FRISCO, Texas — Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott knew he’d never felt this way before.
But he wasn’t quite sure how he was feeling.
Anxiety, he started to suspect, had engulfed him. Then came depression, Prescott struggling to sleep and grasping for substitutes to the remnants of pre-quarantine life that brought him fulfillment. Days later, on April 24, Prescott awoke to his father and best friends in his bedroom. Their message: Dak’s 31-year-old brother Jace had shot himself and was dead.
“Some of the worst news I’ll ever get,” Prescott told journalist Graham Bensinger in a video interview that will air on TV this weekend and was posted to YouTube in clips this week.
Prescott said Thursday it was important to him to speak publicly about the mental illness he battled. He wanted to show people that even he, the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, has needed and sought help.
“Mental health leads to the health of everything else,” Prescott said from the Star after the Cowboys wrapped practice and completed installation of their Week 1 game plan. “Before I can lead, I have to make sure my mind is in the right place to do that and lead people to where they want to be. I think that it’s important to be vulnerable, to be genuine and to be transparent. I think that goes a long way when you are a leader and your voice is being heard by so many and you can inspire.”
Prescott knows his life has been under a microscope since 2016—and to some degree, before—when he ascended in mere months from a fourth-string rookie quarterback to Dallas’ starter. Sunday in Los Angeles, he’ll start his 65th straight game for the club long dubbed America’s Team.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) on the field before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at AT&T Stadium. (Photo: Tim Heitman, USA TODAY Sports)
The quarterback who wasn't selected until the No. 135 pick in the 2016 draft, supplanted Tony Romo as a rookie and now enters his second straight season on with one year remaining on his contract has become adept at blocking out external noise. But the voices inside his head are “way more important,” he says. And at times they feed negativity.
“When you have thoughts that you’ve never had, I think that’s more so than anything a chance to realize it and recognize it and to be vulnerable about it,” Prescott said. “I like to inspire. I like to put a smile on people’s faces, day in and day out. And I like to lead. When that’s taken away from you simply because you’re forced to quarantine and not be around people and get around people as much as you would like to, yeah, it’s tough.
“As it was for, I’m sure, the majority of the world.”
Prescott confided in his family, friends, current and former teammates. He worked with Chad Bohling, a Cowboys mental conditioning consultant who’s also the director of mental conditioning for the New York Yankees.
Prescott considered the death of his brother Jace, who had been a prime caretaker for their mother Peggy in the final days of her battle with colon cancer. He considered how deeply the burden must have weighed on Jace even seven years later. Prescott’s father, Nathaniel, says he draws at least some peace from knowing Peggy was “there waiting for him” when he died.
“We knew he was having hard times,” Nathaniel Prescott told Bensinger. “We talked to him about that. I’d say personally, even my Christmas card the past year stated that to him: ‘Baby, when you hurt, I hurt. But I need to know when you hurt.
“ ‘I need for you to let me in so I can do something.’”
Prescott has learned to increasingly let people in—and let his emotions out.
“I think being open about it and not holding those feelings in was one of the better things for me,” Prescott said. “I don’t want to sit here and dwell on the things that were a struggle for me when I know I’m very fortunate and blessed and other people have it much more worse. But just to be transparent about it. That even in my situation, emotions and those type of things, can overcome you if you don’t do something about it.”
Prescott didn’t directly address criticism from Fox Sports’ Skip Bayless, who in a Thursday segment questioned Prescott’s decision. Bayless suggested Prescott’s depression could be a sign of vulnerability, purporting that the “right” makeup for a Cowboys quarterback exudes strength and toughness.
Prescott dismissed the premise that a leader must always appear tough.
“I think that is a fake leader,” Prescott said. “Being a leader is about being genuine and being real. As I said, if I wouldn't have talked about those things to the people I did, I wouldn't have realized my friends and a lot more people go through them. And that they are as common as they are. I don’t think for one second, leaders or not.
“I don't care how big a person you are—if you are not mentally healthy and you’re not thinking the right way, then you are not going to be able to lead people the right way.”
Instead, Prescott seeks to transform his adversity into action. After his mother died of colon cancer in 2013, Prescott launched a foundation to fund cancer research and support families of cancer patients. He’s embraced his biracial heritage—his dad is Black, his mother Mexican American—as he coordinates a Dallas-area program to improve trust in law enforcement. Less than five months have passed since Prescott lost his brother. But he’s hopeful using his platform to speak openly about his depression and anxiety will encourage people who need help to find it.
“It saves lives,” Prescott said.
On and off the field this season, he’ll look to honor the memories of those he lost.
“I know I have the obligation to live on and carry on another legacy,” Prescott said in August. “So now it’s not just my mother, it’s my brother as well.
“I will continue to do that in every walk of my life.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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