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Dak's Road To Dallas: Why Prescott's Rise Shouldn't Be A Surprise

FRISCO, Texas – Long before the Dallas Cowboys knew about Rayne Dakota Prescott, quarterback of the franchise's current present and future, Morris Claiborne got the first look.

On Oct. 17, 2008 – a Louisiana 4A District 1 matchup of Shreveport-area high schools – Claiborne was the senior star quarterback (not cornerback) for the Fair Park Indians. All he'd heard about during homecoming week was this upstart sophomore quarterback for the Haughton Buccaneers.

"That was the like the talk of the week: 'We've got to get ready to play this big quarterback, man. It's going to take all of us to tackle him,'" Claiborne recalls as he sits at his locker inside the Cowboys' new world headquarters, The Star. "I can remember it like it was yesterday. We just remember him being big, athletic, can run around and throw the ball."

Prescott's team dominated Fair Park, 42-12, and won a tight rematch in the first round of the state playoffs. A few years later, the big quarterback from Haughton became a folk hero 325 miles to the northeast in Starkville, Miss.

Now he's an overnight sensation for America's 5-1 Team – an unflappable 23-year-old rookie who might be a vested veteran already if tenure was judged solely by swagger, composure and passer rating (103.9).

Ten months ago at the Senior Bowl, the Cowboys' coaching staff watched Dak Prescott take the first significant number of snaps in his life from under center. Seventy-nine days ago in training camp, their fourth-round draft pick was sitting third-string on the depth chart until injuries to Kellen Moore and eventually Tony Romo moved him into the starting lineup.

Now six games into Prescott's professional career, the Cowboys lead the NFC East standings and stand near the top of the NFL in offensive production.

"He's the truth," Dez Bryant says.

Prescott has made believers out of the veterans, the coaches, the front office. There's an echo when each describes his game, his demeanor, his approach.

These traits have translated into wins for the Cowboys more quickly than most anyone could have imagined. All these traits, though, were acquired long before he joined the organization.

Yes, Dak Prescott is tough.

You might say the reason is found in the silver pendants Prescott and his two older brothers received from their aunt this past summer.

Each contains a fingerprint of their late mother, Peggy. She loved the 1980 movie classic Urban Cowboy, and her favorite line was Sissy (Debra Winger) telling Bud (John Travolta) her plans to hitch a ride outside of a Houston bar: "I got a thumb. I got a middle finger."

"Our aunt got us the pendants made," says Prescott's brother, Tad, "and when she gave it to us, the note said, 'It could be the thumb or it could be the middle finger.' And all three of us were like, 'It's the middle finger.'"

Peggy loved her sons dearly, and she didn't raise any pushovers. Tad, 29, is the oldest; Jace, 28, is a year and a half younger. Both starred at Haughton High – Tad at defensive end and Jace on the offensive and defensive lines. Jace went on to play college ball at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, 75 miles south of Haughton.

"They always told us, 'Dak's going to be better than all of us. Dak's going to be the best one,'" says Jason Brotherton, now the Haughton head coach and an assistant coach there for the three Prescotts. "Tad may have been the best all-around athlete and Jace was 6 feet 5 inches, 420 pounds playing for us and he could dunk a basketball. He was just an unbelievable athlete for his size.

"Dak kind of combined that with the 'it' factor. He just kind of had that extra thing inside of him that most kids don't have."

The youngest Prescott by five years followed his brothers everywhere. At six years old, "Baby Dak," as Tad called him – born two months premature and asthmatic – was playing tackle football behind the house with the neighborhood kids.

He didn't back down, either. Mom and his big brothers wouldn't let him. Tad recalls Dak "telling me, 'Get down to my size,' because he wanted to fistfight."

Dak was the water boy on his brothers' middle school teams. When they reached high school he watched their Haughton practices. During games he had little interest in playing pickup football with the other children in the side area next to the stadium.

"Dak would partake in that maybe 15 minutes," Tad says, "but it was so funny because I could always look over there when I was on the field during a break or out of the huddle, and you would see him hanging on the fence. All these little kids are playing football behind him, but he's watching this game. He never did not pay attention to his brothers on the field."

