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Spagnola: Mannings Are About To Find Out About QB They Helped Develop

FRISCO, Texas – Life can be crazy, how at times it will come back at you.

         Take this:

         In the summer of '09, Dak Prescott was heading toward his junior season at Haughton (La.) High School.

         Eli Manning was heading toward his sixth season in the NFL with the New York Giants.

         The two met in Thibodaux, La., where the Manning Family, patriarch Archie and sons Peyton and Eli, were conducting their annual Manning Passing Academy at Nicholls State.

         "So I wanted to go to just kind of learn some stuff on drops, how the quarterbacks think mentally and things like that," Prescott said during his conference call with the Giants media this week. "And there's no better place to go than the Manning camp, the first family of football."

         Here is what Archie remembers.

         "He wants to be good, he tried to soak everything up he could from Peyton and Eli," Archie says.

         They would meet again in the summers of '14 and '15 when Prescott returned to the summer camps before his junior and senior seasons at Mississippi State as one of the many counselors the Mannings use to help instruct the high school kids.

         "He came back to learn," Archie says.

         So how about these marbles?

         Sunday, at 3:25 p.m. at AT&T Stadium in the season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants on the 15-year remembrance of 9/11, Dak and Eli will meet again.

         This time …

         Eli Manning will be starting his 13th NFL season for the Giants, if it's even possible to believe that.

         Prescott will be making his Dallas Cowboys rookie debut, becoming only the fourth rookie quarterback in franchise history to start a season opener.

         Not by design, mind you, but by injury. Two injuries, first to the presumptive backup Kellen Moore in the second padded practice of camp, and then to 14th-year veteran starter Tony Romo three plays in to the third preseason game, setting up another first in this 57th season of Cowboys football:

The first time the Cowboys have lost their presumed top two quarterbacks to injury before the start of a season.

Go figure.

 But that's the hand the Cowboys have been dealt. No one feels sorry for them. And to their credit, they don't seem to be feeling sorry for themselves or making pre-emptive excuses.

"Got to keep on going," says 14th-year veteran tight end Jason Witten. "Can't slow down, can't flinch."

Prescott might have something to do with the Cowboys not sticking their heads in the turf. Not sure what Don Meredith or Craig Morton or Roger Staubach or Danny White looked like as rookie quarterbacks during training camp and preseason during their days, but this kid has looked as good, and maybe even better, than most every rookie quarterback the Cowboys have had since.

What impresses so far is not necessarily how cool and collected he has performed in those first three preseason games or how effectively he has played, having a significant hand in the Cowboys outscoring the Rams, Dolphins and Seahawks in the first halves of those outings 61-31. It's how hard he works. How hard he studies. How mature he seems to be.

And also this: How his teammates seem to be gravitating toward him, a prerequisite for the job.

None of this seems to surprise those who have known him or of him for years.

"I was surprised he was still around in the fourth round," says Archie Manning, the former New Orleans Saints quarterback who after getting to know Dak during those camp summers kept a close eye on him at Mississippi State.

Archie, remember an Ole Miss All-American quarterback whose youngest son Eli also followed in his footsteps to Oxford, Miss., painfully remembers what Dak did in the 2013 Egg Bowl game, the annual meeting between bitter rivals Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

         "Came off the bench and beat Ole Miss," Archie says, somewhat pained.

         Sure did. Came off the bench in the fourth quarter, battling an elbow injury to complete 11 passes for 115 yards and scoring the winning touchdown in overtime on a 3-yard run on fourth-and-1. Then went on to become the MVP of the Liberty Bowl to end that season for the Bulldogs.

         Then there is Cowboys wide receivers coach Derek Dooley. The one-time head coach at Louisiana Tech, Dooley was leaving Ruston, La., to become the head coach at Tennessee when Prescott was an up and coming high school quarterback at Haughton, back west down I-20 about 55 miles away.

         But darn if they, too, didn't meet up a few years later, a 2012 SEC game between the Volunteers and the Bulldogs in Prescott's redshirt freshman season and in what turned out to be Dooley's final year in Knoxville, Tenn. That year the Bulldogs were using Prescott as their bulldozing QB, running up the middle mostly.

         But in this game, after a couple of runs, Prescott threw his first collegiate touchdown pass, a 13-yarder to give Mississippi State a 17-7 lead in what turned out to be a 41-31 victory over the Vols. Dooley remembered that, too.

         So what Prescott has done so far, and again, just in preseason, has not surprised the Cowboys wide receivers coach.

         "If you played in the Southeastern Conference and at Mississippi State, and won 10 games (in a season), that's all that needs to be said," Dooley says. "With him, I've always been …"

         His voice trailing off before turning to flash two thumbs up, those worth a 1,000 words.[embeddedad0]

         Not only did Prescott play in the SEC, he was at Mississippi State five seasons, playing the final four, doing what many quarterbacks aren't willing to do – invaluable experience, according to Archie Manning. Both of his quarterback sons, Peyton at Tennessee and Eli at Ole Miss, played four seasons of college ball.

         Archie remembers talking to Dak after his junior year, the one in which he had Mississippi State as the No. 1 team in the nation during the season. Same one he earned SEC Offensive MVP honors while leading the Bulldogs to a 10-3 record and into the Orange Bowl (lost to Georgia Tech), only the second major bowl appearance in the school's history.

         "It's hard to tell a guy what to do," Archie says of Dak's debate over coming out or staying for his senior year. "But I did tell him every game you play in the SEC is a plus, a real plus. He was smart to come back."

         Maybe that's why seemingly everyone's impression of him so far starts with "poise and composure," including that of Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman the other day on local Dallas radio. And Aikman knows what it's like to start a season opener as a rookie, one of those three previous Cowboys rookie quarterbacks to do so. Prescott has played a lot of college games. Taken a lot of snaps. Been through a lot, including suffering through the death of his mother back in 2013.

         He will tell you he has overcome a lot, too. Others will tell you he's mature beyond his years. Linehan will tell you "he's a grinder," the football vernacular for being a hard worker. When outlining his typical day, Dak says he has about 10 of those 24 hours to himself, six of those occupied by sleep.

         Just a good guy.

         "I'd send texts to him over the years after good performances and even after those that weren't so good," Archie says, "and I'd always hear back from him."

         So here we go, the Cowboys in uncharted territory. Not so much starting a rookie quarterback in the opener. This will be the fourth time, though remember only Staubach has been a winner. Neither Aikman nor Quincy Carter could generate a touchdown in their season-opening starts, Aikman a 28-0 loser to New Orleans and Carter a 10-6 loser to Tampa Bay.

         Those guys at least were expected to start as rookies. This? The Cowboys are having to start a quarterback yet to take an NFL snap who figured to be no more than a third-string quarterback at the start of camp. (Hmmm, see Denver Thursday night against Carolina.)

         So, we'll see. But take it from Archie Manning, who now must watch his son Eli play against the kid they once had nourished with football knowledge during his formative years. And if you are from the state of Mississippi, as Archie is, this Sunday affair, by the way, becomes Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State. Some emotions don't ever die. And Archie is proud to point out that this is the first time since 1974 that a former Ole Miss quarterback (himself) and a former Mississippi State quarterback (Joe Reed) have played against each other in the NFL, Manning's Saints losing to Reed's 49ers.

         "With Dak, was always kidding him, 'You're one of my favorites, but I can't say that because you went to Mississippi State,'" Archie says.

         But he somewhat proudly will quickly tell you this about the kid from Louisiana:

         "In Mississippi, we call people like that, 'Good people.' He's good people, really good people."

         The Cowboys now are just hoping Dak is really good quarterback, too.

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