FRISCO, Texas — Same opponent. Same stadium. Same week of the NFL regular season.
That can’t be a coincidence.
Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys play a Week 5 game against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox). But Oct. 11, 2020, is a day forever etched into the quarterback’s mind since he suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in the third quarter that forced him to miss the rest of the season.
The Cowboys went on to beat the Giants, 37-34, without Prescott that day, but they went 4-7 without him the rest of the way and finished the season 6-10.
Just four games into his 2021 return, Prescott — with 10 touchdown passes and 1,066 yards — is playing at what he calls the highest level of his career.
“I’m not going to be naive and say I’m not going to think about [the injury], but I think more than anything it will be gratitude and thinking about how much of a blessing the last 364 days have been of going through that and overcoming that and becoming, as I continue to say, a better person and a better player,” said Prescott, who signed a four-year, $160 million contract last March. “Whether the injury happened against [the Giants] at home or not, it is something I think every pregame, every game.
“I think about it just because I’m so blessed to be back out here doing what I love. Whether it’s a year from now or a couple years, five years from now, I’m not going to say I don’t think about it because that’s who I am.”
Prescott loves his scars. They serve as reminders of specific days and moments, good and bad. The scars on his right ankle came from two surgeries he needed after that 9-yard run when Giants defensive back Logan Ryan tackled Prescott with 6:16 left in the third quarter.
Prescott has publicly discussed the injury, the rehabilitation and the comeback, but what was that day like for the other players or those watching at home?
Before the Giants began preparing to play the Cowboys, Ryan believed Prescott was a good quarterback. But he changed his mind after watching film of Prescott throwing for 450, 472 and 502 yards with eight touchdown passes and three interceptions in the previous three games.
“He was playing, I think, at an MVP level,” Ryan told ESPN’s Giants reporter Jordan Raanan.
On the play, Ryan saw Prescott break into the open field.
“He stiff-armed me, I knocked the stiff-arm down, tackled him and then I kind of felt like a, almost like a punt block, like a doof-doof,” Ryan said. “I heard something hit the ground then him hit the ground. We both were quiet. I kind of looked down and saw his foot facing the other way. I kind of got up, like, ‘Whoa,’ and I tried to signal to the trainers.
“But I didn’t hear the crowd. I don’t think anyone knew until 30 seconds after we both knew what happened. I kind of knew right away. It just was surreal. Kind of was a normal tackle, heard a weird noise, looked down, saw his foot … I don’t think it hit me. I don’t think it hit him. He wasn’t screaming. He was looking at it and he actually tried to fix it. He picked up his foot and tried to put it back.”
Ryan may have felt empathy for his opponent. In 2018, he suffered a broken leg with the Tennessee Titans. He knew the impact that kind of injury could have on Prescott, who was playing for a contract while on the $31 million franchise tag in 2020.
After signaling to the New York sideline to get Prescott medical attention, he stayed by the quarterback’s side for a few seconds.
“Understand, I want to win this game as bad as anyone else, but I don’t want to hurt people. That’s not my intention,” Ryan said. “He’s a guy that you can root for. I want to play against him … I don’t know how many times I sat down with an opponent. His team came around and I was right there making sure he knew it wasn’t on purpose. I told him, ‘Stay strong,’ and really told him, ‘What would Kobe [Bryant] do?’ honestly.”
Ryan sent Prescott a note and two books to read during his recovery. One was “Relentless” by Tim Grover, who trained Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers great; Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan; and others, and discussed the traits they share.
“[The book] gave me a lot of answers about myself of why I’m never satisfied,” Prescott said. “Things that I wondered, ‘Am I a little wired wrong?’ or ‘What’s wrong with me?’ [It] gave me answers. When you want to be great, you study greats.”
From the Cowboys’ sideline
The Cowboys had “20” personnel — two running backs, three wide receivers — on the field at the time, so tight end Dalton Schultz wasn’t in the game.
“Dak doesn’t go down and stay down,” Schultz said. “So as soon as I saw him stay down I was like, ‘Uh oh.'”
“I didn’t know what had happened. I thought he maybe just went down with a tweak, like I went down in the game with my ribs,” Cooper said. “Maybe a timeout, those types of things. But people, their reaction was so weird, and I’m like ‘What’s going on?’ They were just like really sad. So I went over there and that’s when I saw it.”
As coach Mike McCarthy walked from the sideline to Prescott, he did what he always does when a player gets hurt.
“I pray,” he said.
McCarthy has coached in 432 NFL games as an assistant coach or head coach. On Feb. 6, 2011, he won a Super Bowl at AT&T Stadium when his Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The reaction in the stadium — how quiet it became, even though only 25,147 people were there as fans because of COVID-19 restrictions — was stunning.
“It shows the love that people have for him and the respect people have for him,” McCarthy said. “To see both sidelines come together like that, the way the crowd reacted, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
As the medical team tended to Prescott, the Cowboys’ equipment staff hastily attached a rib protector to then-backup quarterback Andy Dalton‘s side and made sure his communication system in his helmet was working. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore had to rethink the game plan on the fly.
“Once you kind of realized the ramifications that this was not a sprained ankle in any way, this was the real deal, there was going to be some challenges moving forward,” Moore said. “But we quickly had to kind of get going, get Andy ready to rock and roll, and I think our team responded as well as they could under those circumstances.”
Dalton was sacked on his first play, but two plays later, running back Ezekiel Elliott ran for a 12-yard touchdown to make the score 31-23. It was Elliott’s celebration, however, that struck many. He immediately flashed four fingers, a tribute to his quarterback who wears No. 4.
“It was just kind of natural,” Elliott said.
He said playing right after Prescott was hurt was difficult emotionally.
