At the end of the locker room at the palatial facility of the Dallas Cowboys sits a room with a hidden set of cubicles.
Teammate Cole Beasley strolls by, on his way to the shower.
“Whassup, Pops?” Dak Prescott calls out.
Beasley nods in stride, and then disappears behind a wall.
Prescott lounges on the padded leather seat of an unassigned locker. It’s Thursday of Week 17. One of the most prolific regular seasons for a rookie in NFL history will soon be his, and Prescott is reflecting on how he took control of the most valuable sports franchise in the world.
The clearest example comes in the form of another unexpected visitor, different from Beasley in one obvious way.
“Come on, bruh,” says practice squad tight end Rico Gathers. “You can’t just come back here and take my other locker.”
“What?” Prescott replies. “You got your stuff back here, too?”
Gathers, sliding open a drawer to uncover body wash, lotions, and other toiletries stashed away from teammates, says: “This is my s— right here.”
Beasley is a 27-year-old white receiver from Houston. Gathers is 24 and from LaPlace, La., but black. The gift Prescott has is the ability to bond with both.
“I grew up in Haughton, Louisiana,” Prescott tells USA TODAY Sports. “I go to my white grandparents’ house, and then I cross the railroad tracks and hang out with my black grandma. We have English teachers on my white side. My grandpa is a principal. And then you go to the other side and people have been in jail.
“I was put in all those different situations. I’ve been in situations where I was the only black guy. We’re in a time now where nobody wants to see that. But it still happens. Depending on where you come from, it happens. To be able to wipe that clean and see and live both sides, it’s just who I am. Being mixed allows me to connect with everyone.”
NFL locker rooms are fragile. They’re almost like organisms. They have their structure, their hierarchy, and sometimes – if disrupted a certain way – they crumble. That’s what makes Prescott’s rise remarkable. When he arrived, there was a well-paid, well-liked player. A favorite of the team’s owner, too.
Now, Tony Romo is an insurance policy, one likely playing his last season in Dallas.
One day during offseason workouts, Cowboys coaches furrowed their brows at Prescott in confusion. At first he didn’t know why. But later, he figured it out.
During a pre-practice stretch period, when Wiz Khalifa’s We Dem Boyz pulsed through the speakers, Prescott rapped every verse. Minutes later, when the guitar of George Strait’s All My Exes Live in Texas twanged through, Prescott swayed along and belted the chorus louder than anyone else on the field.
“Being bi-racial and being from the country, I can talk to guys like Travis Frederick from Wisconsin and Doug Free from Wisconsin,” Prescott says of two offensive linemen on the Cowboys.
“And then I can go over and talk to Dez Bryant. I mean, think about the two different standpoints you need to have a real conversation with both, to really understand what they’ve been through. I don’t think many can do it. For me, it’s not hard. I’m blessed because it’s natural.”
This is not to say that white or black players cannot assimilate into NFL locker rooms as quickly or as easily as multi-racial players. But Prescott slips in and out of different forms of self-identification in a way others never could. So when Romo writhed in pain during Week 3 of the preseason with a broken bone in his back, a void formed that Prescott quickly filled because teammates saw him work, saw his success. He fostered trust, and he clicked with damn near everybody in this building.
“Not to crap on Tony, because he has done so much for this team,” says one white Cowboys player who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic. “But no matter how hard he’ll try, there are just some things that he can’t do, some ways that he can’t connect with some of the guys in here like Dak can.”
Multiple factors are at play. Prescott is only 23. On a roster whose average age is 26, Prescott’s youth is another commonality. But after speaking to multiple players, Prescott’s race came up – unprompted – in nearly every single conversation as one of the fundamental reasons why he has become one of the team’s unquestioned leaders.
“People who were raised in an all-white town, it’s hard for them to relate to black people or other cultures,” says safety Jameill Showers, another multi-racial Cowboys player. “That’s why you can sometimes see divides in locker rooms. Dak gets a feel for both sides to know what he can and can’t relate to – what is and isn’t offensive.”
Also significant is the approval from some of the team’s notable figures. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, veteran tight end Jason Witten, and Bryant have all vouched for the rookie. Prescott has even befriended Cowboys of the lowest rank, calling practice squad receiver Andy Jones one of his best friends on the team.
When Romo made his first remarks after Prescott shot to stardom, on Nov. 15, he heaped praise on Prescott, saying he “earned the right to be our quarterback.”
Prescott’s ability to connect and motivate, however, would be nothing if not for what he does after the ball is snapped.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Lorenzo Reyes