I remember when I truly learned what it meant to be a Dallas Cowboy. It was January 1993, my third season with the team, and we were getting ready to play the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game. One game away from my first Super Bowl — the ultimate dream.
The last time the Cowboys played the 49ers in the playoffs was in the NFC championship game in 1982. If you don’t remember that game, I have two words that will help you:
I’m sorry you had to watch that, Cowboys fans. I really am. But I’m showing it to you for a reason: The pain you feel watching that — and the pain felt by Tony Dorsett, Danny White and the other Cowboys on the field that day — came to the forefront during the week leading up to the 1993 NFC championship rematch.
In fact, the entire history of this great organization was on display that whole week. The atmosphere in the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex was incredible.
A lot like it is right now.
Everywhere you went, and on every TV and radio station, you heard stories of the great Cowboys teams of the ’70s that went to five Super Bowls and won two rings. The teams that went to three straight NFC championship games in the early ’80s. Legends like Dorsett, Tom Landry, Mel Renfro, Roger Staubach — the list goes on. And hearing all that history and seeing the whole region rally around our team really showed me what a special organization I was a part of.
Not that I needed it. I already knew in my heart how special it was to be a Cowboy. But it takes on a whole new meaning when you see it come to life like that.
We were a young team, and it made us realize that we were playing for something much bigger than ourselves.
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There was a lot of talk going into that game about how we were too young and inexperienced to beat San Francisco, a dynasty that had won four Super Bowls in the ’80s and was vying for its fifth in 11 years. And I would be lying if I said that we didn’t feel the pressure. We definitely understood and respected our opponent, and we also felt the weight of the Cowboys’ history throughout the week.
Which brings me to game day at Candlestick Park.
Just before the game started, I was on the sidelines as our captains prepared to walk out to midfield for the coin toss. Among those captains was Cowboys legend Roger Staubach, and I remember looking at him on the sidelines. That was when I first truly felt the exhilaration — and the pressure — of representing this legendary franchise. When I realized, That’s the history. That’s the legacy. That’s what we’re playing for.
And he was right there among my teammates and myself.
That was a special moment for me. But it didn’t last long, because we were minutes away from kickoff. And once it came time to take the field and play the game, my teammates and I forgot about the pressure and the history and all that. We all looked at each other and realized, Hey, we’re pretty good. Who cares if we’re inexperienced? Who cares if they’re a dynasty? We deserve to be here, and we deserve to win.
And then we went out there and we played carefree. We felt no pressure whatsoever.
And we won, 30–20.
Funny story: One of our offensive tackles, the late Mark Tuinei, was next to me after the game when we were shaking hands with the 49ers, and he saw Jesse Sapolu, San Francisco’s center and a good friend of his. During the week leading up to the game, Jesse had said that the road to the Super Bowl ran through San Francisco.
When Mark saw Jesse after the game, he reached out, shook Jesse’s hand and said, “Thanks for the directions.”
That moment — and that game in general — was something I’ll never forget. And if I had a message to send to this year’s team, it would be to do what we did when we let all the pressure wash away and just went out there and played our game.
Embrace the moment. Enjoy the journey. Go out there and play the game the way you know how. Have faith in the things that got you that point.
Because you deserve to be here. You deserve to win.
And you can become champions.
This Cowboys team is a lot like that ’92 Super Bowl team. It’s a good mix of veterans, led by Jason Witten, a guy who will go down as an all-time great Cowboy, and young guys, led by Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott.
The thing that has impressed me most about Zeke is that he has been able to master the biggest challenge for a running back who’s jumping from college to the NFL, and that’s to slow the game down. Zeke not only understands defenses and what they’re trying to do to stop him, but he also slows the game down in his mind to the point where he can process information in real time and impose his will. That’s something that’s much easier said than done. Just ask any running back.
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And watching Dak’s transition to the NFL has been remarkable because he’s made it look so easy.
But before I get into that, let me tell you a story.
The first time I really got to meet Dak was Thanksgiving weekend, when my brothers, my son and I were taking a tour of the Star, the Cowboys’ new training facility and headquarters, which had recently opened. I honestly didn’t know a whole lot about him at that point. I had just seen a special feature on Dak on TV when Dallas played on Thanksgiving Day. The piece was about the incredible relationship he had with his mother, and how she had passed away while he was in college. Aside from that — and the fact that he had been playing phenomenal football — I really didn’t know much.
