Inside the Cowboys’ reaction to tragic accident

CINCINNATI – I boarded the Cowboys’ chartered plane bound for Cincinnati just after noon in Dallas with the knowledge that the club had assembled players for an early Saturday meeting to inform them of what I knew to be an “incident” involving what I was told was “a practice-squad player and a part-time defensive starter.”

Josh Brent — who was scheduled to start for the Cowboys in Sunday’s game against the Bengals — was listed on the flight manifest with assigned seat 27F.

But as I boarded, Brent was not in his seat and would not be in his seat as a result of the tragic circumstances involving the death of practice-squad newcomer Jerry Brown Jr. and Brent’s intoxication-manslaughter arrest.

Brent was arrested at 4:14 a.m. after the 2:20 a.m. one-car accident in Irving, Texas, in which Brent flipped his 2007 Mercedes after reportedly hitting a curb at a high speed.

Irving police say they came upon the scene and found Brent, 24 and a third-year pro, attempting to drag Brown, 25, from the burning car. The pair, teammates at the University of Illinois, joined a dozen teammates who apparently spent Friday night at Privae, a Dallas club where comedian Shawn Wayans was appearing.

I joined other non-team staffers in being asked to leave the plane before takeoff — an unprecedented scene for us as the Cowboys conducted a second team meeting just after noon aboard the team charter at DFW Airport. Non-team employees left the plane for about 10 minutes as players and coaches remained on the aircraft. Also on the plane were Cowboys staffers with expertise in counseling and backgrounds in law enforcement.

News gathering began: Brent’s absence. The way he and Brown fit the profiles of those in my “incident” information. Their college association. Why is cornerback Brandon Carr not aboard? (His excused absence was unrelated; Carr was attending the funeral of Jovan Belcher, the Kansas City linebacker who took his own life after murdering his girlfriend last weekend, and will join the club in Cincinnati.) And then some official word, as police say they determined at the scene that Brent was the driver of the vehicle and that he failed a sobriety test. Brown was found unresponsive at the scene and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

The plane ride was a joyless one. While our media section of the plane buzzed with the chase for more information, the coaches’ and players’ sections were silent. One team staffer with an expertise in psychology moved from first class (coaches) to the rear section (players) and engaged in small-group conversation. Those whispers were all that broke the somber emptiness. The same mood continued at the team hotel, where on Saturday night we all trudged into the Hilton, the Cowboys going about their business preparing for Sunday’s game against the Bengals, the rest of us in no mood to visit Skyline Chili or watch the Heisman Trophy telecast.

The club said there is no news conference scheduled, and that seems prudent. What, exactly, would we like Brent’s buddies, like classy veteran defensive lineman Jason Hatcher, to say? Cowboys owner Jerry Jones issued a statement saying he is “saddened by news of the incident and the passing of Jerry Brown. At this time, our hearts and prayers and deepest sympathies are with the members of Jerry’s family and all of those who knew him and loved him.”

Brent was selected in the 2010 NFL Supplemental Draft after leaving Illinois as a junior. He’s been effective this season for the Cowboys while playing in place of injured former Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff. Brent, generally a happy-go-lucky presence in the Cowboys locker room at Valley Ranch, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor DUI in college.

The Cowboys signed Brown to their practice squad on Oct. 24; he was not well-known to most of his teammates, but is being mourned by all of them.

“Split-second decisions … smh,” tweeted Cowboys safety Barry Church, before adding an hour later, “Please keep Jerry B and Josh B in your prayers.”