Just a year after he was drafted, Dak Prescott is the leader of the most valuable franchise in the NFL. Its a job that requires more than a good arm: The Cowboys QB has to be part athlete, part CEO, and part statesman. So how is Prescott handling the pressure? Michael J. Mooney caught up with him over a pre-season round of golf to find out.
As a kid growing up in rural Louisiana, Dak Prescott never expected hed be a golfer. But here he is, not long before his second season as quarterback for the Cowboys, hitting the links with a bunch of rich white guys. He looks surprisingly comfortable among the duffers and weekend warriors.
The event, a friendly tournament at a golf course in the suburbs of Dallas, pairs players and coaches with representatives from the Cowboys corporate sponsors. Prescott is set up with five guys from Ford. Theyre all better than he isPrescott played his first round ever a month agoso theyre competing to see who can give him the best advice on how to correct his swing, which is powerful but often sends the ball deep into the woods. These men would love to impress him, to offer him the perfect tip, the kind that gets them a second date with the football hero. Who wouldnt want to be friends with the most popular man in North Texas?
The vibe is more raucous than at your average golf outing, and most of the participants are drinking. When I first find Prescott, at a concession stand between holes, he is downing a shot with the Ford guys as a DJ nearby blares pop and hip-hop. Its difficult to tell whether Prescott is genuinely enjoying the party or just fulfilling an obligation, but as he told me, A lot of quarterback business takes place on the golf course. Less than a year ago, he was a third-stringer moving into a new condo in Dallas and hoping he wouldnt be stuck on the bench the whole season. Now hes here, the focus of everyones attention and the centerpiece of the Cowboys operation, in head-to-toe golf attire. All part of his new job description.
Prescott is coming off a ridiculous rookie season, when at 23 years old, the fourth-round draft pick stepped in when Tony Romo went down in the pre-season. Everyone figured Romo would come back once he was healthy again, but Prescott was too good to pull. He led the Cowboys to the best record in the conferenceand picked up an Offensive Rookie of the Year award for himself along the way. Now, with Romo retired, Prescott is the new face and foundation of the biggest, most visible, most valuable sports franchise in the world. He is the freshly anointed prince of the NFL. Two different members of the Cowboys PR team told me that Prescott is a dream come true.
On the football field, the combination of Prescotts big arm and his ability to bowl men over like a fullback befuddles defensive coordinators. More than that, though, he does all the little things right. His best play may actually be a handoff: The way he follows through with his play-fake fools even the camera operators, and getting a linebacker to pause for just that millisecond can be the difference between running back Ezekiel Elliott picking up a big gain or getting stuffed at the line.
For Cowboys fansand I am one of themthis feels like the dawn of a new era, the creation of the teams next great dynasty. After suffering through two decades of promising players and teams that ultimately disappointed in the end, though, we have watched Prescotts rise with fear as well as giddiness. Is he a future championsomeone to stand up alongside Troy Aikman and Roger Staubachor a future flameout?
As the Cowboys PR team starts to pull Prescott away, [the golfer John] Daly tells him, Dont turn out like me.
Prescott tells me he thinks about the doubters all the time, the ones who say he must have some tragic flaw waiting to reveal itself. If anything, he says, its given me more motivation by them saying that.
In person, hes unfailingly upbeat and on message. He studied psychology in college and has a masters degree in workforce leadership. At times he sounds more like a management consultant than a football player. He doesnt use the words sponsorship or endorsement. Instead he talks about multi-year relationships with corporations.
Still, theres a goofiness to Prescott that can be either endearing or worrisome. There are moments when I remember that hes just a year or so out of college, like when he does shots on a golf course, or when he hops out of the cart and dances in the grass as the DJ plays No Diggity. He grins, both hands in the air, as he grinds so badly that its obvious hes trying to get a laugh. Are those warning signs of immaturity, or simply a guy having a good time?
Early in the round, when the golfers are all on the green putting, someone notices that a raccoon has wandered out of the woods and onto one of the golf carts, looking for snacks. When he sees it, Prescott walks toward the animal, which scurries under a nearby bridge.
