Dak Prescott Is Not a One-Hit Wonder

Don't tell the big man in Dallas that he's "arrived"—but don't you dare call him the next Tom Brady either. Inside the making of a Cowboys QB built to last.
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterFRISCO, TexasAugust 3, 2017

It's May 30. His last game was 134 days ago, his next 103 days ahead. This may be the most inconsequential day on the NFL calendar.

Yet Dak Prescott can't help himself. The Cowboys quarterback buries himself in film because he knows coordinators are investigating his game with FBI precision. He watches film. And more film. And more film. And, yes, a reporter from B/R Mag up in a conference room can wait. Fifteen more minutes, he tells a Cowboys staffer. Fifteen more minutes. He needs to dissect these padless practices.

Nearly three hours pass before Prescott finally appears and takes a seat. As a tour group at this palace of a practice facility glides by, a few adults blurt "That's Dak!" but he doesn't flinch. When Prescott is reminded that he's surrounded by relics of greatness in this place—Super Bowl trophies, game balls, rings, portraits of Staubach and Aikman and Emmitt and Irvin—the kid who grew up worshipping the Cowboys shrugs.

At no point last season did Prescott believe he had "arrived" as a star in his own right.

That word alone, arrived, makes him frown.

"I'll never say I've arrived," Prescott says. "At the end of my career, I'll still say that. Yeah, I'm here in the NFL but, to me, it's what's next? It doesn't matter what awards or accolades I've gotten or this team's gotten. To me—and it's always been this way in my life—what's next?

"What else can I do?"

That is, without a doubt, one of the greatest unknowns heading into the 2017 NFL season. Last year this 135th overall pick, this eighth quarterback drafted, somehow reduced a three-year plan to three seconds the moment Tony Romo was drilled in the back during the preseason. His masterpiece of a rookie season made all those NFL general managers who didn't draft him look like fantasy owners 12 beers deep. It also hastened Romo's retirement and turned Prescott into a celebrity overnight.

Rayne Dakota Prescott can now either keep growing into an all-time great or free-fall as a one-hit wonder. Arrived? Here's what "arrived" looks like so far for Prescott: Endorsements with Pepsi and Frito-Lay and Campbell's Chunky Soup and Adidas and Beats by Dre. An appearance in a Desiigner music video. Parties with Snoop Dogg. All while representing the most profitable franchise in sports.

Arrived is being the face of America's team.

"It’s about what Brady’s doing. It’s about winning championships," Prescott says.
"It’s about what Brady’s doing. It’s about winning championships," Prescott says.(Getty Images)

Overlooked his entire life, Prescott is overlooked no more. Yet he's as unflappable as ever.

He shows no emotion when the names and picks of the seven quarterbacks taken ahead of him are rattled off: Jared Goff 1, Carson Wentz 2, Paxton Lynch 26, Christian Hackenberg 51, Jacoby Brissett 91, Cody Kessler 93, Connor Cook 100. Those are only numbers to him. Irrelevant.

The "Dak 7" could live on forever in NFL lore alongside the "Brady 6." But Prescott knows he has to win a title first.

"It's about what Brady's doing. It's about winning championships."

To do that, Prescott cannot care about Brady or Goff or Aikman. Prescott grasps the prestige that comes with being the quarterback of the Cowboys but admits it "doesn't satisfy or do anything for me."

Rather, he's obsessed by what's next.

"I'm not here to prove to anyone I'm different than any of those guys," Prescott says. "I'm not here to prove to anyone that I'm like Tom Brady. ... I'm here to prove it to my teammates, that I'm here for them, that I'm going to do my best each and every day to put them and myself in the best position to win games.

"What matters today is what I do in the next five minutes."

It's up to Prescott to be himself off the field and evolve on it. If he doesn’t, he could disappear. If he does, he could be Canton-bound. The reminders of that thin line are everywhere in his daily life—from the scar underneath his right eye to the Notes app on his iPhone to the words of wisdom from his Uncle Phil.

