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Dak Prescott is right on time — for Dallas and for America

America’s team quarterback is changing the game at a time when the country needs it most

We all know about the Dallas Cowboys. They’re as much a part of our national consciousness as apple pie. And good Lord, we love apple pie. Decade after decade, that Blue Star draws us to it. The fascination started with winning football – those five Vince Lombardi Trophies tell that part of the story – but let’s be real: The relationship is about much, much more. For the straight-laced among us, nothing says buttoned-down like the late Tom Landry’s fedora. Roger Staubach went from issuing commands in Vietnam to engineering fourth-quarter comebacks. In Texas, a state where football is darn near a religion, the Cowboys have the largest flock. We’ve come to expect a certain type of look by the quarterback who leads it. But the game has changed.

The new face of America’s Team is a biracial, tatted-up, whip-smart, unflappable 23-year-old, who in about the time it takes to open the roof at AT&T Stadium went from being a let’s-see-what-the-unheralded-rook-can-do emergency starter to The Man on the NFL’s hottest club. Prescott’s stunning rise (remember, dude was a fourth-round pick whom the Cowboys backed into) has been the talk of the league – and the conversation hasn’t been confined to his success on the field. To even the non-woke, it’s obvious that the Cowboys are in a new place. That means the rest of the NFL is, too.

Just glance at any credible list of professional sport’s most valuable franchises. It won’t take long to find the Cowboys: They’re No. 1. Dallas plays its home games in a $1.15-billion grown-folks amusement park masquerading as a sports venue. They don’t call it Jer-ruh World for nothing. Their still-under-construction new team headquarters is merely office space in the same manner that the Roman Colosseum is just a bunch of old bricks. The Cowboys do everything big. That team is now Prescott’s team.

The first bruh to star at quarterback for Dallas – the others who came through were mostly short-term backups, though one was a high-round pick and onetime heir apparent to a three-time Super Bowl winner – is adding an unexpected chapter to the story of America’s Team, at a time when America looks much scarier to people of color than it did only a few weeks ago. Just like the timing on Prescott’s deep balls, he has arrived as if almost on cue.Warren Moon has stayed up on what’s going down in Dallas. And he’s definitely feeling the change.

“We’re in 2016, and even after all these years, nobody has really taken that title of America’s Team from them,” the Hall of Fame passer said on the phone the other day. “And when you’re America’s Team, when that’s how a lot of people who love the game view your team, that’s going to mean something to a lot of people.

“Everybody knows their history. Everybody knows the [Blue] Star. There’s significance behind it. So to have Dak Prescott leading them, and the way he has done it, that’s a bold statement. It’s also something people are going to think about for a lot of reasons.”

epa05610631 Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (C) passes the ball in the first half of the NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, USA, 30 October 2016. EPA/LARRY W. SMITH

epa05610631 Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (C) passes the ball in the first half of the NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, USA, 30 October 2016. EPA/LARRY W. SMITH

Tony Romo was finished. Both literally and figuratively. It only took about five minutes for the former face of the Cowboys to officially pass the torch to the new one.

The transfer of power occurred early last week during a news conference in which Romo, 36, read from a prepared statement. The 10-year Cowboys’ starter and four-time Pro Bowler reaffirmed he was fully healed from the back injury he suffered Aug. 25, but Prescott had “earned the right to be our quarterback.”

Say what?

Owner Jerry Jones’ guy stood at a lectern and surrendered one of the plumb jobs in all of sports? The Cowboys’ QB gig is as prestigious as playing center field for the New York Yankees. It attracts the spotlight like running the point for the Los Angeles Lakers. There are certain jobs that once you’re in them, you just don’t resign without a fight. Romo knows. He waited until a past-his-prime Drew Bledsoe left the door ajar – then Romo kicked it in. The irony of the situation is downright delicious. Romo was unexpectedly usurped by someone who burst onto the scene much like he did way back when.

Sure, by all objective criteria, Prescott should have remained under center regardless of Romo’s status. The data supporting the logic is overwhelming:

  • The Cowboys (9-1) have the NFL’s best record
  • They’ve won a team record nine straight
  • Prescott has displayed off-the-charts decision-making
  • And he ranks among the league’s best passers statistically.

