In a classy, introspective speech to the Dallas media that at times felt like it might be headed toward a shock retirement announcement, deposed Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo offered a revealing glimpse into his football soul while discussing the anguish his injury caused and the mixed feelings he's had about the rise of Dak Prescott. Romo offered full, unwavering support of the decision for Prescott to remain the starting quarterback and said he's reminded himself that he was once in Prescott's shoes, when he replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe and never gave back the job.
For Romo to speak so freely in his first extended comments to the media in months was a brave move from an admirable man. Romo has always been a likable, relatable superstar, but he, or any athlete, has rarely been more human than he was while delivering a 733-word window into himself. It's rare to hear an athlete speak so candidly about a painful, complicated situation as it's happening. It's even rarer for someone to delve so deep into his own psyche and humanize himself in front of the world. (“It’s a dark place, probably the darkest it’s ever been,” is a full dose of reality.)
Romo, like all famous athletes, seemed larger than life when he suited up for a big game at Jerry World or wherever else the Cowboys would play. Then this year you see him on the sideline, holding a clipboard and watching his job get stolen by a kid who was born as he was getting ready for high school, and you know what you'd be thinking in the same situation. Turns out Romo is thinking it too. He's a jumble of mixed feelings – a regular guy too, prone to the same fears, doubts, jealousy and process of physical and mental recovery that we all have to go through at times in life, only without the entire country discussing, debating and following it in real-time.
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Romo started his talk with brutal honestly:
To say the first half of the season has been emotional would be a huge understatement. Getting hurt when you feel you have the best team you’ve ever had was a soul-crushing moment to me.
He later spoke of guilt for letting everybody down, the difficulties of hearing his livelihood discussed in the press and the idea that football's a meritocracy, something that seems to have helped him cope with the rise of Prescott.
[Prescott has] earned the right to be our quarterback. As hard as that is for me to say, he’s earned that right. He’s guided our team to an 8-1 record, and that’s hard to do.
The candor was refreshing. How many other athletes would have added “as hard as that is for me to say” before the blanket endorsement of a teammate who's turned his life upside-down?
There were moments Romo got so deep that you wondered how he was going to wrap it all up. My wife walked in the room during his speech , listened for 30 seconds and asked, “is he about to retire?” And with Romo saying things such as “I loved that, I still do” and “it’s a dark place, probably the darkest it’s ever been,” while fondly remembering that the love he has for football was forged in the camaraderie of shared commitment by teammates in high school and college, it was a reasonable question. He wasn't, of course. Romo was merely offering insight into the all the thoughts that run through your head when you're coming to grips with mortality – football mortality, in his case.
“That’s what you remember. Not your stats or your prestige, but your relationships and the achievement that you created, through a group. It’s hard to do, but there’s great joy in that. […] That’s why we love it, that’s why we trust it, that’s why I still want to play and compete.”
He's not dead yet and he knows it. Just three months ago he was expected to be leading the Cowboys to an NFC East championship and possibly getting the franchise back to the Super Bowl for the first time in two decades. There's still life in the arm yet. Romo understands now that it's not going to be with the Cowboys and sounds like he only recently came to grips with it.
That gave added power to his statement. Romo knows that while Prescott has earned the job, he could be doing just as well behind that dominant offensive line, handing off to a stud like Ezekiel Elliott. Given his words, I'd suspect he's certain of it. Because of that, it would have been easy to avoid talking to the press at all, leaving them to keep guessing if Jerry Jones was going to have an early hook for Prescott. He could have had a similar press conference and come off looking almost as classy, saying most of the same things, but throwing in a few qualifiers, while letting some sentences dangle or speaking with a slightly different tone. There would have been a read-between-the-lines interpretation of the statement that would have caused some to speculate that Romo wasn't on board with the decision. With uncertainty comes unrest. Romo easily could have tacitly endorsed the quarterback controversy that's been discussed so much this season.
Instead, he put an end to it.
This wasn't a farewell, however. Tony Romo's days in Dallas are numbered, but you'd be crazy to presume he'll never take the field again wearing a star on his helmet. The game is too dangerous to assume Prescott won't need a backup at some point in the next 10 weeks. Jerry Jones is too volatile to assume there won't be a quicker hook than you'd think if Prescott starts to struggle.
But we all know the speculation of Romo's status for 2016 will soon turn to debate about where he'll be in 2017. For now though, he'll accept his role as backup on the team he leads, as painful as that clearly is.