364 Days Later, Dak Is Looking Better Than Ever

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Dak is Dak. Again.

Knowing Dak Prescott, there never has been a doubt he would be back, back from the gruesome injury he suffered right here at AT&T Stadium against the New York Giants on Oct. 11 of last year. Carted off the field in tears, towel over his head hiding those caused by not only the pain of suffering a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle but also knowing he would be abandoning his team.

For the season, just five games in.

Excruciating. Physically. But for the competitor this then 27-year-old is, mentally just as much, if not more.

All that took place 364 days ago, when once again, somewhat eerily, here he is today, Oct. 10, 2021, right back under center in the same place. No doubt thoughts of his career's mortality have passed before him, playing against the exact same team, the New York Football Giants, against some of the same opposing players. Along with facing the same football coach who unearthed him back in 2016 as a fourth-round draft choice, former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who became the Giants offensive coordinator after Dallas let his contract expire and went on to hire Mike McCarthy as the franchise's ninth head coach.

All dripping in irony.

But now in the joy of a triumphant return.

See, for those knowing just who Rayne Dakota Prescott is, there was never a doubt he would return. For his entire life, adversity has been an unworthy opponent. Growing up in the tiny town of Haughton, Louisiana, just east of Shreveport, raised by a mother in a single-family household. Shunned by the state's biggest institution and football powerhouse LSU, but with a chip on his shoulder, crossing state lines to Mississippi State, where he led his team to a victory over the Tigers in Baton Rouge as a junior, vaulting the Bulldogs to the school's first ever No. 1 ranking.

Same thing coming into the NFL. Seven quarterbacks were selected before the Cowboys, with their second fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, almost as a second thought, made Dak the 135th pick. Look, 32 teams overlooked him three times. Some even four, including the Cowboys, evaluating him as no more than a young guy they could groom to become Tony Romo's eventual backup.

And please don't forget the loss of his mother Peggy during his sophomore season at Mississippi State, and that of his brother Jace committing suicide back in April of this year at the tender age of 31.

Talk about a mound of adversity. Dak has been through a lot.

He would rise from the team's presumptive third-string quarterback during his 2016 rookie year in training camp to become the starter out of necessity after Romo and expected backup Kellen Moore, now his offensive coordinator, suffered injuries that summer. Dak would never give back the job.

Not even after Romo was ready to go with the Cowboys in the midst of an 11-game winning streak. Why, Dak was named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl for the first of two times in his career while leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and the NFC East title.

So, you think a broken bone in the ankle of his right foot twisted 90 degrees the wrong direction was going to stop him from playing the game he loved? Heck, when the injury occurred with 5:38 left in the third quarter of the fifth game of the season those 364 days ago today, he was trying to straighten out his foot all by himself before doctors and trainers rushed to the scene.

"I don't know what I was doing, trying to bang my leg," Dak says now. "I know I was trying to just get it right, make it look normal, so I could try to get off the field. When I look back, as I say, I don't know if it was shock, obviously not feeling it all and me trying to bang it straight. It's just like, 'What am I doing?' That's what allows me to laugh about it was, yeah, wow."

Yeah, double wow.

But the mountainous question this year became this: Would Dak Prescott return with the same physical capabilities and mobility that has helped him become one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL today?

And if he did, what about the mental anguish of returning to the game knowing he is going to get hit again, that someone is going to land on his surgically repaired foot again … and again and again?

Ha! Remember, this is Dak.

When Prescott trotted back onto the AT&T Stadium field for the first time in uniform for the third game of this season – the home opener for the now 3-1 Cowboys – the nearly 93,000 people already in their seats by then gave him a standing ovation. And chances are, out of sheer appreciation for what he went through and his return, that Standing O should occur every time he is introduced this season, including today for the 3:25 p.m. start against the 1-3 Giants.

Remember, too, Prescott's return was complicated even more when on the first day of padded workouts in training camp, there he was, trotting off the field and up an incline toward the locker room in the middle of practice. Most observers held their breath before eventually finding out that he had suffered a strain of the latissimus muscle in his right shoulder, the one that stretches up the back to the shoulder, tucking under the armpit.

