Is Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott ready for an encore?

Dak Prescott shocked the sports world last year when, as a rookie, he took the Cowboys to the playoffs. The NFL’s newest superstar, however, is keeping his feet on the ground

Is Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott ready for an encore?

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Photos: Jeff Lipsky

Dak Prescott’s introduction to the big time looks to have been a slightly terrifying affair. Last September, the rookie made his first regular season start for the Dallas Cowboys at quarterback, the most high-pressure position for one of the most loved (and hated) sports franchises on the planet. Tony Romo, the longtime starting quarterback, was injured in the preseason and backup Kellen Moore broke his leg in practice. 

“There was no pressure,” Prescott remarks with a shrug.

This is a remarkable thing to say. Prescott, after all, was a relatively unknown fourth-round draft pick out of Mississippi State. He had yet to play a down in a regular season NFL game. And here he was, about to face a defense full of snarling man-beasts, standing in for a genuine fan favorite. He should have been panicked. 

“Well,” he says, “look at all the weapons I’ve got. I go in the huddle, and I got Jason Witten. I ride with the best offensive line in the game. I got this rookie running back Zeke Elliott.” With this, he cups his hand to his mouth, like he’s revealing a secret. “I’m not going to say, ‘For once in my life,’ but for once in my life, I’m really not the best person on the field.” 

Of course, it’s an unwritten rule that every sporting superstar has to share the spotlight like this—but the difference with Prescott is that you believe him. He seems oddly thoughtful and earnest, and—in a world riddled with platitudes and self-interest—that stands out. There’s no way to know for sure what was running through Prescott’s mind before that life-changing game against the New York Giants last fall. He’s a 24-year-old with a master’s degree in workforce leadership. He thinks a lot of things.

We’re talking over lunch at a golf course in the Dallas suburbs. He’s eating a plate of smoked sausage and potato chips in a small storage room off the club’s main dining hall, because, after last season’s exploits, Prescott can’t walk five feet without someone stopping him to ask for a photo or an autograph. We figured this might afford him some quiet, but someone somewhere is always looking for him and the door doesn’t stay closed long.

Over the last 12 months, he’s gone from fourth-round rookie hoping he’d make the team as a third stringer to the foundation of the storied franchise. The Cowboys would go on to lose that first regular season game last year—the one he wasn’t nervous about—but Prescott played shockingly well and went on to lead the team to victory in the next 11 games in a row. Pundits waited for the moment when he’d crack and fall apart. But that moment never came. Prescott started his career by setting an NFL record for consecutive passes by a rookie without an interception. He kept the starting job even when Romo recovered from his injury, and the Cowboys finished with the best record in the conference. 

Ask Prescott about his success and he’ll unfailingly offer a catalogue of people who deserve the credit—his brothers, his coaches, the guys who play alongside him. But, he says, there’s one person who deserves more credit than anyone else. He puts down his fork and shows me the tattoo on his wrist. It says: “MOM.”

Rayne Dakota Prescott grew up in a trailer in rural Louisiana, 200 miles east of Dallas, with two older brothers and a single mom who managed a truck stop. His parents were divorced, and his father wasn’t around much. Young Dak played football with his brothers and older kids from the neighborhood in a nearby field, and being the youngest forced him to get better fast. They were poor—there wasn’t always enough money to pay the electricity bill—but sports were a way to escape the stress and shame of poverty. He used to imagine that he was the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, though that always felt like more of a dream than an ambition. 

Both of his brothers played varsity football at Haughton High School and their mother became a fixture in the bleachers every week, yelling from the stands at players and coaches alike. As the youngest in the family, Dak was “crazy close” to his mother, “best friends.” She was the voice of clarity and insight, her words ringing in his head even when she was at work. 

Peggy was also an astute student of the game, criticizing offensive coordinators even after blowout wins. Dak was a sophomore when Haughton High’s starting quarterback got hurt and he stepped in. The future star was already 6-foot-2, and the starter never got his place back. The same thing happened in his sophomore year at Mississippi State. “My brother jokes that the most dangerous position in all of football is being the starting quarterback in front of me,” he says. 

In 2010, when he was 17 years old, Prescott’s mother was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. As often as he could, he’d make the five-hour drive home from Mississippi State, and with each trip he could see her health deteriorating. Her hair was gone and he had to help her to the bathroom, but her spirit endured. Before her death in 2013, she took her youngest son aside. “She said that every great quarterback has a story,” he says. “And she said, ‘I’ll be your story.’”

Prescott went home for the funeral, but he played the following Saturday. “She actually would have been mad at me for missing two days of practice,” he says, and he doesn’t seem to be joking. 

Instead of falling apart at the loss of his mother, Prescott finished the 2013 season as MVP of the Liberty Bowl and he was on the SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll. He remembers when he was a little boy and Brett Favre played a game right after his father died.
His mother told him that’s what she’d want Dak to do, too. 

