‘The most positive man’: One year after Markus Paul's death, Cowboys channel legacy of strength and conditioning coordinator

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FRISCO, Texas — The Cowboys began practice Tuesday with the well-known refrain.

They’ll recite it as they warm up Wednesday, too, and on Thursday amid pregame stretches before facing the Raiders.

“As Markus would say,” a member of the strength and conditioning staff will exclaim, “sum-of-deez!”

Cue the cross-body, horizontal arm swings that former Cowboys strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul believed were necessary even as their formal descriptor eluded him.

One year after Paul died suddenly at 54 years old, the Cowboys continue to honor him with each warmup. The stretch is brief, the verbal nod to Paul still briefer. But at the Star and at stadiums, the mention of Paul reminds players: Channel the coach who demanded much but was “probably the most positive man I’ve ever met,” receiver CeeDee Lamb told USA TODAY Sports. Honor the coach who moved with faith and humility but “you couldn’t manipulate him,” receiver Amari Cooper told USA TODAY Sports. “He had his standards and he stuck with them.”

The Cowboys celebrated Paul’s life Tuesday morning in their team meeting, with head coach Mike McCarthy and current strength and conditioning coordinator Harold Nash leading a tribute to a man who spent the final three years of his life with the Cowboys and 22 total years coaching players in a career that traversed the New England Patriots, New York Jets and New York Giants.

Paul’s impact on players’ fitness was broad, honing their strength, speed and accountability with strategically directed explosive moments and free-weight regimens. But Paul did not only bolster players’ physical fitness. Paul’s legacy reverberates also in the example he set in worship, fatherhood and marriage.

“You want the whole team to appreciate what a positive light he shined on everybody,” McCarthy told USA TODAY Sports. “What he meant to us and what he left behind.”

Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul  during training camp at River Ridge Fields.
Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul during training camp at River Ridge Fields.

‘Like the barber shop’

Paul was a man of routine. He’d arrive at the Cowboys facility around 5:45 or 6 each day, Nash says, preparing for early-morning lifts with practice-squad players and a day’s worth of single-A squats, double-A squats and position-specific drills.

A big smile would cross Paul’s face as he joined a player at the bench, subsequent guidance as likely to improve his pupil's mind and spirit as his body.

“The weight room is like the barber shop,” Nash told USA TODAY Sports. “And that’s who he was. He stimulated those conversations.”

When receiver Michael Gallup walked into the weight room dispiritedly, Paul would call him to task.

“Mikey G, why you got that look on your face?” Gallup recalled Paul’s words. “Just go earn it. Just go get it.”

When defensive backs sought further strength, Paul channeled his own five years’ experience as an NFL safety and connected with them even more deeply. Cornerback Anthony Brown still carries Paul’s pointers on fatherhood home with him. The father of two and stepfather of two reminded players: Your kids are paying attention. You’re their role model. Do right by them.

Paul’s children, 24-year-old Jairus and 23-year-old Tabitha, say their father did just that. When Jairus was 10, his dad taught him a trick move to fake out his defender in soccer, Jairus marveling when he scored a goal off the recommendation from a father who neither played nor watched the game. Jairus and Tabitha each reveled in their father’s beautiful singing voice, Tabitha still in awe that he stood before a church crowd of 100-plus to lead a singing session the Sunday before she left for college.

“That inspired me,” Jairus told USA TODAY Sports. “I can sing a little bit, but if I got in front of people, no. He broke out of his comfort zone and really did that.”

Former NFL strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul (center) with daughter Tabitha and son Jairus.
Former NFL strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul (center) with daughter Tabitha and son Jairus.

Gestures of unconditional love were as bountiful as Paul’s nightly bowls of mint chocolate chip ice cream topped with blueberries, ice cream being the lone exception in the strength and conditioning coach’s otherwise health-conscious household. (Think: peanuts constituted junk food.)

Paul’s children say he demonstrated profoundly how much he cared about their well-being when he promised not to move them during high school, retaining his position as Giants assistant strength and conditioning coach from 2011-18 before acquiescing to recruiting pitches by mentor and then-Cowboys coordinator Mike Woicik.

By that time, Jairus and Tabitha were enrolled in college, the failed attempts to beat dad in basketball less frequent (Jairus never prevailed) and the Sunday best-of-three ping-pong matches fading. The Giants memories would not fade from the Paul family ethos when Markus moved to Dallas, just as Paul had sometimes forgotten to leave his Giants mentality at work when he came home. Tabitha, who played volleyball and ran track, remembers when her dad offered to spot her lift.

“He’d just be stacking these weights on the bar,” Tabitha said. “And I’m like ‘Dad, I’m not (former Giants receiver) Odell Beckham. I need you to calm down here.’

“It was funny.”

