This is the first in a series from The MMQB about people in and around the NFL who have been affected by cancer.
FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott is holding a silver marker in his right hand and standing over a table covered in piles of No. 4 Cowboys jerseys. It’s two days before a home game against the Packers, and this 24-year-old is staying late at work on a Friday afternoon, signing his name over and over.
He doesn’t mind; his only concern is when his hand slips and his signature zig-zags off the blue number on one jersey. He’s wondering if he should try to fix it? Don’t worry, a team staffer quickly assures him. There are plenty more. With a few piles down and several more piles to go, Prescott shrugs. “This is easy,” he says.
This unflappable attitude has distinguished Prescott ever since he arrived in the Dallas area, the fourth-round draft pick who was thrust into a starting role in the first game of his pro career, and played so well that he couldn’t be taken off the field even after Tony Romo returned from his back injury. Prescott’s second season has presented different challenges, a 2–3 start after last year’s 13-3 record, but the pressure of being the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys doesn’t compare to the conversation he had in the summer of 2012 before his redshirt freshman year of college: His mom, Peggy, broke the news to her youngest son that she had Stage 4 colon cancer. “If you’re not tripping,” Prescott replied, “I’m not tripping.”
Peggy Prescott succumbed to the disease in November 2013, just as her son’s star on the football field was taking off. After her death, he would catapult Mississippi State to the No. 1 ranking for five weeks during the fall of 2014, and he’d earn the most important job in Dallas, where he changed his jersey to No. 4 in honor of Peggy’s birthday. If you know anything about Prescott, you almost certainly know about his mom. That’s how Prescott wants it to be.
He was his mom’s greatest motivation during her battle against cancer, as Peggy looked forward to the trips to Starkville, Miss., for home games, even as she lost her hair from chemotherapy and was weakened to the point of needing to be pushed into the stadium in a wheelchair. In turn, Peggy’s memory underlies everything her son does, from the notes on his phone he writes her the night before games to his openly sharing with a stranger the fact that he’ll be getting regular colonoscopies starting at age 40 and has considered doing genetic testing to assess his own cancer risk.
“After my mom got sick, she told me, ‘Allow me to be your story. All the greats have a story,’ ” Prescott says. “At that time I was like, ‘Hell no, I don't need a story if that means my mom is sick.’ But fast forward, and that's what I'm going to do. Because that was her—I wouldn't say wish—that was moreso her command to me.”
Prescott knew something was wrong one night in August 2012 when he received a text from his mom: Give me a call when you can. Peggy and Dak had an especially close bond—he was the youngest of her three boys, and after his parents divorced when he was a toddler, she tried to be mom, dad and coach all in one. In their mobile home near Haughton, La., his two brothers slept in one bedroom, while Dak and his mom shared the other room until he was in high school. So, in other words, if this were a normal phone call, she would have just called.
Prescott called her back from the hotel where the Mississippi State football team was staying during training camp. Peggy, who was several hours and one state away, had already told the assistant coach who’d recruited him, John Hevesy, the news she was breaking that day. Her two older sons already knew; and Dak’s father; and her parents, brother and sisters; and Dak’s high school coach, too. She put off telling her youngest boy because she didn’t want to disrupt his studies or football aspirations—but she knew she needed to tell him before the season started.
Peggy found out about the cancer after she had been experiencing fatigue and shortness of breath from walking short distances or a single flight of stairs. “My mom was funny as it gets,” Prescott says. “She was like, I know I’m overweight, but sh--, I’m not that out of shape.” She was always on the go, making all of her kids’ games as they were growing up and working at two different truck stops as a manager. Finally, she’d gone to see her doctor, and that’s when they found that her red-blood cell counts were dangerously low. Her habit of picking up a bag of ice at Sonic on her way to work suddenly made sense—craving ice is a symptom of anemia. With further testing, they discovered the underlying reason: A mass in her colon.
Over the next 15 months, Prescott experienced the roller coaster cancer patients and their families unwillingly ride. Peggy had the tumor removed through surgery, but the cancer had metastasized to her lungs and liver. Peggy began chemotherapy, trying one treatment until it was proven ineffective, and then switching to another. She’d moved back to her hometown of Vinton, La., to help take care of her parents when her father began showing signs of early Alzheimer’s disease, before she was diagnosed. The hospital where she was being treated was in Shreveport, close to a four-hour drive away in the northern part of the state, so family members pitched in to drive her once a month, and then once every other week, as the frequency of her treatments increased.
“It was weird and saddening in the part of it with all the different medicines, like, it was a search,” Prescott says. “It was a search to find the best medicine; hey, this may not work, but let’s see. It's almost like you are a test. And the same thing happens to so many people who are being treated for cancer.”
Peggy concealed as much of the burden as she could from Dak for as long as she could, insisting that everything was fine and wearing makeup to mask the toll of her treatments. She forbade him from moving back to Louisiana to help her; transferring to a school closer to home was simply out of the question. In an effort to prove how fine she would be, she made the seven-hour drive to Starkville by herself for Easter in 2013, cooking him their traditional holiday meal of ham and potato salad and all the fixings. She had a habit of drawing this fun cartoon lion, the mascot of her high school, and that weekend Dak asked her to sketch it for him. They went to a tattoo parlor near campus together, and he had it traced onto his left shoulder.
