Roger Staubach scores again

October 9, 2014, 11:32 AM UTC
Photo By: Trevor Paulhus

Captain Comeback loves him some Johnny Football. They filmed a Nissan commercial recently, as roommates inside a space divided. The pristine half belongs to Roger Staubach, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback turned grandfather and real estate mogul. The cluttered half belongs to Johnny Manziel.

Women surround Manziel, the Cleveland Browns QB, as he flashes his signature money sign. Staubach sips tea in his Navy dress blues as a stray football from the rowdy side plunks the man next to him in the head. Manziel says, “Sorry, dude,” and the party rages on.

The takeaway, naturally, is the contrast of two quarterbacks from different generations. Staubach never partied much. He won the MVP award for Super Bowl VI, but when offered the prize of a Dodge Charger, he asked for a station wagon instead. Then he drove it for five years. At the height of his fame.

Staubach met Manziel last season when Manziel stopped by Staubach’s luxury suite at AT&T Stadium outside Dallas. He did not tell Manziel about his own collegiate foray into celebrity nightlife. It was 1963. Staubach had just won the Heisman Trophy while at the Naval Academy, and to celebrate he borrowed some high-water trousers and stood in front of the Playboy Club in New York City, certain that someone would whisk him inside the exclusive hotspot. No one even recognized him.

Despite their differences, Staubach and Manziel found much in common. Staubach talked about his days as a scrambler, the way that drove his coach, Tom Landry, nuts. They compared Heisman stories, comeback victories, deep Texas roots.

United States Military Academy vs University of MarylandNavy QB Roger Staubach during game vs Maryland 11/9/1963Neil Leifer Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Staubach, 72, didn’t need to mention the millions he banked after football. Forbes recently named him the highest-paid retired NFL player, with $12 million earned last year. “I don’t know about all that,” he says, a tad embarrassed. “It’s work.”

Johnny Football, meet Roger Real Estate. Inside a corner office at the commercial real estate firm JLL in Dallas, there are few reminders that the occupant played football. It’s not that Staubach has distanced himself; he helped Dallas land a Super Bowl host bid and still attends every Cowboys home game.

It’s that Staubach long ago moved on. He can remember the concussions, or the way they were explained to him anyway: one in high school, one in college at Navy, six in the NFL, maybe 20 in total if you count what they called “dings.” L.C. Greenwood delivered one, and so did Dave Robinson, and Ray Nitschke. In Staubach’s last game, against the Los Angeles Rams in 1979, Jack Reynolds, a beast of a linebacker everyone called Hacksaw, bounced his head like a basketball dribble off the turf. Staubach threw one subsequent pass to an offensive guard.

Staubach collected the Super Bowl MVP, a station wagon, and a cash bonus—and spent his off-season selling life insurance.

He had his first CT scan after that, and the doctor recommended that he retire. So he did—despite an offer from the Cowboys to play for $750,000 annually—a lavish salary back then.

That was it: 11 NFL seasons, all with Dallas; six Pro Bowls; five NFC titles; two Super Bowl triumphs; an NFL MVP award—all precursors to his Hall of Fame induction in 1985. Not bad for a quarterback who did four years in the Navy, served in Vietnam, and made $25,000 as a 27-year-old rookie.

Staubach passed for 22,700 yards before the NFL became a passing league. He rushed for 2,264 yards before coaches designed plays for quarterbacks to scramble. He led the Cowboys to 15 fourth-quarter comebacks, which earned him the moniker Captain Comeback, and since he played for Dallas, they called him America’s Quarterback as well.

He is even credited with introducing the term “Hail Mary” into the sports lexicon. After his last-second, 50-yard touchdown strike to Drew Pearson beat Minnesota in the 1975 playoffs, Staubach told reporters he closed his eyes and “said a Hail Mary.”

New York Giants v Dallas CowboysDALLAS – SEPTEMBER 25, 1977: Quarterback Roger Staubach, of the Dallas Cowboys, sets up to pass the ball during a game on September 25, 1977 against the New York Giants at Texas Stadium in Dallas, Texas.
Roger Staubach7701
Diamond Images®
Diamond Images® Diamond Images®

Staubach believes he could have played another couple of years at a high level, but he walked away. He worried little about his transition. The landscape was different then. The money too.

Besides, his second career had already started. The off-season before Staubach won the MVP award, he went to work for Henry Miller Jr., a titan in Dallas real estate. That was 1971. Staubach and his wife, Marianne, had three young children. (They would eventually have five.) He needed the extra cash.

Miller hired Staubach for his insurance division. Staubach sold life insurance to companies. Imagine that—America’s Quarterback and his sales pitch. He worked on commission at first so he could practice with teammates in the afternoons.

That season, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. He collected that station wagon for being game MVP and a $15,000 bonus. As he and Marianne left New Orleans, she asked her husband what he planned to do next. Work, he said. By the time they arrived back in Dallas, Miller had sent over a telegram. “Congratulations on winning the Super Bowl,” it read. “And by the way, you’re promoted to vice president.”

