FRISCO, Texas – When the Detroit Lions come to AT&T Stadium on Monday night to take on the Cowboys it won't be the first big game Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has played in Dallas-Fort Worth.
The Dallas native was a top high school prospect while playing for Highland Park, where he led the Scots to their first state Championship in 55 years as a senior in 2005.
"I think I got an early taste at being in the spotlight," Stafford said of his three years as a starter at Highland Park. "I was a 15-year old sophomore playing in Texas Stadium. Playing against Ennis [High School] and a bunch of really good football teams. A bunch of cameras on you after the game and all that stuff. I think that kind of puts you in the spotlight early and lets you understand what it's all about."
While Stafford used to play select high school games at the Dallas Cowboys' old stomping grounds, on Saturday, Dec. 17 his alma mater played their biggest game in over a decade at AT&T Stadium, where they won their first state championship since Stafford's senior year. They were led at quarterback by John Stephen Jones, the grandson of Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones and the son of Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones.
"I'm sure that was thrilling for him," Stafford said. "Obviously I'm happy for him. I'm sure that everybody in the Jones family had a great time watching John Stephen do what he did."
Stafford graduated from Highland Park and went on to the University of Georgia where he turned himself into the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft. But even for a kid who brought his school a state title and grew up to make his city proud, not every trip back to Dallas has been a pleasant memory for Stafford.
In the 2014 NFC wild-card playoff game, a talented Lions team came to AT&T Stadium and took a 14-0 lead over the Cowboys in the first quarter. They didn't score another touchdown over the last three quarters and Dallas came away with a 24-20 victory, robbing the Lions of what many believe was their best chance at an extended playoff run.
"I don't think too much about the results of that last one, to be honest with you," Stafford said this week. "It's a new team and a new challenge."
It most certainly is a new team, as the 2016 the Lions are without superstars Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh, but their offense has been revitalized by a new quick-pass offense that has Stafford racking up completions all over the field. They will come to Dallas in first place in the NFC North hoping to secure a playoff spot.
When Stafford watched the Cowboys this year he understands why they are able to move the ball so well. Scott Linehan, the Cowboys' offensive coordinator, was Stafford's first offensive coordinator in the NFL.
"I have a lot of respect for him and how he treated me and how he brought me along," Stafford said. "He's a guy that can adapt to what the players on his team do best. We threw the ball quite a bit. Now they run the ball quite a bit."
Linehan worked with Stafford through a difficult rookie season. Void of surrounding talent, the Lions finished 2-14 in Stafford's first year. This season, Linehan has coached another rookie quarterback, Dak Prescott, with drastically different results.
"I think he does a really nice job of understanding what his quarterback likes and likes to do and puts them in a position where they're going to be successful," Stafford said of Linehan. "Obviously Dak [Prescott] has some really good pieces around him and he does a really good job of getting the ball to all of those guys and that's kind of what Scott preaches is get it to the open guy."
This week Prescott made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. The recognition is certainly deserved, but spots on the Pro Bowl roster are limited, and one notable player left off the NFC roster was Stafford, who didn't make the team despite still being considered by many to be in the MVP race.
Stafford's team, though, is playing in a must-win game on Monday night. Detroit might be going on the road to play a team that hasn't lost in their stadium since the Sept. 11 opener, but the Lions' quarterback will be far from uncomfortable.
"I really like coming home in Dallas," Stafford said. "It's where I grew up. I played a lot of football in the state of Texas and in Dallas in my life."