“Our last Easter—I mean, obviously, I’m not thinking it’s my last Easter with my mom—but I’m thinking I wanted to get a tattoo for my mom,” Prescott says. “People look at it, like, what the hell is on his arm? Well nobody actually knows that it’s a drawing my mom did.”
Prescott’s rookie contract with the Cowboys will earn him about $2.7 million, but back when Peggy was battling cancer and he was still in school, like many families taking on the disease, they were stretched thin financially. When Peggy gave up her manager job to move down and care for her parents, she lost her health insurance; her parents helped as much as they could with the means of retired teachers. Second in importance to only her treatment was that Peggy make it to as many of Dak’s games as she was physically able; these trips cost around $1,000 per week, but they improved her outlook more than anything else possibly could.
It wasn’t until the fall of 2013—the season when Prescott took over as Mississippi State’s starter after previously being used as a change-of-pace phenom—when the disease attacking Peggy on the inside became obvious on the outside. Her brother, Phil Ebarb, and Dak’s father, Nathaniel Prescott, teamed up to get her to as many games as possible until hospice care finally forbade her to travel. The worst game of Prescott’s career, when he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in a 34–16 loss at South Carolina, was the first game of his life when he didn’t talk to his mom beforehand. She died the next morning.
The memory Peggy’s family prefers to dwell on instead was an earlier game that season, a home win against Troy. Prescott accounted for four touchdowns that day—two passing, one running and one receiving—in a 62–7 victory. When Prescott emerged from the locker room after that game, he was mobbed for autographs, but Coach Hevesy’s young daughter determinedly cleared a path for him to his mom. They all went back to Dak’s apartment, where Nathaniel cooked gumbo, and Phil helped Peggy out of her wheelchair onto the couch, and the big football star on campus laid down on his mama’s lap.
Back at the Cowboys headquarters, Prescott took a break from signing autographs to pull up a photo on his iPhone. He wanted to show off the new cleats Adidas designed for him to wear in the Oct. 8 game against the Packers, the first game of the NFL’s Crucial Catch campaign. The cleats were white with seven ribbons affixed to each side, each a different color to represent awareness for a different cancer. Near the heel was navy, for colon cancer.
After eight years of dressing up NFL stadiums and players in pink to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer screenings and education in conjunction with the American Cancer Society, the league this year expanded its Crucial Catch campaign to target multiple cancers. The money raised will still be directed toward grants providing education, outreach and low-cost screenings for detectable cancers in underserved areas near NFL cities—the kind of screenings that may have helped Prescott’s mom catch the cancer earlier and have a better prognosis. The NFL also funded the ACS’s development of an online Defender tool for fans to receive tips on how to reduce risks for all types of cancer. The end line of each NFL field this month is painted with the new logo featuring bars of the same seven colors Prescott wore on his cleats.
“The authenticity is critical, in having a star like Dak talk about it openly,” says Sharon Byers, chief development and marketing officer for the ACS. “That connection point—this affected me, and I don’t want it to affect anyone else. It takes that mystique off, and particularly in the African-American community, cancer rates are actually on the increase. And why is that? The fear of going in and getting screened, or not wanting to know. People like Dak, with his voice, can help break through that barrier and get people in and understand prevention and get screened.”
Prescott is only in his second NFL season, but his personal experience has spurred him to use his platform as a young star on America’s team to address the cause that matters to him most. Last season, he wore navy cleats printed with “Mom” and a colon cancer awareness ribbon during the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats campaign, which were auctioned off to raise more than $4,000 for the ACS. This summer he appeared with actor Eric Stonestreet on a campaign to educate and raise funds for immuno-oncology research into using the body’s own immune system to better target cancer. He also announced this offseason the launch of his own non-profit, with an emphasis on cancer awareness; the name is the Faith, Fight, Finish Foundation, invoking the three words Peggy used to encourage her three sons.
In the notes Prescott writes his mom on his phone, he always assumes she already knows what he’s doing on the field and about his work off it. So, he usually writes something simple like, “I love you” or “Thank you.” Her messages still ring loudly in her son’s ears, especially the one about her being his story. This wasn’t the story Prescott wanted, but he’s come to understand that he can serve another purpose beyond raising cancer awareness and education—a beacon for others who have also lost loved ones, and may not be sure if or how they can move forward.
“Losing my mom and watching her fight, I allowed that to motivate me and to be my story and the reason I got up and did what I did every day,” Prescott says. “As much as I can raise awareness and educate people on how to get ahead of cancer, the fact of showing how to make your adversity your inspiration is probably more significant. How to use something to make you a better person, or to think positive about it or to take the better route because of it, is what I think I can do more than anything.”
Prescott used to find his mom in the crowd and point to her after every score; now, he points to the sky. He did so in the game against the Packers, when he threw three touchdowns and rushed for another. The Cowboys lost the game, 35-31, on a two-minute rally by Aaron Rodgers, but afterward, team owner Jerry Jones said it was the best game he’d seen Prescott play as a Cowboy, despite the team picking up its third loss of the young season.
“There will always be good and bad,” says Ebarb, Prescott’s uncle, who had driven the five hours from Orange, Texas, to AT&T Stadium for the loss to the Packers, as he does for most of his nephew’s home games. “It's how you recover and move forward. And he's really good at that.”
What he doesn’t need to say is that he’s talking about Prescott both on the field and off it.
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