As Prescott speaks, he almost seems too good to be true.

Is he?

Prescott insists he's never been overwhelmed. Not in Pop Warner. Not in high school. Not in college or the pros. Goosebumps, legend has it, are foreign to him.

Truth is, however, he was shaken. Twice. Those closest to Prescott remember those nights well.

On November 2, 2013, Prescott was unable to speak to his mom before a game for the first time in his life. Her health rapidly declining, he turned the ball over four times in a 34-16 loss to South Carolina. Mom died the next day.

Then, on November 28, 2015, Senior Night, those same raw emotions stirred again when a video tribute included shots of Dak with his mom. As his uncle, Phillip Ebarb, hugged him tightly on the field, a voice yelled "Hurry up! Get off the field!" and, seconds later, the game began. Prescott fumbled his first series and, shockingly skittish, was sacked seven times in a 38-27 loss to Ole Miss.

That's the power of Mom.

Peggy Prescott is the one who made Dak so mentally strong, so bulletproof.

Prescott's mother, Peggy, motivated him to stay at Mississippi State when he offered to transfer closer to home to be with her.
Prescott's mother, Peggy, motivated him to stay at Mississippi State when he offered to transfer closer to home to be with her.(AP Images)

This is the same Mom who'd go full years without buying new clothes so Dak got the shoes he wanted, who raised three boys in a trailer park, who shared a bedroom with Dak growing up, who'd yell so loudly from the high school bleachers that all players could hear and then was in coaches' ears afterward with critiques on play calls.

The same Mom who told anyone crying over her stage 4 cancer to stop at once "because I'm not crying." Who told Dak to stay at Mississippi State when he offered to transfer closer to home. Who fought cancer for nearly two years.

When she instructed, no, demanded, that Dak look forward, he did.

"His grieving process was 'This is what Mom wants. This is what I need to do,'" Uncle Phil Ebarb says.

Adds Prescott, "Football's something that always took me away from the adversity, from the negativity, and allowed me to think clear."

Briefly, Uncle Phil worries aloud if his nephew ever had a chance to truly grieve. Five months after losing his mom, Prescott lost a grandfather he idolized. Trauma multiplied. After Peggy died, her father Glyn Ebarb's dementia worsened to the point of forgetting his own kids' names. He "checked out," Uncle Phil laments. "I believe to this day it was the pain" of losing his daughter.

When the nurse gave Prescott's grandfather minutes to live, he held on for 12 hours. Prescott arrived in time, held grandpa's hand, said "goodbye" and then…pressed on.

That's the only reaction he knew. Because of Mom.

So maybe Prescott is right. Maybe he is immune to pressure. Any pain on a field, he explains, is "temporary," and he makes sure that his mother, his best friend, continues to live through him. He wears No. 4 because Peggy was born September 4. He often points to the sky to his mom during games and in quieter moments writes letters to her in the Notes app on his phone.

He's convinced she reads every word.

Speaking to Prescott and everyone who knows him is something like getting sucked into a vortex of optimism. To them, he is no fluke. To them, he is guaranteed to last.

His childhood best friend/teammate, Marlon Seets: "This is not a flash in the pan. What you got last year is what you're going to get."

His Uncle Phil: "The people who say 'He's going to bomb' don't know shit."

His college receiver, Jameon Lewis: "He's built like a champion. He makes everyone go to another level."

His college QB coach, Brian Johnson: "People rally around him. People like him. That's stuff that you can't put on a sheet of paper."

His high school offensive coordinator, Kyle Wilkerson: "The sky's the limit, and he knows that."

His psychology professor in college, Dr. Tom Carskadon: "I know it sounds like this guy is too good to be true. … I've seen media-manufactured heroes, and it's kind of sad sometimes because they don't stand up to it. But Dak's the real deal."

