FRISCO, Texas — Football might be results-driven, but leadership isn't. You have to be there to show your teammates the way, even when things just refuse to break right, for you or them.
Ezekiel Elliott was nominated this week for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award by the Dallas Cowboys. The honor is given to a player who exhibits exemplary sportsmanship. It's probably not the award he originally set out for to begin this season, but it's still one to be proud of.
"It means a lot," Elliott said on Friday. "There were a lot of great options. There were a lot of guys on the team they could have picked, so it means a lot to me that the team picked me."
Former Cowboys like Travis Frederick, Dak Prescott, Byron Jones, Sean Lee, and Brandon Carr were past nominees. Ultimately, the Cowboys are sitting at 3-8, and Elliott's fumbles out-number his 100-yard games five to zero. But leadership is a quality that is quantifiable. Sometimes players don't really find it until they're in circumstances where they won't really get credit for displaying it. That's just part of the deal.
Elliott's production has been middling, but he has still taken all the hits. He has still addressed the media after every loss and conducted midweek conference calls with the media fielding questions about the team's struggles. Elliott contracted COVID-19 before the season began and has preached the importance of safety protocol, not just to avoid league punishment, but as something owed to our fellow humans.
Elliott didn't ask to have to lead the Cowboys through a nightmare season, but his teammates appreciate it nonetheless. Leaders went down early and often for the Cowboys, and Elliott has suited up for every game.
"The obvious difference is you don't have Dak out there," Elliott said, in regard to his locker room role. "You don't have the big fellas. You don't have LC [La'el Collins]. You don't have Ty [Tyron Smith]."
If the Cowboys' 2020 is to be just a blip in the road to a promising future then the young players have to stay focused this season on improvement, consistency, and development. They need to understand what the organization expects from their players. That's something that the Jones family or the coaching staff can preach, but they can't lead by example.
It falls on a guy like Elliott, who has played an enormous on-field role for the Cowboys since his rookie season when he could lean on veterans with varying leadership styles like Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, and Sean Lee. He used to be able to just focus on being fed the ball. Now, he understands that his role is bigger than that.
"I think I'm definitely more comfortable with it now," Elliott said. "I've been in the league longer. At first, when you're young, it's kind of weird because guys have been around longer than you. But now, it's year five. I'm getting old, so it comes a lot easier."
The 32 nominees will be narrowed down to eight finalists to be listed on the Pro Bowl ballot on December 18 when players will vote on a winner. The winner will be announced as a part of NFL Honors.