We visited the facility on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Dak was about to walk into a team meeting when he saw me. He stopped, turned and ran up to shake my hand. I remember thinking how engaging he was — very polite, very mature and with a big smile. We had a brief conversation before he went on to his meetings and I went on with my tour of the facility.
While we were there, my mom was back at my house in Dallas. She had been visiting me and my family for Thanksgiving.
The following day, on Sunday, November 27, my mother, Mary Smith, passed away.
Now, I won’t even begin to try to describe that pain. To know that I’ll never hear my mother’s voice again … it’s impossible to put that into words.
But I remember a couple of days later, sitting at the funeral parlor after the viewing. It was just me, my family and my mother, and the room was filled with flowers. I made it a point to walk around the room and read every card on every bouquet — cards from friends, family, former teammates, the Dallas Cowboys. I wanted to silently thank each and every one of them for their condolences.
Or maybe I just didn’t want to leave my mom….
After about an hour, I walked out of the funeral parlor, and another batch of flowers was being delivered. My sister was there to receive them, but I had had enough for one day, so I just went out to my car to head home.
As I was walking through the mostly empty parking lot, I heard my sister behind me, calling out to me from the funeral parlor door.
She came running out toward me, and when she got close enough, she reached out and handed me one last card.
He had sent flowers because he wanted to let my family know that he was thinking about us in our time of grief.
I was completely shocked. I never expected that. It was such a small gesture, but for him to take the time to even think about me and my family during that time spoke volumes about his character and the kind of man he is.
I remember thinking, This kid is special.
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The next time I saw Dak in person was a couple of weeks later on the sidelines at AT&T Stadium, and I immediately thanked him for his gracious gesture.
He simply shook my hand and looked me straight in the eyes.
“No problem,” he said. “I understand what you were going through.”
In that moment, I felt a particular connection between us. I mean, we had been connected in a few ways before my mom had passed. He had watched me play when he was a kid, and sometimes he would pretend he was me on the field. We’re both SEC alums. We’re both Dallas Cowboys.
But now we were connected in another way. We were part of a club we’d each rather not be in.
A club made up of men who have lost their mothers.
Now, in the spiritual world, we say that things don’t just happen. So when something ironic occurs, or something feels like a coincidence, we don’t think of it as just happenstance.
So I don’t think me running into Dak the day before my mother passed was mere coincidence. I think it was something more.
And then to see how he handled my mother’s passing — with a small note and a simple gesture to let me know that there was somebody out there who knew exactly how I felt — really told me how mature and thoughtful he is, and how much he pays attention to detail.
Which is also a perfect reflection of how he approaches the game of football.
The maturity he has shown to come in and be coachable is one of the main factors behind his success. His ability to understand defenses and read coverages is phenomenal, but those skills are useless if you don’t also possess the humility it takes to admit what you don’t know, and to listen to guys like Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan and Tony Romo.
And if you want to talk about maturity and leadership, you don’t have to look much further than Tony Romo.
As saddened as I am that Tony wasn’t able to stay healthy, and that he finds himself taking a back seat to a young quarterback, I’ve also gained a tremendous amount of respect for him because of the way that he has handled everything. He didn’t cry about it or demand a trade or cause a scene. He handled it like a true professional. He put the team first, and he’s been there to support Dak in every way possible. And that is something to be admired.
As a competitor, I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must for him. But whether he plays a snap during these playoffs or not, his fingerprints are all over this team, and he’s a huge part of its success.
Michael Ainsworth/AP Images
At the end of the day, Dak and Zeke aren’t your average rookies. I think anybody who has watched them play knows that, and anybody who has gotten the opportunity to meet them and see what they’re really all about definitely knows that. So when it comes to the pressure of playing in the postseason — that same pressure that I felt seeing the legend Roger Staubach on our sideline — they are primed to handle it, and they have a cast of veterans right there with them who are ready to help lead the Cowboys back to promised land.
Just remember, boys….
You deserve to be here.
You deserve to win.
And you can become champions.
So put your blinders on and focus on each other. Don’t worry about the Cowboys’ history. Go make your own history. This is your moment. Go out there and do what you do, and do it your way. Trust in what has gotten you here.
And go get your ring.