FRISCO, Texas – During Dak Prescott’s junior year at Haughton High school in rural Louisiana, a young boy walked into the locker room before a football game. The boy asked Prescott for an autograph, and Prescott froze for a moment.
Standing at his kitchen counter at his home here on a recent off-day two weeks ago, Prescott chuckles at the memory now, his first autograph request making him more nervous than the boy asking for it. He has signed thousands of autographs since, both during his record-setting career at Mississippi State and as one of the bright young stars of the Dallas Cowboys. But that moment has stayed with him, a reminder of the feeling of a kind act for others.
“That was kind of the beginning,” Prescott said. “The first time I realized the impact I can have when someone looks up to me, that’s why I’ll never forget it.”
With the Cowboys playing their annual Thanksgiving game, this one against the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday, it will showcase Dallas navigating the most significant adversity of Prescott’s young career. They’ve been blown out in consecutive games, are hamstrung by key injuries (Sean Lee, Tyron Smith) and clearly miss suspended tailback Ezekiel Elliott. Until this point, Prescott’s career had been whirlwind of circumstance, serendipity and opportunism that’s led him to become a franchise NFL quarterback. And on his journey from fourth-round pick to NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year to one of the emerging faces of the NFL, Prescott has navigated a parallel process of discovering how much impact he can have on others.
Playing what’s arguably the most powerful position in sports, Prescott has embraced the significance of the platform that comes with being the Cowboys quarterback.
“It’s heartwarming to me that I can do so little and it will mean so much,” Prescott said. “I almost can’t even understand the process because it’s something so little to me, but so big to someone.”
What’s struck those who’ve watched Prescott begin to realize his potential impact in the charity space is an awareness of his reach. Heading into his senior year at Mississippi State, Prescott didn’t just pop by for a visit with the kids at Camp Jabber Jaw, a camp for children and families with communication challenges that use augmentative communication devices. Prescott made time to sit down with the nearly 30 kids and their families to communicate with them all individually. “That’s when he had me,” recalled Judy Duncan, a case manager at the T.K. Martin Center for Technology and Disability at Mississippi State.
Through his relationships at T.K. Martin, Prescott met one of the more remarkable students involved in the program. During Prescott’s camp in Starkville this summer, he spent time with Kendrell Daniels, a 17-year-old senior at rural Kemper County (Miss.) High School. Daniels was born without arms, and through a program at T.K. Martin called “EXPRESS Yourself!” he has begun to find himself. Since arriving there, Daniels has opened up and found confidence and a creative outlet through art. He’s considering attending Mississippi State to attend college, something he may never have done before the program. “It’s given me opportunities,” he said, “tools I can use, for what I would need to come to college.”
Daniels paints with his toes, and one of his pieces of art hangs in a foyer in Prescott’s house. Daniels began painting with the help of trackers – Laurie Craig and Duncan – but has evolved to where he paints on his own. Prescott met with Daniels at his camp this summer, as he’d hung up a piece of art Daniels made, initially not knowing who created it. The moment stuck with Daniels, as he watches the video of his meeting with Prescott at least once a week. The moment also stuck with Prescott: “It allows me to take everything and all my blessings and put it in perspective,” he said. “Don’t take anything for granted. He uses his mind and heart and does something that he loves and draws and is an artist and was able to touch my life. It reminds me I have that impact.”
That moment this summer, fleeting yet enduring, epitomizes the power that Prescott holds while playing the most football’s publicized position for one of America’s most powerful sporting brands. With Prescott locked in for what projects to be a long run under center in Dallas, his reach will continue to only grow.
The kid who grew up in a trailer park has moved to million-dollar home in a gated community near the Cowboys practice facility. But Prescott’s actions in the charitable space since his meteoric rise to stardom last season indicate a precocious empathy. Thousands of autographs later, Prescott hasn’t let go of the feeling of reciprocal joy he had delivering that first one.
“We feel like he’s been dropped from heaven,” said Charlotte Jones Anderson, the Cowboys’ executive vice president and chief brand officer. “To come in here like this with that poise and confidence and affection to know you can inspire people is rare. He’s not going to miss the opportunity to use it.
What appears to separate Prescott off the field at this early stage of his career is how he has carried out the responsibility, as his reach has already transcended the group-and-grins and team-mandated events that are an inherent part of professional sports. He has started a foundation – Fight, Finish, Faith – in honor of his late mother, Peggy, who died of colon cancer in 2013. The proceeds from that foundation will go toward fighting cancer and helping the families who’ve been touched by the disease. Postgame on Thursday, he’ll conduct his news conference in a custom bow tie known as Dak Ties, another cancer-based cause he has promoted all season.
Prescott has also done significant work with the Salvation Army, a charity that shows how powerful the Cowboys brand can be. In the 21 years the franchise has been affiliated with the Salvation Army, Jones Anderson said they’ve helped raised more than $2.4 billion. (The holiday season – as Ezekiel Elliott’s jump into the trademark red kettle last season showed – serves as an annual showcase).
“What’s so fascinating here is, all the stars are aligned,” Jones Anderson said. “He fills every box that is needed to be able to harness all of that together and let it rise. It’s like kerosene has been dropped on it and he dropped the match.”
And the most exciting part may be just how far it can spread as Prescott’s career takes off: “It’s a blessing to have this platform,” he said. “To be at this stage at this position in my life to be able to connect and interact with so many people. So many kids and so many people with disadvantages. So many families that need help and just need loving and a smile. And I’ve accepted it. It’s a big responsibility but I love it.”