FRISCO, Texas – There were no empty seats inside the press conference room at The Star. Standing room only – dozens of reporters packed inside to hear Tony Romo's first public comments since breaking a bone in his back 83 days ago.
No questions were taken.
Instead, Romo gave a five-minute prepared speech that revealed raw insight into his time away from the field and his expected return to a role he hasn't known since early 2006: backup, to rookie Dak Prescott.
He controlled the message, and that message was short but powerful: the last two and a half months have been professional hell for him in many ways – "a dark place, probably the darkest it's ever been" – but he stands behind Prescott and the 8-1 Cowboys, who own the best record in the NFL.
"He has earned the right to be our quarterback," Romo said. "As hard as that is for me to say, he has earned that right."
After last Sunday's 35-30 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said he anticipated Romo was ready to be active as a backup to Prescott in the upcoming home game against the Baltimore Ravens. He also said Romo was "genuinely excited" about the team's success while he has been sidelined.
Romo's statement Tuesday echoed that sentiment.
He did not speak in depth about how his back feels or about his return to practice as a scout-team quarterback in recent weeks. He reflected on his journey back to full health – first, the initial "guilt" he felt after suffering a significant injury for the second year in a row.
"Getting hurt when you feel like you have the best team you've ever had was a soul-crushing moment for me," he said. "Then to learn it's not three or four weeks but 10 is another blow. And through it all you have a tremendous amount of guilt on having let your teammates, fans and organization down. After all, they were depending on you to bring them a championship. That's what quarterbacks are supposed to do. That's how we're just judged.
"I love that. I still do."
Romo, 36, acknowledged that he still wants to be out there competing, saying "that hasn't left me. In fact, it may burn more now than ever."
But he's now come full circle in his 14-year NFL career. As a fourth-year, former undrafted free agent in the middle of the 2006 season, he was called off the bench to replace Drew Bledsoe. He has started 127 games since, making four Pro Bowls and breaking multiple franchise passing records.
Now it's Prescott's turn to continue the momentum the team has built over the first nine games of the 2016 season.
"I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. It really is an incredible time in your life," Romo said. "And if I remember one thing from back then, it's the people that helped me along when I was young. And if I can be that to Dak, I've tried to be and I will be going forward.
"I think we all know something magical is happening with this team. I'm not going to allow this situation to negatively affect Dak or this football team by becoming a constant distraction. I think Dak knows that I have his back, and I think I know that he has mine.
"Ultimately it's about the team."