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Losing Dak Prescott is about more than football for the Cowboys

The quarterback’s season-ending injury leaves a leadership void for the team

Dak Prescott is the unquestioned leader of the Dallas Cowboys.

Their alpha and omega.

Prescott, who had started all 72 games of his NFL career, sustained a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle on a third-quarter run Sunday in a 37-34 win over the New York Giants.

Prescott had surgery Sunday night, ending his season.

Andy Dalton will replace Prescott in the lineup and his coaches and teammates will talk about this “next man up” mantra that’s so prevalent in the NFL. Dalton is good enough to win a few games, but this team is so dysfunctional right now only Prescott could ensure this season doesn’t spiral out of control.

You can’t replace Prescott’s intangibles. Or his leadership. Or his deft touch in the locker room.

We’re talking about a guy who used to keep a huge bag of Halloween candy in his locker so he could pass it out to the offensive and defensive linemen.

We’re talking about a guy who refused to admit publicly last year that Ezekiel Elliott missed a block in the first game of the 2016 season because, “We keep that stuff in-house.”

He’s the Cowboys’ highest-paid player at $31 million this season – and the one player on the roster who touches every single segment of the locker room. It has been like that since he arrived as a fourth-round pick from Mississippi State in 2016.

Think about it: Prescott took over the locker room from a 10-year, highly accomplished veteran in Tony Romo, and the quarterback’s biggest supporter, then-tight end Jason Witten, didn’t object. And Romo’s second-biggest supporter, then-coach Jason Garrett, gave Prescott the job. Prescott bonds with offensive and defensive players. He bonds with the team’s highest-paid dudes and the guys earning the league minimum.

He bonds with Black players and white players. He’s a unifier.

He keeps receivers from griping about the number of passes directed their way and he’s a soothing voice to any unhappy teammate. Listen to Prescott after games, and you’ll hear him deflect praise after wins and accept blame after losses. The guys in this locker room love him because he’s authentic. It’s why they ride or die for him.

Prescott broke his ankle on one of the few times this season that offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has called a play designed to take advantage of his running skills. On first-and-10 from the New York 27, Moore called a quarterback draw from the shotgun. Prescott took the snap, looked right as if he was going to throw the ball to Tony Pollard in the flat. Then he took off up the middle. He could have slid at the 23 for a short gain, but that’s never been Prescott’s style. Ever.

At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he doesn’t go down easily. Remember the helicopter flip into the end zone for a touchdown in a regular-season win against the Arizona Cardinals in 2017? There was no way he was going to give himself up with Dallas clinging to a 24-23 lead midway through the third quarter. He ran through an arm tackle from Roger Lewis, switched hands with the ball and stiff-armed Logan Ryan instead of heading out of bounds. His ankle snapped under the weight of Ryan. Prescott held his leg with two hands as his foot dangled in his white high-top Adidas cleat.

At that moment, you saw the love his teammates have for Prescott. Their respect for him can’t be manufactured.

As soon as the injury happened, rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb turned away. Special teams ace C.J. Goodwin sat on the bench with his head in his gloved hands. Dalton Schultz bowed his head and prayed. Starting defensive linemen Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence stared at the scene, distress in their eyes.

As doctors treated Prescott, a wall of 15 players stood 10 yards away observing the scene. Once he was helped onto a cart, those same players walked over to the cart. Some hugged their quarterback. Others just touched Prescott’s shoulder. Everybody, it seemed, just wanted Prescott to know they felt his pain. Aldon Smith, who spent the last five years away from the game dealing with drug and alcohol issues, jogged after the cart because it was important for him to touch Prescott before he left the field. Prescott’s teammates know football has always been his refuge. It was that way when his mom died of cancer while he was in college. He wears No. 4 to honor her, and football should’ve been his haven when his brother committed suicide in April.

And when the pandemic prevented that from happening, Prescott admitted he needed help dealing with his emotions. He responded to a tumultuous offseason with three games of more than 400 yards passing and he was on pace to shatter the NFL passing record.

None of it mattered to him because the Cowboys were 1-3 entering Sunday’s game.

Dalton rallied the Cowboys to a three-point win, but Prescott was at the forefront of every player’s mind after the game. “As soon as we got in the locker room – I got in the shower first – I reached out to Dak,” Lamb said. “I appreciate everything he’s done for me.

“As far as being a rookie receiver and learning the offense, he’s put in countless hours and effort helping me and I can’t thank him enough, and I told him that.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor, a native of Dallas, is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL for 25 years and is president of JJT Media Group.