Dak Prescott (left) throws a pass as he talks with quarterback Tony Romo during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles on October 30, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Images)
Last month, on a weekday evening during Dallas’ bye week, Romo hosted a gathering at his new home for any member of the squad who remained in town.
Some Cowboys shot hoops on Romo’s indoor basketball court while others played Ping-Pong or cards or teed off on his golf simulator. A catered meal from Nick & Sam’s, Romo’s favorite restaurant, featured steak, shrimp, lobster, chicken parmesan and numerous salads and sides.
So impressed were some of the players that they sent out Snapchats of the soiree throughout the evening.
“That just tells you what kind of guy he is,” third-year linebacker Anthony Hitchens said of Romo. “He may be out right now, but he’s as big of a part of this team as he ever was.”
At least off the field.
Whether Romo gets another chance to guide the Cowboys on it remains to be seen.
In what’s easily been the biggest surprise of the NFL season to date, Prescott has played with the poise of a seasoned veteran in leading the Cowboys to a 6-1 record in Romo’s absence. Initially, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Romo would retain his starting position once he was healthy enough to return.
Now that seems questionable, if not unlikely.
While the rest of the country is fixated on Trump vs. Hillary, the biggest debate in Dallas these days centers on Romo vs. Dak.
"He may be out right now, but he's as big of a part of this team as he ever was."
— LINEBACKER ANTHONY HITCHENS ON TONY ROMO
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones admitted earlier this week that Romo could be viewed as “fragile” and has now pushed the veteran’s return date to “near the end of the year.” He’s also hinted at the possibility of sticking with Prescott even after Romo returns.
“Right now we’ve got a lot of chemistry going,” Jones told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas on Tuesday. “That has got to be really recognized if you’re making a decision.”
Legendary Cowboys quarterbacks such as Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman have opined that Dallas should continue with Prescott as its starter, and even Romo recognizes that there’s no urgency to return before he’s completely healed.
In past years, especially last season, he felt pressure to rush back from injuries simply because the Cowboys offense—without a quality backup quarterback—could hardly function without him.
Now, his friends said, Romo has the luxury of taking his time and making sure he’s 100 percent before he comes back, because he knows the Cowboys are in good hands with Prescott.
“He’s frustrated,” Sekeres said, “because he feels like these are the best years of his [career] he’s missing out on. He knows he’ll get another chance, but he recognizes that it can go fast.
“He did say to me, ‘I’m glad we’ve got our guy when I’m done.’ Tony wants the organization to be left in good hands when he’s finished playing, and he can see that Dak is going to be that guy. They’ve found his successor, and Tony is happy about that.”
Dak Prescott celebrates after a first down during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium on October 30, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (Getty Images)
Although the Cowboys fanbase seems to be behind Prescott, the chatter has been more pro-Dak than anti-Romo. If anything, the lack of venom is a sign of appreciation and respect for a player who has become ingrained in the city’s fabric.
Now 36, Romo is a regular at Dallas Mavericks and SMU basketball games. Whether he’s eating at Nick & Sam’s, shopping for groceries or speaking to a church youth group, Romo almost never turns down requests for pictures or autographs. It was only last summer that he upgraded to his mammoth home—one of the luxuries of his $108 million contract. On most days, he's content to bounce around town in jeans and a ball cap.
Once tabbed by Forbes as “One of America’s Most Eligible Bachelors,” Romo is a family man now. He married former Dallas sportscaster Candice Crawford in an extravagant outdoor ceremony in 2011. Romo’s eyes watered and his voice cracked as he read his vows—“one of the only times I’ve ever seen him get emotional,” Sekeres said. Other than winning a Super Bowl, Romo’s biggest goal in football is to play long enough for his sons, Hawkins (4) and Rivers (2), to grasp what their dad did for a living.
“He’ll cut a guys’ trip a day or two short and go home early just because he misses them and wants to read them bedtime stories,” Brewer said. “His family has changed him. I wouldn’t say football is less important, but who he is as a human being is more important.”
Romo’s new image has played well in Dallas.
"I don't know for sure, but I would assume that, if he couldn't play for the Cowboys, he'd just rather not play."
— ANDY ALBERTH, TONY ROMO'S COUSIN
“This city has thrown its arms around Tony and embraced him,” said David Shivers, the minister at Prestonwood Baptist Church and the officiant in Romo’s wedding. “Seeing him go through ups and downs has made people appreciate him even more. He’s grown up right before everyone’s eyes.
“He’s one of ours now.”
Indeed, even though he’s a Wisconsin native, Romo’s friends and relatives said he now considers Dallas his home and will continue to live there after retirement. Prescott’s emergence has sparked discussion about whether the Cowboys would consider trading Romo, a situation that could be awkward.
“This is where he wants to be,” said Andy Alberth, Romo’s cousin and one of his closest confidants. “I don’t know for sure, but I would assume that, if he couldn’t play for the Cowboys, he’d just rather not play.”
Whether it’s in a starting role or off the bench as a backup, Romo, who has declined all interview requests during his rehab, figures to see the field again this season as a Dallas Cowboy. The moment could be special. While Prescott has performed well in the regular season, Dallas’ staff may feel more comfortable with a veteran in the playoffs. Never mind that Romo is just 2-4 in postseason games.
“For as much as people knock him for his late-season issues, he’s also the person that got them to the playoffs in the first place,” said ESPN.com's Todd Archer, who has covered the Cowboys throughout Romo’s entire career. “Plus, most of those losses don’t fall on him. I definitely think the coaches would look at that possibility.”
Sekeres said a little-known fact is that Romo’s decision to wear jersey No. 9 was influenced by Roy Hobbs, the fictitious character portrayed by Robert Redford in the 1984 baseball movie The Natural.
In the film’s climactic scene, a 35-year-old Hobbs, who had been struggling, blasts a two-out, ninth-inning home run into the right field lights to win the pennant for the New York Knights.
“Our hope,” Sekeres said, “is that he has his own Natural moment, when he comes back and makes a final run for this city and this team.”
All he needs is a chance.
“The final chapter hasn’t been written yet,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. “He’s not going to let himself fail.”