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Dak Prescott’s Heal Turn

Under building stress and anxiety, after a year that included his brother’s suicide and a career-altering injury, the quarterback found a way to cope—and to come out stronger than before.

Dak Prescott rises from the wooden table in his kitchen. It’s June, and he’s standing at a pivot point—far enough past the worst stretch to look back but not that removed, either. He strolls down the hallway to his office, returning with a single sheet of notebook paper that he saved for more than a year but has shown only to his girlfriend. The words are blue, the handwriting tidy. He holds the paper delicately by the top corners.

Jace MacKenzie Prescott
A Life Taken to Save Millions
You’ll never be forgotten for one second.
-Why didn’t you ask me for help?
-Did you tell someone how bad you hurting?
-Do you know how many people you affected?
-Do you know you’re adored, admired, loved?

Prescott wrote those sentences on April 23, 2020, the day he’ll always remember but would give anything to forget. The night before, after weeks filled with anxiety and depression, not to mention a contract saga that dragged on without end, he slept soundly for the first time in forever. He woke up after 8 a.m. to his father and friends standing in his bedroom with red eyes and anguished faces. His phone looked like a slot machine, pinging and flashing with hundreds of missed calls and unanswered texts.

Dak Prescott Sports Illustrated cover

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A few hours earlier, 300 miles away, Dak’s uncle, Phillip Ebarb, had been awoken by a police officer in the middle of the night. The cop said, “I’m here to inform you that your nephew, Jace Prescott, is deceased.”

“What are you talking about?” Ebarb asked. “What do you mean?”

The officer didn’t know what to say. So he said only the truth.

“He took his own life.”

Ebarb screamed, then collapsed. He drifted through the next few hours as if living in someone else’s nightmare. He had to call Jace’s girlfriend, who was waiting outside the hospital, believing her boyfriend was still alive. He had shot himself at their apartment and died soon after.

Dak needed to escape the bedroom, and those anguished, tear-streaked faces. He went outside, by the pool, and when he looked up, he no longer saw the “dark cloud” that had hovered over him. Instead, the sun was blinding. He couldn’t think. He bolted back inside to write the letter, 15 minutes after he found out.

His oldest brother, Tad, immediately flew from Lake Charles, La., to Dallas. But upon arriving at Dak’s home, Tad lingered outside, blaming himself, smoking a cigarette, unable to walk in. When Dak found him out there, Tad could only say, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Dak told him.

So they started telling stories, looking back, attempting to make sense of what did not and probably never will. Introversion was Jace’s default setting. He didn’t talk much about his feelings. Dak had checked on him about a week earlier. “This is my life,” Jace responded.

Dak’s thoughts spun in a thousand different directions. To Nathaniel, his father, who had to tell him his mom died in 2013, meaning Nat had delivered the worst possible news twice. To Tad, whose last promise to his dying mother was that he would care for his younger brothers, always; who had forgotten to message Jace to meet up that April and would be haunted by the text that slipped his mind. And to Jace, not only for the life they shared but for what had now become unfathomably clear—what they didn’t.

Even then, something unexpected happened. Deep into his worst 18 months ever—those miserable, universe-questioning, transformative months—Dak gleaned important wisdom that he would carry into the 2021 season. Just thinking about others, their pain, helped him to deal with his own.

Fourteen months after that terrible day, Prescott arrives early at a cigar bar near the Cowboys’ headquarters in Frisco, Texas. He’s alone—no entourage, no reps. Early into a nearly three-hour sit-down, he grabs a legal pad and begins to draw the first and most important home field of his life. He sketches the sliver of a yard in northeast Louisiana; draws his older brothers’ bedrooms; outlines the living room/bar/kitchen and the room he shared with his mother, Peggy.

His eyes dance as he scrawls, the memories returning. Someone put a hole in that wall trying to kill a spider with a hammer. There were scratches all over that door from a few thousand too many Nerf dunks.

For a household that moved around and spent more than a few nights without any home at all, the trailer park and all the fields nearby made up the only world they ever needed. The one they could create themselves.

Long before fame, even before football, Prescott absorbed an important concept in that single-wide trailer. He can summarize it in one word: manifesting.

Even in a family that turned competing into “almost an illness,” the boys’ aunt/nanny, Valrie Gilbeaux, says the youngest one stood out. For what he wanted. For how his brain worked. Prescott watched the movie Little Giants, over and over, relating to one scene where players reminisced about times they had beaten their brothers. Because that’s exactly what he had wanted since the day Jace handed him a football and said throw. Dak developed a method for speed-eating Oreos, figuring out that if he detached the cookies from the creme rather than shoving the whole thing in his mouth he could actually swallow faster, like a mini-Kobayashi.