Prescott made his NFL debut against the Giants on September 11.
Prescott made his NFL debut against the Giants on September 11.(Getty Images)

No, this isn't the first time we've heard such sparkling superlatives. As sublime as Prescott's debut was—3,667 passing yards, 282 rushing yards, 29 total touchdowns, four interceptions, a 13-3 record—it was exactly that. A debut. After fawning over his quarterback inside the Cowboys locker room, wide receiver Brice Butler pauses and his mind races back to a different offseason, a different quarterback.

"He has to continue to get better," Butler says. "If he doesn't, he'll be like Colin Kaepernick."

Four years ago, long before his controversial kneeling during the national anthem, Kaepernick was the one sliding a pair of Beats by Dre headphones over his ears as Aloe Blacc's I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man blared every third commercial. Indeed, he was. Kaepernick had just harpooned the Packers, kissed his bicep, willed the Niners to the Super Bowl and, we all assumed, redefined the quarterback position forever.

Then all the magic evaporated faster than you can say Blaine Gabbert, and Butler has an idea why. He worked out with Kap that 2013 offseason, and Kap didn't merely like the spotlight. "He loved it," Butler says. His priorities shifted.

Prescott, he says, "might go out, but he's not living off that." Prescott, he believes, is wired to work.

We're about to find out. Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon knows Prescott has an edge to him. When Moon first met him, he saw a quarterback legitimately pissed that he was drafted in the fourth round.

Now the concern is if Prescott will stay pissed as his celebrity explodes.

If he'll evolve.

Moon sees Prescott racking up endorsements and doing media tours. It concerns him.

"Everybody knows how to defend him now," Moon says. "He has to reinvent himself every year a little bit. I hope he's willing to do that."

Kaepernick, he asserts, was not. He never developed as a pocket passer, the talent around him gradually drained and, now, he's unemployed, although his controversial past may well be a reason he's not on an NFL roster. Vince Young, Robert Griffin III and Nick Foles all suffered the same one-hit-wonder fate.

Of Kaepernick, Moon says: "You're still doing the same things that made you special in the year or two that you had, but what have you added to your game? That's a reason he's not being pursued right now. His game has not evolved. He hasn't gotten any better."

Prescott is officially on the clock. Moon sees a quarterback who'll need to pull the trigger more downfield—his game needs an element of risk. This army tank of an offense around Dak won't last forever. As others leave, Butler points out, Prescott will be the constant and must "keep that greatness going."

"What matters today is what I do in the next five minutes," Prescott says.
"What matters today is what I do in the next five minutes," Prescott says.(Getty Images)

Through three separate conversations, the only moment Prescott gets defensive is when one common belief is floated. Ezekiel Elliott? Dez Bryant? That line? Come on, man. Any quarterback in your draft class would've shined.

His eyebrows slant. His voice speeds up.

This is the fire Moon loves.

"Everyone's dealt their hand," Prescott says. "What matters is how you play it. So to me, it doesn't affect me one bit. Do you want me to take away the weapons I've got?"

Surely, Prescott wants to strike while the iron's hot. His four-year contract averages $680,000 per year, peanuts compared to Goff ($6.98 million) and Wentz ($6.67 million). But Moon's final advice is simple: "Slow his roll."

"You don't have to do everything at once," Moon says. "When you have all this notoriety, the endorsements, the commercials, you tend to put more pressure on yourself because you feel like you have to live up to all this."

Teammates are watching, too, he adds. Always. That's life as an NFL quarterback. Jealousy can seep into a locker room. Everything Prescott does this point forward has consequences.

So Prescott will play his hand the only way he knows how.

He'll be himself.

Dak was only three years old, at a hospital to treat his asthma, when Uncle Phil realized he was put on earth to do something special.

Racism was real in this pocket of northern Louisiana then, so when one nearby woman groaned in disgust at the sight of a white man holding a black toddler, Phil wasn't shocked. Until, you know, he was. Moments later, Dak asked his uncle to walk on his own. He waddled toward the woman, extended a hand and she jerked hers away.