Miller reminded Staubach of Landry, his ornery head coach. Both men were methodical in business, maniacal in preparation. Their drive prompted memories of his parents. His mother worked as a secretary at GM in the Chevrolet division. His father sold shoes and other leather goods door-to-door.

After six years under Miller, Staubach opened his own shop. He didn’t want to name the company after himself, says Ka Cotter, a longtime business associate there in the beginning. He wanted to obtain business for the right reasons. Eventually he relented. Thus the Staubach Co. was born.

The name helped, anyway, early on. Particularly in Dallas. “I saw a lot of grown men look real foolish,” Cotter says. “Just fawning over him.” But the name alone did not close deals. In fact, it shut down a few of them. “Whenever someone hung up on me in Washington, D.C., I’d blame it on the fact they’re a Redskins fan,” Staubach says. After the company opened an office in Washington, a “Staubach sucks” echoed one day down the elevator shaft.

Staubach’s company was new compared with established competitors, and after one meeting in which he remarked how young everybody looked, some brokers came back the next day with their hair dyed gray.

When Staubach sold his company, he took care of his team, distributing 88% of the purchase price to his employees

While under Miller, Staubach had handled Xerox’s search for a space to relocate its office products division to Dallas. He didn’t want to show Xerox’s reps only Miller’s buildings; he wanted to show them all available buildings. That’s how he came upon representing tenants, not landlords, in commercial real estate transactions. This was, at the time, a new concept, practiced mainly in New York. Now it’s commonplace worldwide.

The tenant rep strategy made Staubach rich, allowing him to open some 50 offices in North America and grow his employee base to over 1,100. To motivate his troops and to expand his business without incurring debt, Staubach granted ownership stakes to employees who opened new offices.

Yet he retained a personal touch. Whenever somebody wanted Staubach to make a call, to use his name as a passkey, he required a sheet that listed information about the secretary he would speak with. It had to be good information, something personal, something he could use.

Staubach worked long hours and hardly took vacations. He scheduled business trips around visits to his children’s various colleges. One of his kids, Jeff, eventually went to work for him, and by then Staubach had been in real estate so long that Jeff knew him as the businessman who always worked rather than the retired quarterback once famous. “I’m sure my childhood was a lot more normal than it is for, say, Peyton Manning’s kids,” Jeff says.

Staubach had opportunities to switch professions, slide into something more visible, or more comfortable, or with fewer hours. Early on he was asked to join a bid for the Cowboys, who were purchased instead by an oil tycoon from Arkansas named Jerry Jones. Over the years Staubach was approached to run for mayor of Dallas, governor of Texas, and the U.S. Senate. George W. Bush asked him to become Secretary of the Navy.

But Staubach is a man of loyalty. He honored his Navy commitment even as it delayed his NFL debut. He played his entire first career in one place and stayed in his second career for decades. He turned down all overtures. “I’ve always stuck to the things I said I was going to do,” he says.

A company that started small, with five employees and scant revenue, grew so large that Staubach decided to sell in order to expand the business internationally. JLL, previously called Jones Lang LaSalle, purchased the Staubach Co. in 2008 for $613 million plus upside, which ended up at about $50 million. Staubach handed off 88% of the $663 million total to more than 300 employees, then stayed on as executive chairman for JLL’s Americas division. (When the additional $50 million was distributed, JLL’s CEO signed the checks with “worth every penny.”) These days Staubach stays involved in client meetings and day-to-day operations but has scaled back his managerial responsibilities.

He used to keep an empty mortar shell in his office to remind him of his stint in Vietnam, all those afternoons where he took cover in a bunker, his head buried in the dirt. Business felt that way sometimes.

The scars from football remain: surgeries on both shoulders and two fingers, another to repair a meniscus tear in his knee (which he hurt playing flag football, of all things), another procedure on his back. But Staubach works out six days a week, and so far he feels no impact from all the concussions he suffered. “He’s in as good a shape as any 72-year-old in the world,” his son Jeff says.

Of Staubach’s 15 grandchildren, only one so far plays football. It’s Jeff’s 11-year-old son. Staubach hasn’t joined any concussion lawsuits, and he doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the league. But Jeff says, “If it were up to my dad, my father-in-law, and my wife, our son wouldn’t be playing.” Concern runs in the family. Staubach’s own mother used to clutch rosary beads when she watched him.

At 72, Staubach could retire. Play more golf. Spend more time with the family. Reflect on life by one of Dallas’s many manmade lakes. Anyone who thinks that, though, never met Roger Staubach. “He’s not going to hunt,” his son says. “He’s not going to fish. It’s family and real estate. He has spent a lot more of his life in real estate than football. His success there is lot more rare than what he did in football too.”

Staubach rises from a seat in a conference room near his office in September. He is still laughing about that Manziel commercial, but he has run out of time to talk. No more stories. No more business insight.

His 3 o’clock is waiting.

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This story is from the October 27, 2014 issue of Fortune.