Mississippi State was unranked at the beginning of the 2014 season, but after huge wins over titans such as LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn, the team ranked number one in the nation for the first time in the history of the school. They finished the regular season 10-2 and Prescott either won or was in the running for nearly every award in college football. He returned for his senior season and somehow put up even better numbers. 

On the field, he’s mobile—and with his size, he can run over plenty of defenders—but he’s not a scrambler or a gunslinger. He’s always calm, always in control, always ready to check down to the open man. 

Even so, he was not a highly touted pro prospect. He was the eighth quarterback taken in the draft—a relatively low-cost, low-risk pick. The Cowboys knew they’d need someone to replace Romo in a couple years, but not right away. Then, the star quarterback got hurt and, once again, Prescott stepped in. 

It’s no accident that, as in high school and college, Prescott was ready when his turn came. He attacks his playbooks with vigor. In college, he was essentially an assistant coach, studying film early in the morning and sitting in on game planning meetings. His roommate at Cowboys training camp later told reporters that Prescott would spend hours not just learning the plays, but also reciting the calls over and over until he was sure he was enunciating every part perfectly.

Before last season, he moved into a condo two minutes from the Cowboys training facility north of Dallas. He shows up around 6 a.m., and he’s usually there for eight hours or longer. A Sports Illustrated midseason cover story last year mentioned him scoring great tickets to a Kanye West show but not using them because he didn’t want to be out so late on a weeknight. And that’s about as close as Prescott has gotten to the gossip columns—he likes to keep his personal life to himself. 

Prescott’s levelheadedness has earned him the respect of his teammates, some of whom are more than 10 years his senior. Wide receiver Cole Beasley says playing with Prescott is “like playing with a five-year veteran.” There’s also something contagious about his attitude, Beasley says. The players are joking around more than they used to, and they’re more inclined to stick around longer after practice. In playground parlance, he’s the popular kid and the overachieving nerd. 

Head coach Jason Garrett is not usually inclined to lavish his players with praise, but he has at various points described Prescott as “mature,” “fantastic” and “outstanding.” Future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten repeatedly uses the word “great.” 

Still, in interviews during last season, owner Jerry Jones was loyal to the man who’d carried his franchise for a decade, repeatedly telling reporters: “Romo is our guy.” Then, Romo held a heartfelt press conference where he announced that, though he was healthy enough to play, Prescott was the new leader.

The Cowboys went on to the playoffs. Down 21-3 to the Green Bay Packers, Prescott led a comeback with methodical precision, nearly sending the game into overtime. In the end, the Packers kicked a 51-yard field goal through the hearts of Cowboys fans all over the world. But even in the gloom of this defeat, there was the promise of a bright future.

Prescott made the Pro Bowl and he was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. At the ceremony, when his name was announced, he brought his teammate, fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott, up to the stage to share the moment. He thanked his teammates, the organization, the city of Dallas-—and his mother.

Part of what makes Prescott so popular, both with teammates and fans, is his willingness to embrace his inner nerd. He likes to stay home and play video games. He wears bow ties. And he’s not afraid to act goofy, putting on novelty glasses and a wig for a photo op or dancing badly to classic hip-hop. During our time on the golf course, a fat raccoon looking for snacks crawled out of the woods and into one of the carts. While the other golfers pointed and giggled, Prescott ran over and tried to feed the raccoon potato chips.

A few hours later, still sequestered in the storage room, he’s finished his lunch and is somehow avoiding the temptation of the succulent chocolate cake he’s been offered. He says he’s excited about getting started on the 2017 season—and with good reason. Last April, Romo announced his retirement, leaving the path clear. As he enters his second year as a pro, it’s hard to imagine Prescott going anywhere but up. 

His four-year rookie contract currently pays him less than $500,000 a year—a paltry sum considering his value to the franchise. But he makes much more from his many endorsements, including deals with Adidas, Beats by Dre, New Era and Pepsi. He’s not particularly worried that teams now having a season’s worth of film to study will be able to stop him. He’s had time to watch film, too. 

As the interview winds down, the door of the storage room opens to reveal a line of people who want to say hello or goodbye. There are handshakes and fist bumps and a few business cards swapped. Prescott makes sure to invite each person to an event he’s hosting in a chic Dallas mall—where 20 percent of the proceeds will be donated to a charity in his mother’s name.

He knows that all of this comes with the territory. It’s part of the role he plays on the team he’s on. And he knows the expectations will be even bigger this year. There will be even more attention, even more people waiting for him to fail. But if Dak Prescott is feeling any pressure, it doesn’t show. 


The Bow Must Go On

During his junior year of college, when his Mississippi State Bulldogs were on a big winning streak, a local clothier suggested Prescott wear a bow tie to off-field public appearances. When the team won that week, Prescott’s friend told him he should do it the next week, too. Again the team won, and again he bought a new bow tie. By the end of the season, Prescott decided this would be his signature look.

“I never went back,” he says.

So when veteran cornerback Brandon Carr wanted to get Prescott a gift to commemorate the young quarterback’s first professional win last year, he knew just what to get him: two more bow ties to add to the collection.