Jace, Dak and Tad Prescott as kids

From left to right: Jace, Dak and Tad.

He was the dreamer in the family, the one who manifested reality before any sports psychologist deployed that term. He alternately predicted his future as a movie star, football All Pro or President of the United States.

“Everything in my life [that happened], I’ve constantly thought about,” he says. “Of saying things, believing things, working, then watching them come to fruition.”

He wasn’t like the other children. He didn’t want a picture with or an autograph from a famous athlete, because he expected to become one. He kept a Matchbox car, an El Camino, for the day he would drive the real thing. Yet, when Tad complained of the endless rotation of the same meals—chicken, meatloaf, spaghetti—Dak looked at him earnestly and, despite being younger by six years, said, “Bro, I’m just grateful we got something to eat.”

The nearest college football power, LSU, didn’t see Dak as a college quarterback, at least at first. So he went elsewhere, lifting a lackluster Mississippi State program to a No. 1 national ranking. Manifesting. The coach who recruited him, John Hevesy, soon discovered that Prescott’s “leadership skills just overpower you.” Manifesting. He switched majors to psychology, because he wanted to coach, and he hoped to better understand the psyche of future players. Manifesting. Prescott would lead the Bulldogs into Tiger Stadium, then topple LSU just as he had decided in his head after the scholarship didn’t come. Manifesting.

His sophomore year at Mississippi State, he showed up at the football facility at 6 a.m. the day before his mom died, telling coaches he must play that afternoon—to sort through his loss, to give meaning to her death. These older men stared back at him, trying to understand how someone could be 20 and 40 at the same time.

Ebarb would take his youngest nephew fishing around then. He wanted to gauge Dak’s mental state in the best way they know how: out on the water, phones shelved. They stopped at a small store in a small town to purchase fishing licenses. All broad shoulders and big smiles, Dak laughed and told jokes.

As they strolled back into the parking lot, four women followed them outside. They wanted to take a picture with Mr. Charming. Ebarb snapped away, before they asked him an odd question. Who, exactly, was his nephew?

“He just projects that vibe,” Uncle Phil says, “that he’s somebody. ”

Ebarb knows exactly where that comes from: “When you have decided what you’re going to be your whole life, it’s just who you are.”

Dak Prescott tosses a football to himself in a posed photograph

His nephew now lives in North Dallas, on grounds so expansive they could fit a small trailer park in the backyard. His estate—pool, football field, pond, golf green, fishing creek—unspools over seven acres, because that’s the exact size he dreamt of as a child. There’s an El Camino parked in the garage. It’s near the Ferrari with the personalized license plate: SINGLEWIDE.

Everything from the layout of the property to the activities Dak partakes in speaks to the duality he created. He took the place he loved the most and made himself a larger, fancier, upgraded version. In some ways, everything is different now; in others, nothing is.

He laughs. The mind sure is a funny place.

As Prescott ascended throughout his 2016 rookie season, his rise struck many as improbable. But not him. He expected to become one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, to change the minds that doubted him.

In four seasons, he manifested a new reality, becoming the most important player on the highest-valued team in America’s most popular sport. But that climb created a first-world problem. To retain his services and push to end a championship drought that now stretched over two unacceptable decades, Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, needed to pay the face of his $5.5-billion franchise the kind of massive contract that either launches teams or ruins them.

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As negotiations dragged on, the worst thing that could have happened on the field did. On Oct. 11, 2020, Prescott starts his day in a hotel room, buses to the stadium, then watches from the home locker room as his friend Alex Smith completes the most remarkable comeback in NFL history. Smith had jogged back onto the field for the Washington Football Team almost two years after nearly losing his leg from infections that followed a gruesome on-field break. “I got chills,” Prescott says.

Fast forward a few hours. Cowboys-Giants. Third quarter. Prescott goes down on a routine tackle by Logan Ryan. He thinks he rolled an ankle. He leans over and sees his right leg bent sideways, the ankle pointing outward. He hears his mom in that instant, imploring him to get up because that’s how she would know he wasn’t hurt. He tries to bang the ankle back into place, realizes he cannot stand and waves frantically at the sideline, as Smith prays from afar and Jones grimaces in the owner’s box.

Dak Prescott breaks his ankle when tackles by Logan Ryan during a 2020 game

Prescott's 2020 season ended on this tackle by Ryan.

A friend had told him years earlier that in times of crisis he should thank God over and over. So as the broadcast team screamed “oh no” … thank you God … as doctors rushed onto the field … thank you God … as teammates patted Prescott on the helmet … thank you God … as the cart drove him away … thank you God … as he buried his tears in a towel … thank you God. “That was my peace in all this,” Prescott says.

