Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence reflected from his seat in the bleachers of the Cowboys’ indoor stadium Thursday morning. A memorial service for strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul streamed live from projectors arranged on the turf sideline. Lawrence’s teammates sat scattered throughout the bleachers, aiming to assemble both close enough to comfort each other and distant enough to appease their contact-tracing bracelets.
Nine days after the sudden death of their 54-year-old coach, shock and grief remain raw.
“Just being able to witness what happened with Markus and what his family is having to bear, I couldn’t imagine,” Lawrence said Thursday afternoon. “I built a relationship with him also so it’s kind of hard to speak about it without getting emotional.
“Something that happened right before our eyes. A great life taken away from us. It was a tragedy, ain’t no other way to put it.
“I just want to say, ‘I love you Markus. You will always be in my heart. And I ain’t got nothing but love and respect for you.’”
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The Dallas Cowboys observe a moment of silence to honor the memory of their strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul before the Thanksgiving Day game against the Washington Football Team at AT&T Stadium. (Photo: Jerome Miron, USA TODAY Sports)
Paul, who joined the Cowboys in 2018 and was promoted in January to lead the team’s strength and conditioning, collapsed in his office at The Star early on Nov. 24. Players in the weight room and throughout the facility watched as a defibrillator was rushed through their locker room. Emergency medical professionals followed next, transporting Paul to a nearby hospital just after 7:30 a.m. local time. Head coach Mike McCarthy dismissed the team for the day, canceling practice to ensure they could process the tragedy. The following evening, surrounded by family, Paul died at the hospital.
“When you lose a brother of your team and coaching staff, a father figure to a lot of the guys, that takes a toll on you. I know it’s still taking a toll on a lot of us,” linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said Wednesday. “He just wants the best for you. He’s wired that way. He gives it his all every single day. He’s one of the last ones out of the building every day. Sometimes we tease him and tell him that he needs to get away from it a little bit.
“But the dude was just an absolute grinder.”
Cowboys tribute, moment of silence for strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul: “His spirit, dedication, love and smile will never be forgotten.” pic.twitter.com/rwfgmt2fjD
Paul spent a total of 23 seasons coaching with the Cowboys, Giants, Jets, Patriots and Saints. In all, Paul contributed to five Super Bowl titles — two with the Giants and three with the Patriots. He played five seasons with the Bears and Buccaneers as well, after Chicago selected the Syracuse star defensive back in the fourth round of the 1989 NFL draft. His 17 interceptions remain a Syracuse record.
Longtime Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston, a Syracuse co-captain with Paul in the 1980s, spoke Thursday morning at the service. So did Cowboys pastor Jonathan Evans, Paul’s Syracuse roommate and teammate David Holmes, and North Colony Church of Christ minister Willie B. Williams III. Williams read tributes from Paul’s wife, children, brothers and more. Messages resonated.
“When you talk about a guy just doing things right, I think he was a perfect example for it,” cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said. “I think that’s why it’s hurting a lot of us so much. But you never know [for what] time God allows you on this earth. You’ve got to do it doing what Coach Markus did — and that was be a servant, definitely preaching God’s word and then obviously impacting every place he stepped in.
“It was a tremendous service.”
Cowboys scheduled to pay tribute soon to strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul, who died last night.
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The Cowboys were initially scheduled to play "Thursday Night Football" in Baltimore this week. COVID-19 concerns delayed the game first to Monday and then to Tuesday. With 12 days elapsing between games, they treated this week like a de facto bye. They went to the facility to lift the day after Thanksgiving, then spent a welcome four days at home with family.
“Just to have a couple days off and really get to focused on what’s important and that’s family,” Lawrence said. “Show everyone how much you love them each and every day because you never know.”
On Wednesday, the team returned to conduct a light practice in the morning before breaking into position groups to watch their next opponent, the Baltimore Ravens, play the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Paul’s loss remained evident in the weight room without their chief lift motivator, a vacuum at midfield where he led the team in a pre-practice stretch each day. Thursday, the team devoted most of the morning to virtually participating in the memorial service before returning to game preparation in the afternoon.
“You just got to make sure your mentals are right, make sure your emotions are right before even thinking about being able to step out on the field,” receiver Michael Gallup said. “You’ve got to handle adversity, and I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve had to do this year with everything. It’s definitely a tough week, but you’ve got to be able to bounce back.”
At 3-8, the Cowboys are last in the NFC East but just a game behind the division leaders. A series of injuries, COVID-19, a coaching change and Paul’s death challenge them this season. Their focus turns to football, and an attempted run at a postseason berth, but perspective lingers.
“It really makes you realize to not take anything for granted,” Vander Esch said. “Because it can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye. So I think that’s just the way a lot of people need to live. Everybody should live that way because life’s short. You never know what’s going to catch up to you. You don’t know when something is going to happen just like that.
“It comes out of nowhere. And so you’ve got to live your life to the fullest.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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