FRISCO, Texas – 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.
An outside contender for MVP, Prescott completed 67.8% of his passes for 3,667 yards, posted a 23:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and ran for 282 yards and six rushing scores.
He tied Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the most victories all-time for a rookie starter (13). He established a new high in rookie QB rating (104.9), and a new low in rookie interception rate (0.9 %). He became only the second player – and first rookie – in NFL history to surpass 3,500 passing yards and throw fewer than five interceptions in one season.
The only other person to do so? Tom Brady.
“His instincts and understanding of the game,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan tells USA TODAY Sports, “is off the charts and way beyond what a rookie should be doing.”
Prescott and the Cowboys plowed through their schedule to a 13-3 campaign (tying the franchise record), to the NFC’s No. 1 seed, and to expectations that the franchise should compete for Super Bowls – this postseason and beyond.
“That’s the easiest way to get accepted,” Prescott says. “If you’re good on the field, f— yeah people are going to want to follow you. They want to hang out with you because you’ve got success. The rest of the stuff, it can’t be taught.”
Romo had a day off. Backup Kellen Moore had broken his ankle in the first week of training camp, which meant that on this day, Prescott would play all first-team reps.
Prescott flung a back-shoulder toss to Dez Bryant at the front pylon. Bryant didn’t quite come back to the ball the way Prescott thought he should, so the ball skipped across the grass incomplete.
The rookie pulled the veteran aside, and without showing Bryant up, informed him that he didn’t run the route properly.
A rookie in his first training camp telling an all-pro receiver how to run a route? Gasoline, meet fire. That Prescott was instructing the animated, mercurial, and often-heated Bryant only heightened that.
But Bryant listened.
“It takes a lot of courage, or whatever the word is – personal confidence – to go up to a Dez Bryant and say that,” Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson tells USA TODAY Sports.
Showers opts for another word: “ballsy.”
Prescott earned his degree at Mississippi State in educational psychology and completed a mostly-online master’s degree in workforce leadership.
He’s a people watcher and is fascinated by differences in characters and how relationships are formed, how different people pursue their goals.
Once he retires from the NFL, Prescott wants to become a sports psychologist or coach.
From the moment he stepped into this building after the team drafted him in the fourth round with the 135th overall pick, he started analyzing people. At first, he didn’t say much. He was still a rookie, after all. But once he started to build confidence, he formed relationships and asked questions. Now, he has a pulse on everyone.
“My psychology classes helped me figure out, when somebody is having a bad day, how is he going to react to me motivating him differently than Dez will react to me motivating him differently?” Prescott says. “Or what gets Dez fired up versus what gets Zeke fired up? I can read them and know it’s not the same.”
It was the rookie’s worst game. He completed only 17 of 37 attempts for 165 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. It reignited the debate: Romo or Dak?
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones fanned the hot takes on his weekly radio show when he said it was a “legitimate discussion” whether to start Romo.
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, a man with serious sway in this part of the country, said he was “dumbfounded” by Jones’ comments.
Prescott says he heard the noise, was aware of it, but tried to go about his routine as best as he could. In front of reporters, he deflected.
Privately, however, some people close to Prescott wished Jones would’ve thrown his full support behind the rookie.
“That week, I had a little extra juice than I had the week before,” Prescott says. “I knew what was going on. I didn’t really pay attention to the he said, she said. Troy said this, Jerry said that. I knew the best way to handle it was to work my ass off, play one of my best games, and win.”
Jones later admitted to The Wall Street Journal that it “probably is intentional” that he stirred up the debate to drum interest in his team.
Prescott responded by going 32-for-36 for 279 yards in a 26-20 victory over Tampa Bay and 15-for-20 for 212 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 42-21 victory over the Detroit Lions.
“When I bounced back, I wasn’t surprised,” Prescott says, “but it was a relief.”
So what’s next?
Once the season ends, Prescott is planning on taking a break.
“That’s my time to get my body back right, to kind of re-humble,” Prescott says. “I know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be: ‘Can he do it again?’ Or ‘Was that a fluke season?’ I know all the things that are going to be said. That’s just going to flip my switch a little higher to show I’m never complacent in anything. I want to win the Super Bowl. But I want to make sure I put myself in a situation to do it again.”
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes