As a youngster growing up in football-mad Texas, Matthew Stafford watched and rooted for the Dallas Cowboys.
Led by Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman and other star players, the Cowboys won Super Bowl titles to cap the 1992, 1993 and 1995 seasons.
Stafford, 35, has played in AT&T Stadium three times as a pro, but Sunday’s game against the Cowboys will be the first time the Rams quarterback returns with a Super Bowl championship on his resumé.
“It’s a football state. It’s a football town. It’s a football city,” Stafford said. “Texas, from high school on, they care about football and care about it a lot so it’s fun to be a part of it.”
Stafford, a 15th-year pro, has passed for seven touchdowns, with six interceptions, for a Rams team that aims to rebound from a 24-17 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers intercepted a pass early in the third quarter and converted it into a touchdown en route to sending the Rams to a loss that dropped their record to 3-4.
But Stafford has otherwise mostly impressed while bouncing back from a season-ending spinal injury he suffered in 2022.
Stafford, who led Highland Park High to a Texas state championship, is in his third season with the Rams after playing 12 with the Detroit Lions, who made the former Georgia star the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft.
In 2021, after being traded to the Rams in a deal that sent quarterback Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to the Lions, Stafford led the Rams to victory in Super Bowl LVI.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy schemed against Stafford for 10 seasons when McCarthy coached the Green Bay Packers and Stafford played for the Lions.
“He’s like a fine wine,” McCarthy told Rams beat reporters this week. “He’s only gotten better.”
McCarthy, who coached Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers with the Packers, said he still recalled how impressively the ball spinned out of Stafford’s hand on passes as a rookie. Impressing in a domed stadium and ideal conditions tells one story, McCarthy said.
“But then you watch them throw the ball at Lambeau Field in December and you have a different opinion of him,” McCarthy said. “When you have a guy like Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre that can throw the ball with anybody, you know the velocity of it. And he’s at that level too.”
Stafford’s value to the Rams goes beyond arm talent, according to coach Sean McVay.
“The best are always evolving, and no matter how long your experience is, just figuring out ways to be able to add to your arsenal and elevate those around you,” McVay said. “And I think that’s what he’s done as well as anybody.
“He’s bringing guys with him.”
Stafford is 1-2 in games against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. He made his first NFL appearance there as a third-year pro in 2011.
“It was definitely an exciting game for me,” he said. “I think a lot of nerves at that point probably in my career.
“It was fun to be back home for the first time playing in front of people, really for the first time in a long time. I left when I was 17 and went to college and never really made it back to the state to play.”
Stafford passed for 240 yards, and led his team back from a 30-17 deficit to win 34-30. Stafford completed the comeback with a touchdown pass with 1 minutes 39 seconds left.
In 2016 and 2018, the Lions suffered defeats to the Cowboys in Dallas.
Last season at SoFi Stadium, Stafford struggled in a 22-10 loss to the Cowboys. He lost two fumbles — one that was returned for a touchdown — and had a pass intercepted. With two-time All-Pro edge rusher Micah Parsons leading the Cowboys’ rush, Stafford was sacked five times and hit 10 times.
So Stafford will be acutely aware of Parsons on Sunday.
“One play he’s on the ball, he’s over the center,” Stafford said. “The next play he’s off the ball, he’s at a linebacker spot. The next play he’s over an offensive tackle playing defensive end. He’s good in coverage. I mean, he does all of it.”
Stafford’s fandom for the Cowboys ended when he entered the NFL 15 years ago.
But he said he still has “a bunch of buddies” who live in the Dallas area, as well as family.
“I still have family members that love watching the Cowboys play and all that kind of stuff, which I totally understand,” he said.
Will those family members be rooting for him Sunday?
“They better,” he said, laughing.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.