Yes, Dak Prescott is poised.

It's the most common adjective for his playing style, but poise is merely a product of impeccable preparation.

Peggy and the Prescotts' father, Nathaniel, divorced when the children were young. They lived with their mother outside of Shreveport, watching her work two jobs to help support them.

"A single mom raising three boys," Dak says. "Always at work. I would go up to work sometimes to help her and spent a lot of time at her work because that's what she was doing."

Her hard work was a major influence on his football career. He began at linebacker and moved to quarterback by high school. But the Prescott pedigree didn't grant him starting status.

Haughton had a two-year starter ahead of Dak. Finally, the door opened his sophomore year in 2008 when the incumbent upperclassman sprained his thumb.

"Dak played for a couple of weeks and he really never gave that job back," Brotherton says. "And then the same thing happened in college."

By Dak's redshirt sophomore year at Mississippi State, he was pushing fifth-year senior Tyler Russell for playing time, and head coach Dan Mullen had created a package of plays with the purpose of giving him game experience. When Russell suffered a concussion in the season opener against Oklahoma State, the door opened again.

Two weeks later, a last-second road loss to eventual national runner-up Auburn dawned the Dak legend in Starkville.

"He did a great job managing the game – made a bunch of plays," Mullen says. "We had to open up the offense a little bit more, couldn't be as conservative. But you could see that he could be the quarterback of the future for us."

Act Three is well-documented in Dallas: Romo's back injury has made Prescott the fill-in starter since the end of the preseason.

Each time, at every level, he's been ready.

"People call it poise – I mean, of course it is – but more so it's just the confidence of the fact that he's prepared," Tad says. "It's just the confidence he has in that he knows he's going to go out there and do what he has to do to and lead those men. That's just his goal."

Yes, Dak Prescott is driven.

One reason is simple: He loves the game. All three Prescott brothers have a tattoo of a football. Tad's came first; Jace got one on his forearm in college; Dak followed with one across his back. They talked their mom into getting one, too – her first and only.

But the youngest Prescott also has an urge to be great – "I want people to be compared to me one day when it's all said and done," he says – when good has always been the perceived ceiling.

Before the NFL Draft, experts questioned whether he could play a pro-style offense instead of the shotgun-spread system he operated throughout his amateur career. Nothing new: Dak Prescott has been doubted since grade school.

"I can remember the high school coaches – granted, I love them and I know they love us, especially him – but I can remember the high school coaches telling my mom he won't be a quarterback at Haughton High," Tad says. "And then he gets to Haughton High and he's the best quarterback they've ever had."

As a junior, Dak threw 27 touchdown passes and Haughton went 9-3. But the major programs, including in-state king LSU, weren't biting yet.

"We had college after college tell us that he couldn't play for them," Brotherton says. "He was a 4.7 40 (yard dash time). He wasn't as polished as some other kids. It was a harder sell, but as we went through that last year he got more and more colleges interested."

Mississippi State was one, even though Mullen admits Prescott wasn't ready-made for stardom. Mullen visited with his former All-American captain before the Cowboys' Week 3 win over the Chicago Bears at AT&T Stadium and lightly reminded him of the days before three Sports Illustrated covers.

"I still tell him he was an average high school player," Mullen says with a laugh. "He wasn't real fast. He was like 6 feet and a half inch, 6 feet 1 inch, 200 pounds, ran an average 40 time and he really didn't throw the ball very well."

Mullen recruited Prescott for his intangibles, and he watched him improve tangible skills like accuracy and footwork. Mississippi State offered him a scholarship before his senior year of high school and he accepted. When he made All-State and pushed Haughton to an undefeated regular season with 39 touchdown passes, LSU and others came calling.

A man of his word, Prescott stayed loyal to the Bulldogs. "And things worked out," he says.

"The other thing he was that I loved most was he was a winner. He won," Mullen says. "He won in high school. He won in college and now he's winning in the NFL. There's something to being a winner. Winners win. They just win."

Yes, Dak Prescott is a leader.

His high school coach, Rodney Guin, saw it on the field when he drove Haughton to a district championship at considerably less than full strength.