Despite the flashing red arrows pointing to maintaining the status quo, it still was a Texas-sized stunner that Romo backed Prescott so strongly. Think about it: When was the last time a star called a news conference to say a black man is the better man for his job?

Black excellence strikes fear into the hearts of those who long for a bygone era that black folk have no interest in reliving. A youngblood rising up in the office can wreak havoc on the workplace environment. But Prescott has been so dope in the most important job on the NFL’s glamour team, his excellence couldn’t be denied. It was so clear, in fact, that Romo decided to publicly endorse his successor despite knowing he would likely be signaling his exit from the company soon. No matter the field, we haven’t seen that occur much when bruhs are involved. If at all, USC law professor Jody David Armour said.

Armour, who studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making, is part of a growing number of scholars who are concerned about the racial climate in the country after the presidential election. The black excellence Prescott has exhibited, on such a grand platform, is needed now more than ever.

“There’s a special irony to having a black man as the quarterback of America’s Team after the election of Donald Trump as president,” Armour said on the phone recently. “Dak Prescott doing what he’s doing now is monumental not only in Texas … but potentially all over the country because so many people follow Dallas Cowboys football. He’s in a position where he can challenge some long-standing stereotypes about the intellect of blacks and what blacks are capable of.”

Moon, the Hall of Famer, is in pro football’s most selective club. Doug Williams and Russell Wilson won Super Bowls. Cam Newton was last season’s NFL MVP. Black quarterbacks have been getting it done for a minute now. Still, that doesn’t mean the NFL is a post-racial utopia. The lack of diversity from the front office to the field shows the league has plenty of work to do on that front. The most high-profile players carry the most weight. A Dallas Cowboys star QB has much juice.

It’s not even about whether Prescott chooses to take stances on social issues such as woke San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Just by continuing to excel for a franchise with the iconic brand, “Prescott could actually compliment what Kaepernick and others are doing,” Armour said. “It’s about people looking at someone in such a prominent role and possibly changing beliefs that they hold, or at least reconsidering them. At the very least, a black quarterback running America’s Team in Trump’s America is going to create a lot of cognitive dissonance.”

During the Cowboys’ winning streak, their locker room has been like a Super Bowl party. Reporters from all over the country have descended on Dallas to get a piece of the story. As the top performers are interviewed after games, down-roster players have to navigate television cameras and microphones just to get back to their dressing stalls. As Romo dressed following the team’s record-setting ninth consecutive victory – 27-17 over the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 20 – the crowd around him grew ridiculously big.

Active for the first time this season, Romo served as Prescott’s backup. There were so many questions. What was Romo feeling? Did he regret making the statement? Was the whole situation harder than he envisioned? On that day, no answers would be provided.

Since stepping aside for Prescott, Romo has declined to speak with reporters. After the game, he politely waved them off. From Prescott’s perspective, it’s all good between the Cowboys’ Nos. 1 and 2 QBs.

“He is as helpful as he has always been,” Prescott said after dropping dimes everywhere while completing 18 of his last 19 passes in a three-touchdown, 301-yard passing performance.

“He is giving me feedback, helping me out and telling me things we need to do here and there. … Nothing has changed.”

In actuality, a lot has. Veteran Dallas running back Alfred Morris thought he had pretty much seen everything in the NFL. He sure didn’t see Romo’s move coming.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) acknowledges fans as he walks off the field after their NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) acknowledges fans as he walks off the field after their NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

“Just think about what he did,” said Morris, still surprised days later. “He’s been a starter here for the past 10 years. He’s had a lot of success. So to come out and say what he said for the good of the team … that’s not easy. In a sense, it’s almost admitting defeat.

“That would be tough on anybody to do. And not just anybody in sports. It would be tough on anyone in any occupation to come out and say that about a job you love. But he obviously felt it was important to solidify that Dak is the guy and to rally around Dak. …That says a lot about Dak.”