"Hi!" Dak said.

On the spot, the woman smiled, nearly teared up and apologized.

"The hand of God touched her," Phil says. "I'm not saying Dak was the hand of God. I'm saying him touching her, I saw that lady flip a switch. I still get goosebumps to this day talking about it. I've never seen anything like that."

So don't be alarmed by that orb of light gleaming through a photo of baby Dak sitting in a pool. That's what the family calls his "angel" pic.

No term is used more to describe breakout stars we can't quite understand than the it factor. It's so nebulous, lazy, tired. But as all Dak witnesses attest, it is 100 percent the case here. Everyone in Prescott's orbit insists the quarterback was born with it, nurtured it, and it is precisely what will blast him through any potential complacency.

"Football’s something that always took me away from the adversity, from the negativity, and allowed me to think clear," Prescott says.
"Football’s something that always took me away from the adversity, from the negativity, and allowed me to think clear," Prescott says.(Getty Images)

His teammates have seen it. Take the time Prescott played on a torn MCL in high school. The same year Jay Cutler refused to re-enter the NFC Championship Game with a similar injury, Prescott told his coaches "I'm playing."

His 9-0 Haughton team was facing 9-0 Parkway. Between limping on and off the field, he threw for 366 yards, three scores and never mentioned the pain. He didn't care about jeopardizing his future. Haughton won.

"A steely eyed focus," says Seets, who's still close with Prescott. "You wouldn't be able to tell if he was in pain or not. It didn't bother him. He's a warrior."

Adds Wilkerson, Prescott's offensive coordinator in high school, "The guy looked like a mummy he was bandaged up so much."

On to college, the same month Mom died, Prescott had multiple nerves go bad in his arm, missed two games, and a doctor was flown in from Nashville to check him out before the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss. Nobody expected him to play. That is, until Prescott told coach Dan Mullen "Put me in" into the fourth quarter, and he scored the game-winner on 4th-and-1 in overtime.

"He's going to battle," says Lewis, one of Prescott's wide receivers at Mississippi State. "You're going to have to drag that guy off the field."

Other parents have seen it. Back in Pop Warner, moms and dads on the opposing team sensed Prescott was destined for greatness and went out of their way to shake his hand after games. He didn't lose a game until 10th grade.

Students have seen it. In Algebra II, as a sophomore, it was common for Prescott to take the marker and teach the entire class. He enjoyed Trivial Pursuit and Spades and Dominoes as a kid. Games that made him think.

Coaches have seen it. Prescott was always the one leading his group at MSU through hellish 90-minute lower-body workouts—leg-pressing as much as the linemen—before then doing it all over again with the second group and cheering on the third.

Adjust? To his shortcomings? This is the same kid who hated his first TV interview so much in high school that he practiced slowing down his words to catch up with his mind. That camera attached to his helmet in college practices used to make his coaches seasick—Prescott's head jerked everywhere in panic. Now, he hardly flinches.

"He’s going to battle," says Jameon Lewis, one of Prescott’s wide receivers at Mississippi State. "You’re going to have to drag that guy off the field."
"He’s going to battle," says Jameon Lewis, one of Prescott’s wide receivers at Mississippi State. "You’re going to have to drag that guy off the field."(AP Images)

Off the field, after struggling in Dr. Carskadon's first psychology class, Prescott improved so much that the professor felt compelled to create an award. Out of the 40,000 students he's taught, Prescott was his first and only "Scholar of the Year."

By far, the it factor is most tangible in the change you see in everyone around Prescott.

Unique genetics help. With a white mother, black father and a Choctaw-Apache grandfather, Prescott used to kid that he's "Mixican." But there's nurture as well as nature at play.

Prescott graduated with an educational psychology degree in December 2014, earned his master's in workforce leadership in December 2015 and now has sights set on a doctorate. He wants to keep learning what drives teammates and how different personalities react to both positive and negative reinforcement.