Youve eaten raccoons bigger than him! one of the Ford guys calls out. Its a strange comment, but Prescott doesnt react.
As the quarterback moves in for a closer look, it occurs to the rest of the men in the group that raccoons are mostly nocturnal. And if its up and moving during the day, it might be rabid. And if anyone walks away from this golf course with rabies today, it definitely cannot be Dak Prescott.
By the time the group catches up to him, hes only a few feet from the raccoon, and hes feeding it salt-and-vinegar potato chips. Each time he tosses a chip, the raccoon picks it up and devours it, and Prescott smiles like a little boy.
As the Cowboys were racking up victories last yearat one point they won 11 games in a rowPrescotts overcoming-adversity creation story became a kind of echoing lore: He grew up in a trailer, the youngest of three boys living with a single mother, Peggy, who managed a truck stop. Prescott remembers that even though they didnt always have enough money to pay the electricity bill, his mother would still take care of the neighborhood kids who were having trouble at home. We could probably count on two or three hands how many of my friends and my brothers friends call her Mom, he tells me.
He learned to play football in a field near the trailer park, taught by his elder brothers, and by the time he was in high school, he was cut like an Olympic sprinter. (Hes six feet two, 238 pounds now.) Football was always a part of the familys life. Peggy, a voracious fan of the game, became a fixture in the bleachers at Haughton High School, cheering on all three of her sons.
Prescott was a freshman at Mississippi State when Peggy was diagnosed with colon cancer. She didnt tell him at first, his brothers have said, because she knew how hard he would take it. After he found out, he would come back home on holidays and long weekends to be with his mother.
When she died, in November 2013, during his sophomore year at Mississippi State, he flew home and missed two practices, but he didnt miss the next game. He went on that year to lead the Bulldogs to their first-ever number one national ranking. His performance on the field in the midst of tragedy made him a hero on campus.
Hes used his new platform with the Cowboys to advocate for cancer research, teaming up with the Ready Raise Rise campaign to support developments in immuno-oncology. During the run-up to the playoffs last year, Prescott talked about his mother frequently. He says he can hear her voice when hes not training hard enough, and its because of her that hes not worried about success changing him. I know what she would say: Get your head out of your ass.
Prescott tells me that although he grew up a Cowboys fan, one of the most memorable games he ever watched was the Monday Night Football game Brett Favre and the Packers played the day after Favres father died. Prescott remembers his mom telling him at some point that if that ever happened to her, she wanted him to do the same thing.
Let me be your story, she told him. All the greats have one.
As they progress around the course, Prescott and the other golfers stop and sample the goodies at the different sponsor tents. At one hole, theres a big Ford truck, tricked out with the Cowboys logo. The Ford guys know Prescott drives an Escalade, and theyd all like to get him to switch brands. Prescott, who now has a dip of tobacco behind his lower lip, says he likes the idea of driving a big Ford King Ranch series. There are promises to talk about it later.
At one point, a young woman who works for the clubhouse approaches in a golf cart. She sees Prescott, then looks at her phone, then back up at the quarterback.
Whats your name? she asks, squinting a bit. Prescott decides to have a little fun with her.
Wide receiver Cole Beasley says that Prescott has completely changed the culture of the Cowboys locker room. Last year, youd come in and get your work done, and youd go home as soon as you could. Now people want to stick around and hang out.
Im looking for Dak Prescott, she says.
He points to the youngest of his five golfing companions, a few feet away. Thats Dak Prescott.
The woman turns and looks incredulously at this much smaller man.
Thats Dak Prescott? she says.
Im Dak Prescott? the man asks Prescott.
The woman says that she was told by her boyfriend that she should go get a picture with the quarterback of the Cowboys. Prescott, seeming to tire of his own joke, relents and admits that hes the one shes looking for. The woman runs her hand through her hair, lifts her phonePrescott presents the perfect automated smileand off she goes.
Near the end of the golf round, Stephen Jones, the number two executive in the Cowboys organization behind his father, Jerry, stops by to see if his star player is having a good time. He shakes Prescotts hand and pats his shoulder several times and tells him that hes acquired some new toys from the most recent draft. After Jones leaves, Prescott spits out the rest of the tobacco and rinses his mouth out with a can of Dos Equis. Hes also sipping from a Styrofoam cup from time to time, but in the hours Im with him, he never seems drunk.
