Hunt County jail.

So for a 7-month period (that would soon turn into 13 months), I made two or three trips to D/FW Airport every month without any form of identification other than an expired driver’s license I had found in a nightstand at home.

I learned to truly envy those people who had the luxury of handing the TSA agent a driver’s license. It almost seemed like they were cheating while, trip after trip after trip, I explained how I had just lost my license and, yes, I understood that I would have to go through the extra checking process.

(Surprising traveler’s hint: It’s generally faster to get through the metal detector lines at the Hartford-Springfield airport to tell them you don’t have a license than to show them one. Seriously. At least this was true in 2008. Glad I could be here for you.)

After seven months of hiding the truth from almost everyone I knew, time had run out.

After seven months of hiding the truth from almost everyone I knew, time had run out. Keith called and told me to come to the courthouse. He said he had cut a deal that most people would love but that I probably wouldn’t.

I would not have to report to a probation officer.

I would not have to perform any hours of community service.

While still technically without a driver’s license, I could get a permit that would allow me to drive for work at any hours both in Dallas and on the road.

All extremely good news.

But I would have to accept that I was guilty of a DUI. That was going on my record, and in addition to all the monetary consequences that come with it, I had to understand that a second DUI would produce real jail time.

It wasn’t what I wanted but I realized that it was probably better than I deserved. I thanked my lawyer and told him not to worry at all about the second DUI. I didn’t drink and drive any more. I had learned that lesson the hard way.

I didn’t need to.

I no longer lived in Coppell. I had moved downtown. I had a place in Victory Park. Where the Mavericks play. Where the Stars play.

And where you can walk or take a $5 cab ride to all the best bars in Dallas.

Yep. I had learned a lesson all right.


Ed. note: A previous version of this chapter appeared on Cowlishaw's site last November. The book was published March 17.

Design/Layout: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram

About the Author

Tim Cowlishaw has been The Dallas Morning News’ lead sports columnist since July 1988, and has won APSE’s Best Sports Columnist in Texas four times. He has been a regular panelist on the ESPN sports talk show "Around the Horn" since its debut in November 2002, and has also worked with ESPN as lead reporter for the network’s NASCAR Now coverage from 2007-08.

Tim attended the University of Texas at Austin, and has two children, Rachel and Ben.

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