FRISCO, TX — It will be an emotional day for Ezekiel Elliott and, frankly, for the Dallas Cowboys as well, as the two reunite on Sunday at AT&T Stadium but, for the first time in Elliott's record-setting NFL career, it will be as opponents. When the New England Patriots walk onto the field in Arlington this weekend, they'll feel a tsunami of feelings in the air.
If this feels like when Emmitt Smith returned in an (ahem) Arizona Cardinals' jersey, it's because the two situations are eerily similar.
One thing that might help heighten the coming storm surge of emotion could be a possible honoring of Elliott prior to kickoff — something owner and general manager Jerry Jones hinted at recently.
"I don't want to blow a surprise," he told 105.3FM the Fan when the question was posed.
A former fourth-overall pick of the Cowboys in 2016, Elliott joined quarterback Dak Prescott that season as two rookies who took the NFL by storm, and simultaneously ushered in a new era in Dallas.
The team opted to part ways with the 28-year-old this past offseason, and he ended his career in North Texas as No. 3 on the franchise's all-time rushing yards list with 8,262, behind only Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith — just five rushing touchdowns shy of surpassing Dorsett (72) for second-most in that category while playing in 54 fewer games, and in a pass-heavy culture of professional football.
Elliott is also ranked as third-best in number of 100-yard games and fifth-most in scrimmage yards.
Jones then went on to express exactly where Elliott exists in the heart of the organization.
"He was one of the best teammates that I've had the privilege of seeing on the Cowboys," said Jones. "He was inspirational. His practice habits were off-the-charts. He'd practice like every play was for all the marbles.
"He has very unique skills as a running back and, boy, he could lower that pad and lower that center of gravity. As far as a back the opposing team hates to tackle, I think he's at the top of the list. … I'll always remember that and his positiveness.
"He has the perfect mentality to play this game and be a pro."
That said, the goal will be to keep Elliott [and Rhamondre Stevenson] from teeing off only one week after the Cardinals ran for 222 yards on the ground, and Jones and Co. understand this fully.
For his part, Elliott admits he'll be working hard to balance emotions with what the Patriots are tasking him to do against his former team.
"It's gonna be a little bit interesting, a little bit different, going against guys that I played with for so long, but I'm not really trying to focus so much on that," he said. "I'm trying to focus on going out and winning the football game. … I don't really have a lot of time to be emotional. I have to prepare for the game and go out there and put my best foot forward. But, there are emotions.
"I may do a good job of hiding them. There will be some emotions, but I've gotta go out there and perform."
He also harbors no hard feelings toward the Cowboys to move into the era of Tony Pollard as the lead back in Dallas.
"Business is business," he said, then explaining just how close he was with the entire staff and locker room.
"The Cowboys roster was very special to me," he said. "Just being able to get to know all of those guys, and when younger guys come in, taking them under my wing and showing them the way."
The aforementioned Pollard was once one of those younger guys Elliott is referencing, and the two got off to a fast start once the former arrived as the Cowboys' fourth-round pick in 2019; and it's that quickly-formed brotherhood that ultimately led to the duo being arguably the most destructive in the NFL as Pollard would eventually earn his first Pro Bowl honor in 2022.
Once dubbed the “Sledgehammer and the Sword”by former Cowboys' running backs coach Skip Peete, Pollard and Elliott continue to speak to each other on a regular basis — sharing everything from football advice to funny memes via text message.
"That's my brother, at the end of the day, outside of football and outside of everything," said Pollard. "We still communicate. We keep in touch. There will be emotions, but we're going out there to handle business.
"He's had a great influence on me in playing this game — watching him and watching how he approaches the game, his preparation throughout the week, his film study and just trying to pick his brain."
And, as it usually goes with family, you can expect them to try and outdo each other on the field in what is an important matchup for both teams.
"Oh, 100 percent," said Pollard of the brotherly competition to come on Sunday. "... I'm very excited. It's gonna be like a homecoming for him. I'm looking forward to the challenge. We've gotta get the dub, but I'm looking forward to it."
Elliott feels the same way, also looking forward to a welcoming embrace from the fans.
It's the same arena that feverishly joined in with Elliott's famous "feed me" gesture over the years and who helped him raise millions of dollars for charity after his unforgettable touchdown hop into the Red Kettle housed in the back of the end zone.
"I think it'll be a good experience," said the former two-time NFL rushing champ. "I had so many good moments with the fans at AT&T Stadium, and I'm looking forward to coming back and reuniting with the fans. Even though I'll be in a different uniform, I think it'll be a good experience."
And speaking of charity, Elliott's impact in the Metroplex extends far beyond what he did on the turf in Arlington. In addition to all of his work with The Salvation Army, one instance mentioned above, he also joined a local charity named "For Oak Cliff" to help underprivileged and underserved youth in Southwest Dallas.
It was always bigger than football for Elliott.
"Dallas is definitely home to me," said the former two-time All-Pro. "Most of my family is already in Dallas. And all of the great memories through outreach like, obviously, The Salvation Army comes to mind — that game when I jumped into The Salvation Army [Red Kettle] and stacking donations [for them].
"My relationship with 'For Oak Cliff', a place that is truly close to my heart, and they've done such a good job for Oak Cliff. From the first time I went there, they opened me into their community with open arms. I'm just very grateful for them."
The feeling is undoubtedly mutual.
"Everyone wants their legacy with a team to be what they did on the field, and I accomplished a lot on the field when I was in Dallas," said Elliott. "But I want my legacy to also be what I meant to the community, and what I did to give back to the community."
And it's that kind of charitable drive, along with his dominance when in uniform, that will all but guarantee that Elliott goes down as one of the most unforgettable players, and humans, in the history of one of the most storied organizations in the history of sports.
He gave his all in Dallas, and the city won't ever forget it.
It may not have been a fairytale ending, but it was one hell of a read.