Haughton and rival Parkway were both 9-0. Prescott, nursing a sprained MCL, didn't start. The offense fumbled the first possession with their running back filling in at quarterback. Prescott begged the coaches to let him on the field for his final regular-season game.

"He was adamant about playing because he wanted his teammates to have that 10-0 season," Guin says. "It was more important for him what they were going to get more so than it may hurt him in the future playing. That said a lot about him and I think that's why kids rallied around him.

"He went out there on one leg and threw for 400 yards that night. Been the only 10-0 season they've ever had at our school. I think that said a lot about his character."

Mullen saw it off the field during the most difficult time of his young life.

Peggy passed away in 2013, late in Dak's redshirt sophomore season, following a courageous battle with cancer. Mississippi State had just lost on the road at South Carolina and was getting set for another road trip to Texas A&M.

Dak needed to be there for his family. He wanted to be there for his teammates, too.

"We all just sat there with him, supported him, made sure he had somebody to get him home to be with the family, to get everything arranged for him," Mullen recalls. "Told him don't worry about a thing.

"The funeral was on a Wednesday and I remember we flew down for it Wednesday. And he said, 'I've got to practice Wednesday afternoon so I can get ready for this game on Saturday.' I said, 'You don't have to play.'

"He said, 'Coach, my mom would be so mad if I wasn't at practice this afternoon and getting ready to play in this game. So he got on the plane with us; he got on the school plane. We made sure we had all the seating and everything arranged to fly him back. And he was at practice that afternoon right after his mom's funeral."

Yes, Dak Prescott has perspective.

In a matter of weeks, fame and recognition has hit Prescott like one of his tight spirals. It's not the first time.

"I'll be honest with you. I think it was a little crazier at Mississippi State than it is now," Tad says.

As a junior in 2014, Dak led the Bulldogs from unranked to No. 1 in five weeks – the fastest turnaround in the history of The Associated Press poll. He became a household name and a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate for a program with only eight all-time bowl wins and no national titles.

The week of Prescott's NFL debut against the New York Giants, the university bought ads for five billboards around the Metroplex. The message: Wherever You Go, We Go With You. Good Luck Dak. From State To Sundays.

"He's a rock star in Mississippi," Mullen says.

Yet Mullen believes Prescott's more subdued senior season – a 9-4 record, Belk Bowl appearance and tepid top-25 position – is what prepared him to handle the Dak craze sweeping North Texas.

"I think one of the great things that helped him: His junior year he was a Heisman Trophy candidate, we were the No. 1 team in the country, all of this hype around him. We had a great football team and all of this crazy hype around him," Mullen says. "He came back for his senior year, he was not a Heisman candidate, we got ranked here and there but we weren't No. 1 in the country. He was a much, much better player his senior year than his junior year.

"So I think he started to understand this hype of, *Everyone's telling me I'm a super-great Heisman candidate and I'm all of this stuff, and I come back the next year and I'm such a better player as a senior than I was as a junior – a much better player. *And he wasn't getting the same hype.

"But I think that helped him understand getting ready for the level he's at now where, hey, it's all about my performance, my production, my evaluation. When he gets in the film room, what the coaches think, what I did well, what I did poorly, and not so much on that outside hype. Because when he was a Heisman candidate he was good, but he was a great quarterback when he wasn't a Heisman candidate."

Life has challenged Prescott. He hasn't let success change him.

He texted his late mother the weekend of his first NFL game. When he scores a touchdown, he points to the sky. When he needs a clearer outlook on things, he thinks of her.

"Even though she's not here, I know what she'd be saying," he says. "She taught me well the 20 years I was fortunate to spend with her."

Since their mom has passed, Dak's brother Tad watches the games with a new perspective, too. He talks to her, says a quick prayer, kisses the silver pendant their aunt gave each of them.

"I never ask for a win," he says. "I just ask for a good game and that he stays safe.

"Of course, when he scores I celebrate. When he does something like when he lost that fumble (in Week 5 against the Cincinnati Bengals), I get upset. But I never really breathe again until that clock hits four zeros."

Baby Dak is doing all right.

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