Alcohol has become a bit of a sensitive issue for him. Since coming to the Cowboys, Prescott has been careful not to make headlines off the field, but he had two incidents in college that almost derailed his career. Shortly after Prescott took a spring-break trip to Panama City Beach, Florida, in 2015, videos surfaced that showed him in a lopsided fight in a parking lot there. In one clip, as Prescotts attackers scatter, he has trouble standing up. Its hard to tell how intoxicated he might have been.
Nearly a year to the day after the spring-break beating, Prescott was arrested for DUI near the Mississippi State campus, just two days after a lackluster performance for NFL scouts. He reportedly failed a field sobriety test, and he has admitted that hed been drinking, but he swears he wasnt drunk. He went to trial in municipal court and was acquitted, but not before his stock in the upcoming NFL draft took a hit. He seemed too risky a bet for most general managers. Despite Prescotts success at Mississippi State, he was the eighth quarterback selected. Every team passed on him at least once.
Back at the clubhouse, Prescott gets an unexpected reminder of the effect that alcohol can have on an athletes career. The professional golfer John Daly is here and would like to meet him. Daly was one of golfs most promising young talents before his behavior eventually got him suspended from the PGA tour. Today hes wearing shower sandals and silver shorts with the Cowboys blue-star logo blasted over every square inch. He introduces himself to Prescott, then introduces a few of his buddies, all middle-aged chubby white men he jokingly refers to as kegs with legs.
Its not clear how much of Dalys backstory Prescott knowsthe golfer once spent a night in jail after passing out drunk at a Hootersbut the NFL handlers here look extremely uncomfortable with this meeting. As the Cowboys PR team starts to pull Prescott away, Daly tells him, Dont turn out like me.
Before he leaves the golf course for the day, Prescott makes a point of seeking out head coach Jason Garrett and inviting him to a charity fund-raiser at a jewelry store in Dallas later that night. After talking to Garrett for a minute or two, he finds running back Darren McFadden and invites him, too. You can buy your girl something, and its a write-off, Prescott says. Its for my mom.
Then he finds Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott told me he thinks of Elliott, a fellow finalist for last years Rookie of the Year award, as a little brother. (When Prescott won the award, he brought Elliott onstage with him to share the honor.) He has been careful not to publicly criticize Elliott, who is being investigated by the NFL for domestic-abuse allegations, but he told reporters recently, I take pride in helping him out [both] on and off the field.
At the golf tournament, he gives Elliott the same spiel about the fund-raiser that he gave to his other teammates. Its a testament to how highly Elliott regards Prescott that he shows up that night, with what seems like very little notice, to support his QB.
Veteran wide receiver Cole Beasley says that Prescott has completely changed the culture of the Cowboys locker room. Last year, youd come in and get your work done, and youd go home as soon as you could, he tells me. He doesnt say Romos name, but the implication seems clear. Now people want to stick around and hang out.
Prescott clearly takes his leadership role seriously. He often says teammates need to be more than merely co-workers. They need to be like brothers: A guy will play a whole lot better for his brother than he will a co-worker. When it really matters, when adversity, when success, when either one of them hits, hes going to play a whole lot better for the person who knows about his everyday life, his mom, his dad, his brothers, sisters, son, whatever it may be.
Some of what Prescott says about leadership sounds like it comes straight out of a textbook, but its also effective. For evidence, you need look no further than last years playoff matchup against Green Bay. Prescott looked like a young Tom Brady as he led the Cowboys back from an 18-point deficit. And though his team lost on a last-second field goal, nobody in the world would pin that loss on Prescott.
The teams cohesion may also explain one of Prescotts greatest virtues as quarterback: He almost never throws interceptions. He didnt throw a single pick in his first five games last season, despite throwing more than 150 passes in that timea new rookie recordand he threw only four interceptions all year.