Carskadon insists Prescott could rally a team in a boardroom just as well as he does on the field.

"He's sensitive to what's going on around him," Carskadon says. "He has it built into him."

When Romo writhed in pain last preseason, one teammate remembers veteran tight end Jason Witten being the most panicked player in the locker room. "Trippin'," the player says. Within weeks, Witten was basically president of the Dak Fan Club.

Like Moon, Cowboys great Roger Staubach only met Prescott twice. Unlike Moon, Staubach is certain Prescott will empower an entire organization.

"If you watch the Super Bowl, even though it was 28-3, with Brady in there people knew there was a chance they'd come back," Staubach says. "That's a quality Dak has. His teammates believe in him. They're going to fight to the end."

Prescott, he adds, absolutely can reach Brady's stratosphere. Prescott, he insists, will never be satisfied.

What defines him most, what NFL teams missed, are his self-described "hidden traits."

"Me putting my teammates first, sacrificing, doing whatever I can to make them better," Prescott says. "That's No. 1. My expectations for myself raise. Hopefully everybody else's expectations raise. … I don't want them to just be some co-worker. Some teammate. I want them to be a brother.

"I want them to be somebody I can count on outside of football. Once you get to know people like that, it's easy for them to bond with you."

Of course that tyke at the hospital is now one of the NFL's hottest commodities.

Uncle Phil's fear for his nephew is not injury. Nobody back home worries about MCLs or stingers or blindside hits. No, the fear is the wrong people putting the wrong thoughts into Prescott's head.

"Him getting used and hurt and taken advantage of," Uncle Phil says, "and that changing his mindset of absolutely loving people and caring for people and being that true-hearted, passionate, loving person that we know. That's my fear."

It's been a whirlwind offseason—Phil saw his nephew 18 hours over a six-month span—so he hopes Prescott stays true to his roots, to what got him here, half-joking "he damn well better!"

Of his Cowboys teammates, Prescott says, "I want them to be somebody I can count on outside of football. Once you get to know people like that, it’s easy for them  to bond with you."
Of his Cowboys teammates, Prescott says, "I want them to be somebody I can count on outside of football. Once you get to know people like that, it’s easy for them to bond with you."(Getty Images)

Prescott hasn't always stayed firmly on this what's next path. Back in college, he ignored Phil's warnings about going to Panama City for spring break and was jumped. Thrown to the pavement, kicked in the face repeatedly, Prescott now has a scar for life. It was a sobering lesson to always tread carefully off the field. The outcome could've been much worse.

So when Prescott hired handlers who'd massage and elevate his celebrity, Uncle Phil reminded him "those motherfuckers work for you!" and that he could turn down anything that'd ever cloud his vision.

Into July, Phil reminded his nephew again, "Remember what comes first..."

Prescott cut in.

"I know, Unc," he said. "You don't even have to tell me."

Being accused this offseason of using a machine to mass produce autographs isn't exactly a good sign. In a statement, the trading-card company, Panini America, said Prescott had "no knowledge" of his signature being forged, but the uproar alone was a reminder for Prescott to get back on track.

Prescott? Change? Butler assures that if he ever does get "out of whack," he'll pump the brakes and realize on the spot, "this isn't me." Dak is from the South, Butler adds. "Country." He values genuine relationships, teammates say. He won't get seduced into some fantasy, some artificial way of living.

Wilkerson, laughing out loud, is just as positive. When the coach and quarterback go out for dinner, Prescott still doesn't pick up the tab. Never mind that he's richer than the rest of the restaurant combined.

"He’ll be the best he can be until he’s not," Prescott's uncle Phil Ebarb says, "and then he’ll walk away to find something else to be great at."
"He’ll be the best he can be until he’s not," Prescott's uncle Phil Ebarb says, "and then he’ll walk away to find something else to be great at."(Getty Images)

During those meals, it's clear to Wilkerson that the Cowboys' playoff loss to Green Bay is still burning inside Prescott and that he absolutely aims to be an all-time great.