The strain was determined to be a first degree, so a mild one. But the Cowboys medical staff, coaching staff and front office decided to treat this with an abundance of caution, shutting him down from throwing the football for at least two weeks. Dak would not participate in team drills for the rest of training camp in Oxnard, Calif. He would not play in any of the Cowboys' four preseason games.

As owner Jerry Jones would say, rushing him back on the field was not worth the risk of aggravating the strain. That the goal was to have Dak ready for the Sept. 9 season opener against Tampa Bay. Not to get like maybe a dozen snaps in a preseason game.

Dak himself tried to tell the world had he suffered that strained muscle in a game, he would not have left the field. He would say if he had suffered that strained muscle during the week leading up to a regular season game, he would have played.

But the naysayers, those in the national media, were not convinced. Most were figuring the Cowboys were sandbagging. That they were hiding the very seriousness of the injury for competitive reasons, not wanting to give those Buccaneers a scouting report on just who might be playing quarterback.

But for those of us at training camp, the ones who had a chance to watch Dak throw on a side field late in camp at the River Ridge Sports Complex, we knew better. We saw him throw some 50 passes one day to Amari Cooper. And then before the Houston preseason game in the return to AT&T Stadium, Dak went through the same routine, throwing pass after pass after pass, the ball in those two sessions rarely, if ever hitting the ground.

And for sure, watching him get in his running for conditioning purposes and continuing his foot rehab sessions with Cowboys associate athletic trainer Britt Brown, there was absolutely nothing wrong with his right ankle. In fact, you had to ask yourself, Now which ankle did he hurt, the left or the right? He favored neither.

Then, too, in those training camp practices taking place back home at The Star, once jumping back in those 11-on-11 drills, Dak was throwing the ball with accuracy and velocity, throwing any pass on any route Moore was calling. He was good to go, no reservations and no hesitations.

As Moore would say when answering questions leading up to the Tampa Bay game, "We are going to play ball," meaning no concerns with Dak's physical ability. No restrictions.

And boy did those Doubting Thomases have to humble themselves, eating their words when Dak emerged in the opener to complete 42 of 58 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns. He even drove the Cowboys into the lead, 29-28, with 1:24 left in the game only to have Bucs QB Tom Brady consume nearly every one of those seconds to put his kicker, Ryan Succop, in position to nail the 36-yard, walk-off field goal for the 31-29 win.

"No, I didn't plan on throwing it that many times, and no I never questioned my health or being able to throw 50 times or how I'd feel out there," Prescott would say after the game. "I know all the work that I've put in over the offseason, through training camp, just everything. I expected to go out there and leave it all out on the field and do whatever I needed to do to help this team and give us a fighting chance."

And sure enough, Dak was sacked once in the game. Ran the ball four times for 13 yards. One for even 7 yards. But he kept on ticking, no problem with the ankle that actually went through two surgeries, and no problem with his money-making arm/shoulder.

As the standup guy that he is, he didn't play the I-told-you-so card, either, but he did go here: "I don't feel like I say things just to say them," emphasizing when he said he was ready to go that he was ready to go. "So that's just a credit to all the work that I've put in. I think when you invest that much work in rehab and prehab and everything that has gone into the last 11 months for me to get back onto the field, you're not surprised by the way that I went out there, and as I said, ran the ball a couple of times and did things that I normally did 11 months ago.

"I feel like I'm a better player than I was when I left the field. I told you that was the expectation I had for myself, and I'll continue to try to get better, game in and game out."

He was not lying. Dak led the Cowboys to victories in the next three games, a walk-off 20-17 one over the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium, a resounding 41-21 defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles, and then this past Sunday winning 36-28 over the previously unbeaten Carolina Panthers.

Dallas ran all over the Chargers for 198 yards, so the Cowboys only needed Dak to throw 27 times, completing 23 of them.

Then if there were any more persistent doubts, Dak lit up the Eagles, completing 21 of 26 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns, putting up a 143.3 QB rating.

