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FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott strode carefully across the concrete outside the Star toward the Cowboys’ practice fields, a crutch under his left arm limiting the weight he placed on his surgically repaired right ankle.
A black mask protected his face in the pandemic-strict practice atmosphere, a white cap and white shoes bookending his black sweatshirt and navy sweatpants.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott, in uniform and helmet, approached his close friend. Elliott mimed a limp, in jest. In response, Prescott lifted his crutch and took several steps to flaunt his progressing mobility halfway through a four-month recovery timeline.
“For me, it’s about creating and making small victories,” Prescott said in a Pepsi Rookie Roundtable published this week with NFL Network’s Steve Wyche. “Each and every day, when I wake up and I go in for rehab, it’s about for me, seeing my leg or seeing my body do something that it didn’t do the day before or creating a feeling that I didn’t have the day before so I know that I’m continuing to get better.”
Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle on a third-quarter run that went awry during the Cowboys’ Week 5 game against the Giants.
He was carted off the field and immediately transported to a local hospital for surgery to repair the fracture and clean the wound. His recovery timeline was estimated at four months from the Oct. 11 operation, and Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said Prescott is “ahead of schedule.”
Even so, the lengthy rehab is a new experience for a quarterback who had started 72 consecutive games from the time he was drafted and never previously suffered a long-term injury.
“I’ve been able to play every level of my career because the guy in front of me has gotten injured,” said Prescott, who replaced an injured Tony Romo as fourth-round rookie and never ceded the job. “So I know what it means to be ready, to stay ready in case a guy gets injured in front of you. And now to be that guy that’s injured, for the first time in my career I’m missing the rest of the season, it’s different.
Even so, Prescott interacts with his teammates while rehabbing at the Star. He hasn’t been able to attend games because of the league’s COVID-19 protocol restrictions, though a Friday memo to clubs lifted the rule previously prohibiting his attendance.
At Friday’s practice, the first time since his injury that Prescott attended during the portion open to the media, he spent time with Elliott and tight end Blake Jarwin, who’s rehabbing from a season-ending ACL injury.
Vice president of player personnel Will McClay joined Prescott for an extended chat. Next came head coach Mike McCarthy, who offered a hug and words. Prescott left practice as the quarterbacks emerged from the indoor turf to join their teammates on the outdoor field. Prescott raised his hand at the door. Each quarterback answered the high-five offer, visibly energized by the team leader.
“It’s good every day to see him,” Elliott said. “He’s always in great spirits, doing whatever he can to uplift his team, although that’s very limited just because of the circumstances. But Dak’s been great.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones echoed that sentiment, noting that Prescott’s perspective on stacking small victories resonated.
“Boy, that’s telling as to how his mind is and how he approaches his work and having those positive gains,” Jones said Friday on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “Every day, as early as you can, you need a victory. That’s very effective, a victory. I know a lot of people say I get up and I get my workout in, and I may get my ass kicked the entire rest of the day, but I won one right there.
“And that starts me off right. And so finding those little victories, and, boy, it tells you the mind game that he’s having to work through to get his rehab in. He’s got all the goals and positives there are in the world. But it just goes back to the guy in the mirror, that’s where you want to win, right there, with him.
“He’s the difference.”
Prescott and the Cowboys failed to reach a long-term agreement in the offseason, Prescott signing a $31.4 million fully guaranteed franchise tag for 2020. Negotiations can resume after the season, a second tag for Prescott set to cost the Cowboys $37.7 million in 2021 even as the salary cap dips due to COVID-19’s impact on revenue.
Since the Cowboys selected Prescott 135th overall in 2016, Prescott has thrown for 17,634 yards and 106 touchdowns to 40 interceptions while posting a 42-27 regular-season record. He has scored another 25 touchdowns rushing and receiving, while averaging a 97.3 career passer rating.
In four-and-a-half games this season before his injury, Prescott threw for 1,846 yards and totaled 13 touchdowns from scrimmage while throwing four interceptions. He set NFL records as he passed for at least 450 yards in three consecutive games.
Andy Dalton replaced Prescott after the injury, though Dalton missed two-and-a-half games first to a concussion and then to COVID-19. During that stint, rookie seventh-round selection Ben DiNucci and veteran journeyman Garrett Gilbert started.
Prescott and the Cowboys have publicly maintained their interest in a long-term deal, Stephen Jones saying as recently as Nov. 9 that “certainly we’re fired up about our future with Dak.”
Prescott has his eyes on the future, too.
“At the end of the day, I know my team needs me,” Prescott said. “I know that they need me now for support. But they’ll need me again [on the field] later. So it’s about helping them, whichever way that I can and however I can.
“It’s about being right mentally and then counting those small victories.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein