FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott had asked himself: What’s wrong with me?
The Cowboys quarterback had long wondered if he was perhaps “wired wrong,” he said, insatiable in his pursuit of greatness and excellence. The pass was never quite sharp enough, the scrimmage period never as smooth as it could be. That interception he’d thrown? Prescott needed a heat check. A great game by his Cowboys? He didn’t want his team to be great, he wanted to be the best. But why? Why, even after games in which he threw for 400 yards or led his team to victory, was he not satisfied?
In the months after a gruesome injury, Prescott says, he found answers from an unlikely source.
Questions abounded when Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle during the Oct. 11, 2020 Cowboys-Giants game. His on-field future was uncertain, including where and for how much money he would play when his season ended with an expiring contract. Clarity on his health, at first, evaded him: Why, when he began to bang his ankle against the AT&T Stadium turf to knock it back into place, did his lower right leg instead remain spaghetti-limp?
Emergency surgery that evening followed, another operation awaiting in December to further stabilize his ankle.
Prescott was beginning a months-long period of immobility when two books arrived in the mail: Kobe Bryant’s biography, “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play,” and “Relentless,” by high-profile sports performance consultant Tim Grover.
“I knocked them out,” Prescott told USA TODAY Sports. “Pretty quick. I read both of those in the sense of, I mean, probably two months. Those first couple months not doing anything, just laying up.”
“Gave me answers.”
COWBOYS: Mike McCarthy explains ‘big-picture’ decision to release LB Jaylon Smith
MORE: Cowboys starter La’el Collins seeks to block rest of NFL suspension with restraining order, injunction
‘I’m rooting for you’
Giants safety Logan Ryan had first encountered “Relentless” and “The Mamba Mentality” after suffering a broken fibula in December 2018. Like Prescott, Ryan was vying for a new contract when the injury occurred. And like Prescott, Ryan was wired to endlessly go. As recovery and rehabilitation loomed, he had been forced to stay. Reading about NBA Hall of Famer Bryant inspired his focus.
“Really just formed my comeback in a sense, the everyday approach,” Ryan told USA TODAY Sports by phone Monday evening. “An attitude that I was going to (work) every single day, make it my goal, be consistent and hold myself accountable.
“Small little things you’re doing in the middle of February can lead to success all the way in September.”
So when Ryan tackled Prescott last October on a third-quarter designed run, the players’ legs tangling and Prescott landing with one leg awry in what Ryan heard as a “double thud,” Ryan thought: What would Kobe do?
The question returned amid a wave of postgame emotion, Ryan upset not about his own actions or intentions but about the result and any potential financial ramifications Prescott would absorb.
Ryan called his publicist.
Could she mail Prescott “Relentless” and “The Mamba Mentality,” Ryan asked?
“It was bigger than a Cowboys-Giants rivalry to me,” Ryan said. “Something tragic happened that wasn’t fair on nobody’s timing but God’s. I just wanted to keep him encouraged.
“I just wanted him to know: ‘Hey, man: I’m rooting for you.”
Good, great, unstoppable
Grover published “Relentless” in 2013 after decades working with NBA Hall of Famers including Michael Jordan, Bryant and Dwyane Wade. He merges a background in kinesiology and exercise science with experience in performance motivation. As Grover spent more time with NBA and NFL players—Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and 49ers receiver Mohamed Sanu are among current clients, he says—he began to discern common themes driving success.
“These individuals are just so ultra-competitive, so ultra-obsessed with being the best at what they do,” Grover told USA TODAY Sports by phone Monday. “‘Relentless’ doesn’t tell what you to do; it gives you permission. It gives you permission to be this ultra-focused, ultra-competitive individual. The person that’s never satisfied and always wants more.
“I tell you where to look, but I don’t tell you what to see.”
Via anecdotes and mantras, Grover illustrates the significance of mental clarity in performance. He insists he does not push his athletes’ buttons, instead opting to pull them out so clients gain a greater awareness for what so-called buttons they have and how to self-activate sources of motivation. Grover aims to “rock the mental stamina,” he says, and he describes how Wade’s 2007 knee surgery recovery included a telling drill clients also used in their return from hip and ankle injuries. Athletes needed to jump up to and down from a 48-inch padded cylinder. The climb was a physical challenge; the landing was a mental barrier to break through.
“It shows me whether his body can withstand the stress,” Grover writes, “but equally important whether his head is ready to trust his body.”
The imagery resonated with Prescott.
As his football preparation was reduced to mostly film study and playoff-game viewing last winter, Prescott dove into what set apart players like Jordan, Bryant and Wade. He embraced Grover’s distinction between three levels of competitors: coolers, closers and cleaners.
Grover says coolers act carefully and best under limited pressure. Closers prepare for the pressure and act upon their preparation, celebrating success. Cleaners, “the most intense and driven competitor imaginable,” consistently achieve and expect success. Prescott identified with Grover’s “cleaner” description.
“Good, great, unstoppable,” Prescott recalled to USA TODAY Sports. “A cleaner never gets satisfied and is always hungry.”
Prescott accepted that testing his physical limitations must look different for those months, the Cowboys quarterback creating incremental challenges to gauge what previously would have felt like insignificant progress. And when his body wouldn’t do what it was once capable of? Prescott committed to training his mind.
‘He has the answers’
Grover describes instinct as a “gut reaction that comes from being so ready, so prepared, so confident, that there’s nothing to think about.”
“When you just know, you can act,” he adds.
Prescott felt so confident in his roughly six-month rehabilitation process that by May, he says, he had mentally “buried the injury.” He scrambled without hesitation in spring workouts and audibled on his first offensive snap back to regular-season play, completing a 28-yard pass to receiver Amari Cooper against the defending Super Bowl-champion Buccaneers.
Through four weeks, Prescott has completed 75.2% of his passes for 1,066 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. He has guided the Cowboys to a 3-1 start, Dallas averaging 31.5 points per game (fourth-best in league) and 420.8 yards (third).
Prescott said his mental preparation of the game has taken him to a point where plays unfold not too fast for him but too slow. He has to remind himself of the real-time speed at which humans can move even as his command of the Cowboys offense and play anticipation accelerate.
Coaches and players around the league are noticing.
“When you watch Dak right now, in reminds me of Peyton Manning, it reminds me of Drew Brees, in terms of his pocket awareness,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule told Dallas reporters last week ahead of Dallas’ 36-28 win vs. Carolina. “He’s playing such elite-level football both with his arm but also with his mind and feel for the game…at the highest level of mastery of this offense.
“I’ve been unbelievably impressed not just with his physical tools (but also) the mental game he’s playing. He’s playing chess out there.”
The Giants safety had studied Prescott’s game closely entering their 2020 face-off, keying in on Prescott’s growth and tendencies in addition to asking Giants offensive coordinator and former Cowboys coach Jason Garrett what Prescott liked and what defensive looks would most challenge his former quarterback. As he prepares for another Giants at Cowboys matchup Sunday, one day short of the injury anniversary, Ryan saw through film study a quarterback who “visualizes the game.”
“He’s definitely taking the time to play really fast in his mind,” Ryan said. “I think he just visualizes the game, visualizes the plays before they happen. That’s how he’s able to act so quickly on the field, not thinking ‘Hey, I hope my ankle’s holding up’ or ‘How am I going to react if they do that?’
“It’s almost like he has the answers.”
Prescott believes he does, thanks in part to “Relentless.”
“When you want to be great, you study greats,” Prescott said. “Took a lot from that.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dak Prescott: How Giants’ Logan Ryan helped Cowboys QB after injury