It’s almost as if everything has unfolded too smoothly. There’s got to be some smoke somewhere. Right? And not because this is barbecue country. You’d think there’d at least be a little resentment in the locker room toward Prescott. After all, Romo hasn’t been some so-so QB: He’s the all-time franchise leader in passing yards and touchdowns. Despite the Cowboys’ (many) playoff failures since Romo became the starter –he’s 2-4 in the postseason – most NFL owners would gladly have had him lead their teams. Then again, Romo’s poor health ruined the Cowboys’ 2015 season. Prescott, meanwhile, has never acted his age. He comes in early and stays late. He takes full advantage of his time on the practice field and in the film room. Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten has been watching. Prescott gets his stamp.

“Dak acts like he’s been here for a long time,” Witten said. “The way he prepares, the way he trusts the people around him and takes ownership of his mistakes … everyone noticed that right from the beginning.”

Although Romo is admired in the organization, it wouldn’t be surprising if some of his teammates thought to themselves, “Here we go again,” after he was injured back in the preseason. There’s an old saying in football: Your best ability is your availability. The past two seasons, Romo has been unavailable a lot. If anyone did stand on the table for Romo to get his job back, we haven’t heard about it. Calvin Hill says we won’t.

A longtime team consultant in the Cowboys’ player development program, Hill observed early on that players gravitate to Prescott. It’s called natural leadership. Prescott has the locker room behind him. With each victory, the vibe has only grown stronger.

“Everyone knows what’s going on, including Tony, and there’s no quarterback controversy at all,” said Hill, the first running back in Cowboys history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in a single season and the father of former seven-time NBA All-Star Grant Hill.

“They understand what it must be like for Tony. They know it’s not easy. They do. But they also understand what Dak has done. You see it with your own eyes. That’s why there’s a great feeling in that locker room. Dak has been so good … just too good to ignore it.”

Ezekiel Elliott paused to consider his answer. The rookie running back had just finished his weekly news conference late last month, but he made time for one more question: Does Prescott truly get where he’s at?

Elliott would know. Quickly, he and Prescott became boys. They room together on the road, cut up during down time and have each other’s backs. Always.

Prescott is much more reserved than the ebullient Elliott. Prescott rarely shows his cards, but “he’s really smart, not just football smart, and he definitely knows who he is and what’s going on around him,” said Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher and Prescott’s main competitor for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

“He’s not going to get into all of that [with reporters]. He keeps his focus on the team and doing his job. But that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about certain things.”

Cowboys history is one of Prescott’s favorite topics. Since childhood, Prescott has rooted for Dallas. Any Cowboys-jersey-wearing fan worth one’s salt should be well aware of the legacy of Hall of Famers Roger Staubach, a United States Naval Academy graduate who served in the military before joining the team, and Troy Aikman, the first QB in NFL history to win three Super Bowl titles in four seasons. However, few probably know much about how Reggie Collier, Rodney Peete, Randall Cunningham, Anthony Wright and Quincy Carter fared for the Boys. All were African-American quarterbacks who had stints with the team.Collier was the first. In a six-game NFL career, he started one game for Dallas during the 1986 season. Peete and Wright were journeymen. Cunningham was a star with the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings. By the time Cunningham arrived in Dallas, he was in the twilight of his career. Carter was supposed to be Prescott before Prescott.In hopes of replacing Aikman, who retired after the 2000 season, the Cowboys used their first pick in the 2001 draft, the 53rd overall, to get the former University of Georgia standout. At times, Carter balled out, even leading Dallas to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth in 2003. However, Carter couldn’t get out of his own way. He was released after the season. When the Cowboys’ Hill watches Prescott, he sees the guy he, and others like him, have been waiting for.

“The fact that he’s black, to me as a black person, is significant,” Hill said. “I remember what it was like for [black NFL quarterbacks in the past]. I can’t forget that. And Dak, with what he’s been through, understands that.”

Prescott is from Louisiana. He played quarterback at Mississippi State. He’s the product of a black father and a white mother (she died from cancer in 2013). From a racial perspective, Prescott has experienced a lot, “which has made him a tough kid,” Hill said. “It also has made him a very interesting kid.

“The way he looks at things, being from the South, playing quarterback in the Southeastern Conference and what he went through with his family, all that has helped him. It helped him get to this point. It will help him keep going.”

Prescott figures to go much further than any black man who has ever led the Cowboys. He wasn’t the first one. But it definitely looks like he could be The One.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.