Dak Prescott is helping to lead NFL revolution on mental health

Late in April, as Dak Prescott settled in for a sponsorship appearance, a moment unfolded that spoke to a new prioritization among NFL players.

As a Zoom interview was set to roll with the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, a corporate representative piped into the video feed with a last-second boundary, a “no fly” topic that raised an eyebrow — particularly given Prescott’s recent leading voice on the topic.

No mental health questions.

Suddenly, Prescott was stopping the interview before it even started. He wanted that barrier removed.

“The mental health — guys, I’m fine with that,” Prescott said. “I’m going to answer it the way I want to answer it, so I’m fine with that. … I’m not running from mental health questions.”

It was a quiet and unseen moment, just days before Mental Health Awareness Month was set to kick off in the United States. If you’ve been around the NFL long enough, you can understand how significant it was. Not just because Prescott is one of the NFL’s most recognizable and highly paid star quarterbacks — playing for the Cowboys, no less — but because he had the opportunity to say nothing about mental health, yet went in the opposite direction.

Given the opportunity to evade, he chose to embrace. Rather than stay silent, he chose to speak. And in doing so, Prescott continued to push forward a conversation that is becoming larger, louder and a more accepted part of the league. To that point, the NFL kicked off a series of health and wellness stories this week on the league’s various platforms, continuing strides to make the issue a more prominent and embraced part of pro football.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott speaks during a news conference at the team's NFL football practice facility in Frisco, Texas, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. The Cowboys and Prescott have finally agreed on the richest contract in club history, two years after negotiations began with the star quarterback. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott speaks during a news conference at the team's NFL football practice facility in Frisco, Texas, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. The Cowboys and Prescott have finally agreed on the richest contract in club history, two years after negotiations began with the star quarterback. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

It’s no longer just public service announcements, either. Indeed, mental health is now becoming a more ingrained part of the assistant coaching equation across the NFL, which began an initiative in 2019 with the Players Association to require all franchises to hire an in-house mental health professional. As part of that initiative, the league and union required each franchise to have a licensed behavioral health clinician in the team facility for at least eight hours each week. It also required that clinician to coordinate the mental health care needs for players. Now two years in the making, players like Prescott have begun looking at those clinicians like they’re part of the assistant coaching staff.

“We already have [a counseling coach] — the Cowboys, we have a mental coach in Chad Bohling and we’ve got a team doctor in Yolanda Brooks,” Prescott said. “We’ve already taken that step and I know a bunch of organizations have. The NFL is head-first and foot-first in doing everything they can to help mental health. You see all the unfortunate former players that we have passing in direct correlation with mental health. I think the NFL is obligated to [help] and they have. That’s exciting and that’s refreshing for me, to know that mental health is being coached like a skill. That’s exactly what it is. You have to work on it almost each and every day for it to be where you want it to be.”

Prescott’s words on the subject carry weight partly because his life was touched by the suicide of his brother Jace last year and because Prescott opened up significantly about that tragedy and how it impacted his own mental health. It was a remarkably vulnerable moment that galvanized the NFL’s player community to talk about a long-stigmatized subject, with others applauding Prescott for having the strength to push back against the league’s historic attitude of frowning upon revelations of depression or self-doubt.

In a league where star quarterbacks are given so much attention, Prescott opening a very deep and personal conversation about his own mental health was a seismic event. And it instantly made him a leading NFL voice on the subject.

“Thats a testament to my platform, just being a quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys,” Prescott said. “And not only that, [but] having experience with it losing a brother and just all of the things that I’ve been through, from fighting all the adversity and coming back to a position that I could be proud of, [then experiencing] adversity again and bouncing back.

"It’s humbling in a sense that when I talk about such an important and vital thing in this world — mental health — that everyone listens. But I’m also obligated to do so, knowing that ears are on me and people are listening for advice. And people are listening to know how they can help themselves.”

It hasn’t always been this way in the NFL, of course. We’re not that far removed from a time when players talking about their own mental health was considered an admission of weakness. Or when things like anxiety, depression or traumatic stress disorders were the kinds of red flags that left you adrift in free agency or tumbling down draft boards.

Now those subjects are becoming part of a growing conversation across the league that is very much driven by the players themselves. From Prescott’s vulnerability after the loss of his brother to the outpouring of emotion from current and former players after the death of longtime wideout Vincent Jackson in February, the chorus of voices pushing the NFL to continue doing more for mental health is continuing to grow.

We’ll see part of the league’s response this month, as the NFL kicked off a Mental Health & Wellness series that delves into the issue with a wide array of players discussing their own stories.

The league released a trailer for the effort earlier this week, with a number of players speaking about mental health. Longtime NFL fullback Michael Robinson calls for more compassion, love and patience dealing with the topic; tight end Hayden Hurst touches on his years-long battle with depression and anxiety; wideout D.J. Chark speaks about fear beyond his control; defensive end Solomon Thomas talks about coping mechanisms; defensive end Joey Bosa touches on the brain being a muscle that requires a different kind of strength; and Buccaneers guard Ali Marpet notes the importance of having a support system in times of doubt.

“It means the world to me to see NFL players be so vulnerable with their struggles from a mental health standpoint,” Robinson says in the trailer. “It was always the mightiest of the mighties, right? The manly men. The fact that it’s changing, the narrative is changing — when I first got into the National Football League, you would have never seen any pieces like this, where guys are sharing some of this information. Now you’re seeing guys raise their hand and say ‘Hey, I’m willing to share my story. Because if my story can help somebody else out there, that’s all that matters.’”

As Prescott has said repeatedly about moving the conversation forward: “I think the best way is to be vulnerable and talk about it.”

That’s happening more than ever in the NFL. Largely because the league has a growing number of players who see the exploration of their mental health as a strength to be embraced, rather than a flaw to be concealed.

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