Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott showed a sensitivity, vulnerability and candor when he talked about depression and other mental health issues. And it did not lessen his ability to be a strong leader. In fact, it was enhanced. Brandon Wade/Associated Press

 

Dak Prescott was playing with such a daringness and nerve that he was on his way to setting all-time NFL records. He’d made a tremendous self-bet, and he was winning it. But there was a double bet going on, really. Prescott’s season wasn’t just about whether he could dictate his own terms to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, but about whether a man in this league could lead with his heart and still be considered a man.

The question is answered.

You could see from the conceding sink of Prescott’s head in a towel after urgently pointing at his sickeningly wrong-turned ankle, that he was crying as much because it was over as because it hurt. The annulment of this self-bet of a season, to quit while so fearlessly ahead, was harder to bear than a compound fracture-dislocation. It was the harshest stop.

The question of Prescott’s strength was answered in the aghast stillness of the owner in his box, who saw the full value of what he had lost. It was answered in the sudden burst of Twitter-toadying from Fox commentator Skip Bayless, who had inexcusably belittled Prescott for admitting to depression in the offseason. It was answered in the kneeling of players on both teams, whose regard for Prescott was so high that it drove them to prayers in the grass. “There was a flood of emotion, even from their bench,” Cowboys Coach Mike McCarthy said. “The respect everybody has for Dak … that was clearly evident during those moments.”

And it was answered in the postgame outpouring from Logan Ryan of the New York Giants, the safety who tackled Prescott and under whose body his foot had gotten pinned. All Prescott had done, Ryan said, was “try and get rewarded, try to do the right thing, try to show up to work, try to lead his team, try to get a lucrative contract. … I hope he gets $500 million when he comes back. He deserves it.”

Prescott can’t finish what he so magnificently started, but he accomplished something definitive this season anyway. He put to rest the crusty, useless old idea that strength is incompatible with emotional candor, that an NFL leader must at all times be armored up and never confess to whatever weakness he might feel in his heart. He once and for all rendered this a hollow mythology expressed by folks who’ve never really participated, voyeurs like Bayless.

Here was Bayless back in September, after Prescott admitted in a radio interview to struggling with a brutal compound of anxiety, insomnia and despondency over the suicide of his older brother Jace, amid the isolation of the coronavirus shutdown. “The sport that he plays is dog-eat-dog,” Bayless announced. “It is no compassion, no quarter given on the football field. If you reveal publicly any little weakness, it can affect your team’s ability to believe in you in the toughest spot.”

Now, this is important for every person in this pandemic who has exchanged a dark suit for stay-at-home sweats, who has felt worry wear away at them, who has veered between endurance and despair, who has felt unstrung and yet found the wherewithal to say to themselves, “I’m trying.” NFL football is no more or less dog-eat-dog, quarterless, and compassionless than your daily life. It is simply a compressed stage-lit version of it. And in thinking about how to deal with your no-quarter burdens, better to listen to Prescott than Bayless.

“Our adversities, our struggles, what we go through is always gonna be too much for ourselves and maybe too much for even one or two people,” Prescott said. “But never too much for a community or too much for people in the family that you love. So you have to share these things.”

Prescott understands something critical about admitting weakness: it’s the only path to real strength. If you doubt him on that, listen to Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor who studies human performance and counsels high-pressure professionals ranging from NFL players to trauma surgeons to Special Operations forces.

“Vulnerability is not weakness, it’s our most accurate measure of courage,” she said recently during a podcast with Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, who regularly brings her in to speak to his team. To illustrate what she means by this, Brown tells the story of a visit to Fort Bragg to talk to soldiers there. She asked them a simple question.

“Give me a single example of courage from your own life, or that you witnessed in anyone else’s life, that did not require uncertainty, risk and exposure,” she said.

Total silence.

Rarely has a player been as vulnerable as Prescott made himself this season, in multiple ways. He was playing on a one-year franchise tag because he declined a handsome offer: The Cowboys wanted to wrap him up to a long-term five-year deal, but Prescott wanted the freedom to get out from under in four years, to preserve his self-determination and the leverage his singular talent is worth – only Tom Brady and Russell Wilson have won more games since 2016. All he did under that self-imposed pressure was to lead the league with 1,690 passing yards, including over 450 in three games, and play with such abandon that he was struggling for one more yard when Ryan pinned him.

But most importantly, what Prescott did in this shortened season was to give every player in the NFL the permission to expose his chest, to look at his own emotional landscape with candor. It’s the people who are able to do this who become the most persuasive leaders – in all walks, not just on the field – because they are authentic, not just plastic-skinned, eggshell-egoed imitations of what they think strong is supposed to be. All of us muster situational energies to get through hard days, but they flag, and we try to artificially sustain them at our peril.

“That passion, that fire, can keep you alive or it can burn down the barn,” Brown told Carroll. “And show me a man or woman that wants to control fire and I’ll show you a liar.”

People, players, sense the liars. Great leaders like Prescott have the interior security of knowing they have addressed their weaknesses, not hid from them. This enabled him to cast a mighty projection this season. And it will no doubt enable a hell of a comeback.

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