The processing began as soon as the cart sped off. Prescott was honest with himself, immediately: His season was over; no need to raise false hope. That’s why the tears ran from his eyes in streams, why he covered his face with a towel. Then, forward. He watched the rest of the Cowboys victory on his phone in the ambulance. He sent a congratulatory message to Andy Dalton, the quarterback who had replaced him. He texted Gilbeaux, the aunt he had spied in a tunnel at the stadium, telling her, “Quit crying; I will be fine, it will be fine.”

Doctors delivered a diagnosis that suggested otherwise: a compound fracture and a dislocation. Because of the type of injury and severity, his break forced an obvious comparison to Smith’s extensive damage.

Tad was upset, and not just about the end of a promising season, but because he had urged Dak to sit out the first six games, in order to make a point in negotiations and remain at full health. “It’s not like I’m gonna get hurt,” Dak told him.

Dak Prescott cries as he's carted off the field with a season-ending ankle injury in 2020

The Cowboys, depleted by injuries and without their star quarterback, would limp through a 6–10 campaign. First, Dak woke up in the hospital. Tad’s thoughts ping-ponged. He knew Dak had overcome far worse, especially that past April. But he also worried the injury might change the Cowboys’ plans.

Not Dak. “What I’ve been through, I’ll call it a callused mind,” he says, describing a broken ankle as “just another scratch that’ll heal up, that’ll make me stronger.” In the months that followed he would sometimes pull up the video of that hit late at night and cringe. But as a nurse wheeled him out of surgery, toward anxious friends and family, Prescott said only two words.

They spoke, as always, to his mindset.

“What’s next?”

Back in the cigar lounge, for the first time in over an hour, Prescott pays cursory attention to the bank of televisions on the opposite wall. Tennis star Naomi Osaka is on the screens. She had withdrawn from the French Open a few days earlier, citing her mental health. To Prescott, her struggle shows that the mind is more than a funny place. It’s also a delicate one.

The quarterback says he never grappled with his psyche—until he did. He remembers looking at others and thinking, “What the hell are you stressed about?” He didn’t understand stress on a baseline level; like as a concept. But that changed in 2018.

Despite a playoff and Pro Bowl season, Prescott spent too much time in the worst place on earth for anyone who wants to feel decent about themselves: Twitter. Outside perceptions began to bother him, and football—really, everything around it—“started getting a little hard.”

He deleted the app from his phone, allowing others to run it for him. But it wasn’t just Twitter; it was everything around football, from celebrity to fame to expectations to outside noise.

Prescott had already met twice with a therapist, who taught him to vent about what bothered him. He needed to in ‘18, and often would to Jace, especially as it related to the noise/perception of the contract. To be clear: It wasn’t an issue in the locker room. The base salary—the one he earned in the final season of a four-year, $2.7-million deal—didn’t offend him, either, not the kid from the single-wide. His annoyance instead centered on how the endless conversation around it affected his off-field focus; he wanted to tunnel into football and let his representatives handle negotiations. But everywhere he went, every news conference he attended, every round of golf he played, every stranger he bumped into—everyone wondered the same thing, for the better part of three years. “Do y’all want me to go crazy?” he sometimes thought, as pundits and strangers, outsiders all, “created a lot of false narratives for who I am and how I think.”

How Dak shapes his thinking is the most relatable thing about him. He’s an elite Google searcher, with no rabbit hole too deep, no topic too farfetched to immerse himself in. In recent months, he looked into the plight of Dallas’s homeless population, Mississippi State’s national champion baseball team and incoming football recruits.

These dives speak to a mind that’s always racing, probing, thinking. But during the global pandemic in 2020, the same endless curiosity started to birth adverse effects. With a more typical, physical injury, there would be goals, day-to-day improvement, therapy, people to lean on, in-person conversations to be had. The pandemic was not that, nor something he could control. He worried about his family contracting COVID-19 and his life as anything other than the Cowboys quarterback. He says he doesn’t believe the contract factored into his growing apprehension, but it’s certainly possible that it did, even on a subconscious level.

“So much anxiety built depression,” he says, before laying out his thought process. Well, now I’m sad. Now, I’m upset. Now, I’ve got these thoughts of: What’s going to happen to me? What legacy do I have? Who am I if I’m just in this room?

Truth is, he had already been anxious. Before the pandemic Prescott took a trip to Los Angeles, renting a place in Newport Beach down the street from Kobe Bryant. In his youth, Prescott had rooted against the legend; over time, he came to idolize the man instead. One night, they both went to dinner, separately, at a nearby steakhouse. Someone asked if Prescott wanted an introduction. He declined, figuring that Bryant was busy entertaining his own guests, assuming they’d meet eventually.