"I don't see a ceiling," Wilkerson says. "I don't see any reason he couldn't be one of the best of all time."

Whenever Prescott is able to catch his breath, Uncle Phil knows they'll be back on a boat fishing together like old times. Fishing is an art, Phil explains, and "you bet your ass" Dak is a pro.

Barometric pressure. Air temperature. Water temperature. Color and clarity of the water. Moon cycle. Structure. Speed retrieval. Bait. He knows that Prescott will navigate fame and football with the same flawless precision he does with a fishing rod in his hands.

He'll gauge all variables. He'll outwork everyone.

He'll last.

"He'll be the best he can be until he's not," Phil says, "and then he'll walk away to find something else to be great at."

He's running late again. This time by 23 minutes.

But this time, Prescott isn't drowning himself in film. He's in New York City, for the first time in his life, ripping through a 16-interview media tour.

After finishing a phoner with SiriusXM inside the Ogilvy building off 11th Ave., Prescott inhales a pastrami sandwich, hustles through a hallway and dips inside a dimly lit, AC-cozy production room. He lounges on a plush leather couch, surrounded by any treat his heart desires: four bowls of fruit (grapes, pineapple, strawberry and cantaloupe), Skinny Pop, beef jerky, Cliff bars, Altoids and, why not, a plate of eight brownies with thick vanilla frosting.

Prescott can't chat long. An ESPN spot, followed by a photoshoot with GQ, looms, which at least explains the two people frantically preparing articles of clothing in the corner of the room.

On the surface, this is everything Moon is worried about. Yet, to Prescott, this trip is more business than pleasure. More necessity. He's fulfilling a promise.

When his mother was initially diagnosed with the terminal illness, she told him something that didn't quite compute: She could be his story. Prescott wasn't even a starter in college yet—he told Mom he didn't need a "story."

Today, those words make perfect sense. Through all these interviews, he's raising cancer research awareness through the "Ready. Raise. Rise." campaign. "If that's what she wanted me to do," says Prescott, in a glistening maroon suit coat, "I'm going to do it the rest of my life."

He promises he's permanently locked in tunnel vision. If opposing coaches think they'll shut him down exactly as they did Kap and RGII and others, he has a stern PSA for them.

"I’ll never say I’ve arrived," Prescott says. "At the end of my career, I’ll still say that. Yeah, I’m here in the NFL but, to me, it’s what’s next?"
"I’ll never say I’ve arrived," Prescott says. "At the end of my career, I’ll still say that. Yeah, I’m here in the NFL but, to me, it’s what’s next?"(Getty Images)

"The film works both ways," Prescott says. "They can watch the film and get what they need to, but I can watch the film and figure out the way they're calling their plays and figure out my weaknesses that they're going to attack to make sure I make them my strengths."

Sponsorships will multiply and attention will soar. Distractions he never imagined possible will now flood Prescott 24/7. He's been invited to more random birthdays around the country via DM than he can count.

It's one thing to take the league by storm but quite another to keep the storm raging. Prescott gets that. He knows none of this is possible—the Good Morning America spot, the Pepsi deal, the opportunity for Mom to be his story—if he doesn't bring it on Sundays.

"I'm using my platform I was given by the game of football," Prescott says, "to help change and affect lives."

Mom is still watching, too. She would never, ever let him inherently change who he is.

So the result in 2017 and beyond won't be Kaepernick or Brady.

"I'm going to be the best version of myself," Prescott says. "I know what it takes to get there, and that's hard work. I can only build and build and build."

And build. Because the race is on. At 5 p.m., Prescott must catch a plane out of NYC. He'll board the flight, buckle in, reach for the iPad and probably tap open game film.

Somewhere, he knows, a coach is doing the same.

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @TyDunne.

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the new B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.