Last January, quarterback Ben DiNucci was wrapping up an impressive two-year career at James Madison University and mentally preparing to play in the FCS Championship against North Dakota State at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
He hopped in the elevator up to his hotel room and someone came in behind him just before the doors closed. It was Mike McCarthy, who had recently been hired as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. McCarthy's brother was DiNucci's eighth grade basketball coach back at Pittsburgh, so DiNucci introduced himself and explained the family connection.
"He was very familiar with our [James Madison] team," DiNucci remembered. "I was kind of surprised that he knew who I was."
The FCS quarterback and NFL coach had about a five-minute conversation together, discussing the various regional ties the two men share. "Ben and I are from the same area back here in Pittsburgh," McCarthy would say months later. "So I'm very aware of everything he's done [in high school and college football]."
If DiNucci was flattered that the Dallas Cowboys head coach knew who he was in January, then he must have been ecstatic when the Cowboys used their seventh round draft pick to acquire him in April to play under McCarthy. "I couldn't be more thankful and appreciative," he said the day he was selected. "I'm just so happy for this opportunity with getting to play in Dallas on America's Team."
DiNucci originally played for the University of Pittsburgh but made the difficult decision to transfer to James Madison where increased opportunity lead to some of the most efficient quarterback play in the nation. Last season, he threw for 3,341 yards, 29 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He also led the nation with a completion percentage of 70.6.
Perhaps just as intriguing is that he rushed for 569 yards and seven touchdowns. The Dallas Cowboys have built their offense around an efficient quarterback in Dak Prescott who can use his legs if necessary and becomes a rushing threat near the end zone. An ideal backup would posses similar qualities.
"In today's day and age, quarterbacks need to be able to be athletic and extend plays when the pocket breaks down or guys aren't open," DiNucci said. "Just being able to watch [Prescott] over these last few years as a spectator--and him being a fourth-round pick with the success he's had--being able to come in and learn under a guy like that is awesome."
McCarthy, on the other hand, went a bit further back in comparing DiNucci, claiming that his accuracy reminded him of a young Marc Bulger, who was a two-time Pro Bowler with the St. Louis Rams in the mid-2000's. "He is a young man who has played the position his whole life," McCarthy said.
Cooper Rush has served has served as the backup quarterback for the past two seasons in which Prescott hasn't missed a single game. Dallas will hope that DiNucci will provide competition for that role in a league where anything can happen and opportunities are won and lost during moments no one saw coming.
"I understand that this business is kind of cutthroat, and you can't have any bad days," DiNucci said. "I'm going to do my best to put my best foot forward as soon as I walk in the building."
It'd be a stretch to say that McCarthy will be in DiNucci's corner, but that happenstance elevator meeting back in January has to give the young quarterback the comfort of knowing that his head coach is well aware of what he's accomplished as a football player.
"It's just crazy to see this thing full-circle," DiNucci marveled shortly after becoming a Dallas Cowboy.