And this past Sunday, forget about it, directing the Cowboys to that victory over Carolina, the scored closer than the game really was with the Cowboys taking a 22-point lead at the outset of the fourth quarter, 36-14. Dak only threw for 188 yards, but four of his 14 completions on just 22 attempts went for touchdowns, the 21st time in his career he's thrown for at least three touchdowns in a game, now trailing only Tony Romo's 40 with the Cowboys, but more than the likes of Hall of Famers Roger Staubach (17) and Troy Aikman (10), along with Danny White (20) and Don Meredith (14).

And how about this: Dak ran the ball four times in the game for 35 yards, with a long of 21, likely causing the majority in AT&T Stadium to hold their breath.

"I told you long ago before the season started, I wasn't worried about that," Dak said, now having rushed 17 times for 54 yards but somewhat judiciously. "I wasn't thinking about that. I told you I have felt like I was faster because of all the work and all the rehab and everything that I put into it.

"It's just about being smart with taking the hits, but if the run's there, I'm going to take it."

So, heading into this NFC East matchup with the Giants, Dak owns the fourth-highest QB rating in the NFL at 116.9. His 75.2 completion percentage ranks second and his 10 touchdown passes in four games is tied for third with Aaron Rodgers, behind just Patrick Mahomes (14) and Matthew Stafford (11). 

And most important, the Cowboys are in first place in the NFC East at 3-1, the offense ranking third behind only Arizona and Kansas City while also tied for fourth averaging 31.5 points a game.

Not bad for a quarterback who had not thrown a pass in any sort of game since Oct. 11, 2020. But that's what leaders do.

"I'm excited for him," said Cowboys receiver DeeDee Lamb after the Eagles victory, recipient of now 20 Dak passes for a team-leading 264 yards and one touchdown. "For him to be back, he deserves it. He deserves this win, and this is really for him and for the team."

Says teammate Leighton Vander Esch of Dak being back better than ever, "I mean, the dude did it, and you've got to give him credit because there are a lot of people that would just lay down and die after that, or throw in the towel, whatever terminology you want to use. And he came in here and battled every single day."

Today's game against the Giants will be his third game back before the Cowboys fans at AT&T Stadium, so imagine his emotions should be in check, though they might have gotten to him a wee bit before that first one, with 93,267 folks showing their appreciation for his comeback.

Because certainly his emotions were high during that national anthem, remembering what had happened to him in the last game he played inside AT&T, along with the ovation he had received from the first sellout crowd back in the stadium since the 2019 season.

The TV cameras during "The Star-Spangled Banner" appeared to catch a tear or three coming from his eyes. After all, this is a guy who wears his emotions on both sleeves. Good and bad. He is that authentic.

"I think that was sweat," Dak cleverly said. "I don't remember crying but definitely just appreciation and gratitude. Thankful for the opportunity just to be back out there doing what I love and doing it here at AT&T in front of the fans, with my teammates, with an atmosphere like this, first home game. It was special. It was definitely special. And as I said, usually during the national anthem or pregame, those are the moments that I take in, and it was definitely one of them.

"Just thankful for everything I've been through and got me back to this point."

Now remember a while back that Dak insisted he wanted to "bury the injury," to put this all behind him. But now this, the strange coincidence of having to play the same team in the same place when the injury occurred a year ago.

"I'm not going to be naïve and say I'm not going to think about it. But I think, just more than anything, it'll just be gratitude and just thinking about how much of a blessing, how much the last three hundred and sixty four days have been of going through that and overcoming that and becoming, as I continue to say, a better person and a better player," Dak said of his thoughts going into to this game a year removed from his gruesome injury. "I'm excited for it. I'm excited just to get back out there. It's another game to me, whether the injury happened against them last year at home.

"That's something I think (about) every game, every pregame. Just about how blessed I am just to be back out here doing what I love. Whether it's a year from it now, in a couple of years, or five years from it now, I'm not going to say I don' think about it because that's part of who I am."

And if indeed those were tears welling up in his eyes that night during the anthem of the Philadelphia game, so be it. And even if there happens to be one or two again late Sunday afternoon, so be it. The memory still creates raw emotions.

Same place. Same team. One day removed from the same day.

But at least this time, those tears will not be a product of pain, but tears of joy over a triumphant return back.

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