Having Dez Bryant as a receiver helps, but Romo had Bryant and still managed, in one season, to throw a league-worst 19 picks. When Prescott does throw an interception, he immediately wonders what hes done wrongnot in football, but in life. He believes if he lives a certain way, his passes wont be intercepted and the lucky breaks will go his way.
When youre supposed to throw a pickthat is, when you miss your targetand your guy catches it? To me, that shit doesnt happen unless youre living right, he says. That means focusing on football, studying film, being good to your teammates. By contrast, he says, If youre living wrong, you throw a great pass, the receiver somehow drops it, and the other guys gonna pick it off.
If Prescott werent about to start his second season as quarterback of the Cowboys, with all of the football world watching his every move, it would be easy to dismiss the few blemishes on his record as the actions of a pretty normal young man. After all, plenty of college students get into fights, especially during spring break, and he was acquitted of the DUI. Its also true that most of the time, give or take a rowdy day on the golf course, its the disciplined version of Prescott that appears in public.
A few weeks after the golf tournament, Prescott and I meet up in New York after he appeared on Good Morning America for Ready Raise Rise. Sitting in his dressing room after a photo shoot later that day, we are, before either of us realize it, going down a list of some of the hypothetical problems that could potentially derail his young career.
I ask about his relationship with his father. With all the profiles that talk about his mother, his father almost never comes up. He tells me they have a good relationship. Hes the reason Dak grew up as a Cowboys fan, even though he lived in Saints country. He says his father recently moved to Dallas and continues to help me take care of things that I need him to.
I ask if he ever grows weary of the general awkwardness involved in being who he is, with so many people wanting to make friends. I ask if he remembers the guy yelling that hed probably eaten raccoons, and if that was weird for him. He says he wasnt offended at all.
I mean, Ive eaten squirrels and a lot of probably different things, but I hadnt eaten a raccoon, he says.
Then I ask about alcohol. I ask him what he would say, as someone who has studied psychology, about someone who had two serious alcohol-related incidents in the span of a year.
Yeah, he says, Id say more that its not necessarily the alcohol. The fight in Florida, he says, was about not being aware of his surroundings. Its knowing that Im in Panama City and Im around a bunch of people that do not have the same agenda. A second later he adds, Theres some people that dislike me for no reason whatsoever, and I cant control that.
He says on the night he got arrested for the DUIeven though he wasnt drunk and hes been fully clearedhe put himself in a bad situation and could have easily had someone else drive. As brutal as one of them was, and as almost career-threatening as one of them was, I dont regret either one of them at all, he tells me. Because they taught me something. Ill never make the same mistake in life.
I ask if hes ever considered giving up drinking. He doesnt answer directly.
It could have been more avoidable, he says. To me its about avoiding and eliminating factors that got you there.
He says hes not worried about falling into the traps of fame, because of the way his mother raised him, and because he feels like shes still with him. He says that even when hes finishing a workout, he wonders if shed find the effort he put in acceptable. He doesnt want to let her down.
As a Cowboys fan, Im ready to believe that Prescotts antics are just youthful misstepsthat they might, indeed, be evidence of a sort of exuberance that could help him handle the pressure of leading the team. But Im also nervous about anything that might tempt fate.
Prescott, though, doesnt seem worried. He keeps saying all the right things, doing what the Cowboys ask of him, acting as the face and voice of his team with no apparent anxiety. As he sits there, jacket off and arms spread wide against the back of the couch, I ask him if he ever gets tired of all of the appearances and the interviews. Hes told me before that hes actually kind of an introvertmost nights hed rather be at home playing video games with some friends. He looks over at me.
You dont want my honest answer, he says.
No, I do, I say. It feels like the ever cool prince might finally break character and actually complain. He thinks about it for just a second. Theres something on his mind, and hes quickly calculating whether he should say it out loud.
No, he says. I mean, its been just He pauses again and looks at the two PR reps sitting at the other end of the room. Then he starts his sentence over: As long as Im busy, Im good. There hasnt been too much lag time, so Im actually fine with it.
For a split second, it looked like Dak Prescott might make a mistake. But not today.
Michael J. Mooney is the author of The Life and Legend of Chris Kyle.
This story originally appeared in the September 2017 issue with the title Americas QB.
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