Phillips: Through "Dark Place" In His Career, Romo Finds Another Way To Lead

FRISCO, Texas – The last three sentences in Tony Romo's poignant five-minute statement Tuesday struck me most.

"I feel like we all have two battles, or two enemies going on: one with the man across from you; the second is with the man inside of you. I think once you control the one inside of you, the one across from you really doesn't matter. I think that's what we're all trying to do."

For the first time in more than 10 years, Romo is expected to be the backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. He watched his team rise to the NFL's best record (8-1) while he recovered from a fracture in his back. Tuesday, he acknowledged that Dak Prescott has earned the right to continue leading the huddle.

By publicly supporting his teammate, by showing class and sportsmanship through this idle period he described as "a dark place" in his 14-year NFL career, Romo has found a different way to lead.

On the flight to Pittsburgh I started a book someone gave me 20 years ago written by the great Pat Riley, five-time championship coach of the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat. It's called "The Winner Within," and there's an entire chapter devoted to what Riley calls "The Innocent Climb."

It details one of the toughest challenges for an organization: setting aside egos and territories and accepting roles with faith that personal gain will come from collective success. It's much easier said than done, particularly in the hyper-competitive world of professional sports.

When an organization buys into the "Innocent Climb," Riley says – a sincere commitment to a team concept – there's no limit on what it can achieve.

Romo did that Tuesday. But he's not the only one on this Cowboys roster.

Dez Bryant did that a week ago, coming off a one-catch performance in Cleveland, when he emphatically told reporters he's not a "me, me, me guy" – all about wins, not stats.

Jason Witten has done that into his mid-30s – the franchise's all-time receptions leader committed to being a sturdy blocker for the NFL's best running game.

Ron Leary did that in the summertime when he accepted a backup role at guard and prepared himself to step back into the starting lineup when La'el Collins got injured in Week 3 of the season.

Tyrone Crawford did that by moving from defensive tackle to defensive end, giving the line a powerful edge-setter and more overall versatility with Terrell McClain and rookie Maliek Collins playing in the middle.

Sacrifice – "The Team, The Team, The Team," as head coach Jason Garrett constantly preaches – is a big reason the Cowboys have won eight consecutive games for the first time in 39 years.

As badly as he still wants to compete, Romo understands that. He's been around this organization since 2003, and he admits "something magical is happening to our team." Remember, he's the guy who wears No. 9 as a nod to Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs in The Natural. He's not one to disrupt sports karma.

"There are special moments that come from a shared commitment, to play your role while doing it together. That's what you remember," he said. "Not your stats or your prestige, but the relationships and the achievements that you've created with your group. It's hard to do, but there's great joy in that. And all the while, your desire burns to be the best you've ever been.

"You can be both. I've figured that out in this process."

Being both is what this team needs. Being both shows Tony Romo can still lead without breaking the huddle.

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