“We were out there playing for him,” Elliott said. “That’s what he wanted us to do in that moment. … Dak would be pissed if he knew that we were like, if we didn’t use that as motivation rather than letting it be like something that hurt us.”
From the Giants’ sideline
There were so many connections between Prescott and the Giants that day. Like Prescott, Giants coach Joe Judge is a Mississippi State grad. But Prescott shared the closest commonalities with the assistants on Judge’s staff.
Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was Prescott’s first NFL head coach. The two bonded over their successes and failures for four years in Dallas. When Prescott was named Rookie of the Year in 2016, Garrett was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year.
Garrett was by Prescott’s side almost immediately, since the injury occurred a few yards from the Giants sideline. When McCarthy arrived, Garrett put his arm around the person who replaced him.
Giants offensive assistants Derek Dooley and Stephen Brown were on Garrett’s staff in Dallas. Marc Colombo was the Giants’ offensive line coach after a four-year run under Garrett in Dallas, too.
“I don’t know the right words, but just a rush came over me and I immediately went from the O-line part of it and put down my Giants coaching hat and just kind of ran over there,” Colombo said. “I turned white as a ghost. He’s such a tremendous player, but an even better guy, such a leader for what the Cowboys are trying to do.”
When Colombo would bring his daughter, Olivia, or son, Jack, to The Star while coaching for the Cowboys, Prescott would almost always talk to them, give them a high-five or encourage them in some way. That night, Colombo sent Prescott a text, which the quarterback promptly returned.
“He’s tough, man,” Colombo said. “You could tell he was in a lot of pain. … But you know he’s the type of guy who can come back from an injury like that. You never count that guy out. Ever.”
From owner Jerry Jones’ suite
In a normal year, Jones would be in a smaller, private suite a level above the massive midfield suite reserved for other family members and guests. He would be sitting with his sons, Stephen and Jerry Jr. Maybe a grandson or other family members would be there, too.
Because of the pandemic and social distancing rules, the Joneses were in the suite with vice president of player personnel Will McClay and a handful of others. Normally there is assigned seating for certain guests, but this time, the suite may have been less than one-third full.
“The air leaves your body,” McClay said, “because it just means so much to the team. Here’s your unquestioned leader, it’s a COVID season, all of the other conditions and injuries we had…”
McClay doesn’t finish the thought, but the meaning is clear: The Cowboys’ season was forever changed.
CBS’ cameras showed CEO Stephen Jones hugging his wife, Karen.
“The women in the box were crying because it’s such a horrific deal and you feel for Dak,” McClay said. “And the front-office guys, we were that devastated too. The leader is gone.”
Like with Moore on the sideline, however, the job doesn’t stop. In the back of McClay’s mind, he is thinking of potential quarterbacks to add, although they had belief in the veteran Dalton. The Cowboys had rookie Ben DiNucci on the 53-man roster, but they added Garrett Gilbert two days later and signed Cooper Rush to their practice squad two weeks later.
Another quarterback’s perspective
Retired NFL quarterback Alex Smith remembers being at his northern Virginia home, watching the game. Only a few hours earlier, he had made his return with the Washington Football Team from a compound fracture of his right tibia and fibula suffered on Nov. 18, 2018, against the Houston Texans. He required 17 surgeries, mostly to clean up infections that nearly took his life.
When he saw Prescott get hurt, he immediately flashed back to his injury.
“At that point it’s hard to decipher if it’s an ankle or a tib[ia]-fib[ula],” he said. “Obviously everything I’d been through and still kind of making my comeback — to see that happen, I was feeling for him, definitely.”
Smith had a connection with Prescott before the injury. Current Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen was his quarterbacks coach at Utah and Prescott’s head coach at Mississippi State. Smith’s best friend, Brian Johnson, was Prescott’s quarterbacks coach.
“I heard so many amazing things about Dak as a person and player,” Smith said. “I was always such a big fan from afar and got to know him a little bit through the league.”
He thought about reaching out to Prescott immediately after the injury, but, “I didn’t want to project onto Dak my injury and the infections on his injury.” Eventually they communicated, and continue to do so through Mullen and Johnson, who is now the Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach. Prescott has said Smith’s return has been inspirational to his recovery.
If anyone understood what Prescott was feeling as he was carted off the field, it was Smith.
“There are so many variables people don’t realize,” Smith said. “I remember I broke my leg and I’m sitting on the field, ‘Oh, the doctors will put me back together and I’ll be back for spring ball.’ I distinctly remember thinking that. I remember being super bummed I broke my leg, but the doctors will put me back together. Spring ball was all that was in my head. We just don’t know.”
Prescott was back on the field practicing in the spring after his surgery and he is thriving. Smith marveled at his play in the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It’s crazy but one thing I don’t feel like America has a great understanding of or appreciates is getting hit,” Smith said. “We play tackle football for a living as a quarterback. We wear this jersey in practice so we don’t get contacted, we don’t get touched. I didn’t have a preseason last year. Dak didn’t have a preseason this year. So as we all watched in live TV, one of the biggest stages in the kickoff game against the defending champs, we saw him overcome that last hurdle and break down that last mental wall before our eyes.”
Maybe Sunday will be Prescott’s last hurdle, 364 days after getting hurt.
“I didn’t have to play the Texans again so it would be hard for me to speak on that, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t remember the hit. Kareem Jackson and J.J. Watt,” Smith said of the hit that broke his leg. “I’d be lying saying it wouldn’t be weird lining up from those guys again, but I didn’t have to play them, either.
“[Dak] has already played in that stadium, so I think he’s crossed that bridge. To play that opponent again, I’m sure it’s in his psyche somewhere. I don’t think it’s quite the hurdle as getting tackled again or playing on that field again, especially the way he’s playing now. I’m sure he’s moved beyond it.”