Former NFL strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul and Heidi celebrating their marriage with their children, left to right: Jairus Paul, Tabitha Paul, Mathias Smith and Dwayne Smith.
Former NFL strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul and Heidi celebrating their marriage with their children, left to right: Jairus Paul, Tabitha Paul, Mathias Smith and Dwayne Smith.

‘A true man’

Markus began dating his future wife Heidi Paul in late 2017, during Markus’ final season with the Giants. They had known each other since 1977 when their fathers became close friends and Heidi first saw 11-year-old Markus play the drums at his Florida church. But it wasn’t until 40 years later when each was divorced and the Giants visited New England for their final preseason game, that Markus reached out: Would Heidi join him for dinner? Heidi was so nervous she asked her dad, a longtime friend of Markus’ father, to join.

“So my dad came on our first date,” Heidi remembered on Monday over Zoom.

The relationship, rooted in shared family values and deep friendship, progressed quickly. Markus admired Heidi’s genuine love of who he was, not just the high-profile industry he was in. Heidi marveled at Markus’ work ethic, humility and powerful faith. As they dated long-distance, Markus emailed Heidi excerpts from books he was reading on love and marriage. They’d discuss the passages by phone, alternating who read aloud which night.

At 8:26 p.m. on Dec. 20, 2017, Markus emailed Heidi a list of Scriptural sources on how to serve as a Godly husband, ranging from Genesis descriptors that a husband “confer with” his wife to a Malachi imperative to “be faithful.” He invited Heidi to recommend further sources.

“Also, I added a list of the different types of husbands that you can find in the Bible,” he wrote in an email Heidi shared with USA TODAY Sports. “We'll take a look at those men and see which ones you'd prefer me to learn from. Please, feel free to add to this list as well.

“Love you,” he signed the email. “Markus.”

Their conversations, and open line of communication, grew steadily stronger in the three years that followed, Markus’ faith also deepening via Bible study with his church community and team chapel attendance the night before games. Striking the perfect balance of work and family duties remained mathematically unfeasible, but he made clear in all settings where his heart lay.

“He really used to talk so much about (Heidi) and that resonated with me, just how much he cherished her,” quarterback Dak Prescott told USA TODAY Sports. “The relationship they had, you know you almost like envy having that relationship with somebody.

“When you’re in this business, you’re looking at men and trying to take whatever you can from them as inspiration or to take a part from their life that they do great to have in yours. I know that’s something that I took.

“He was just a true man.”

‘We’re human beings’

It’s this magnitude of personal and professional impact, in addition to the utter shock, pain and trauma of his sudden death, that contributed to what Heidi terms an “unimaginable” Nov. 24, 2020. The Cowboys, like the Paul family, were rocked.

McCarthy says he walked into the facility and toward COVID-19 screening beside Paul at roughly 10 minutes after 6 a.m. Paul then realized he had left his phone in his truck. A mere 90 minutes later, the Cowboys had summoned an ambulance to transport Paul from his office to a nearby hospital.

“I got that phone call on Tuesday, November 24, at 7:42 a.m. (and) that will never leave my brain,” Heidi said. “I’ve never been through something like this before, but I would say if this were to happen to anybody else, everyone should take a page out of the Dallas Cowboys playbook about how they handled it.”

McCarthy says he relied on his instincts when he sent players home to be with their families that day, intent that processing the trauma was far more urgent and important than preparing for a football game. The Cowboys would pay tribute to Paul on the AT&T Stadium Jumbotron before the Thanksgiving game. COVID-19 protocols prohibited what would have been McCarthy’s first choice the following week: The team’s in-person attendance at Paul’s memorial service. But players filed into the indoor practice facility bleachers and watched the livestream of the service on a projector.

“Coach McCarthy did a yeoman’s effort,” Nash said. “Making sure he still had to run a ship but he did it the right way (and) very sympathetic and empathetic to all those involved.”

Nash, whose friendship with Paul far predated Paul’s 2020 invite to join his Cowboys staff, was relieved to feel that grace. Leading stretching in Paul’s void was painful; he became choked up when he attempted to announce the ceremonial “sum-of-deez” arm swing.

“At the end of the day, we’re human beings,” Nash said. “Behind this tough exterior, this bravado, we’re all little boys.”

The pain and trauma don’t dissipate, but the Paul family and the Cowboys say they continue to learn to live with the loss. Heidi aims to emulate the grace that Markus carried himself with after traumas in his life and has spearheaded the creation of the Markus Paul Foundation to support students in his Florida hometown. Jairus carries on dad’s legacy in his new role as a personal trainer, Tabitha ever aware of the striking facial resemblance she shared with dad. The Cowboys, meanwhile, aim to operate with the consistency and devotion Paul exemplified, knowing how disappointed he’d be if they cut corners on the field or in the weight room.

And McCarthy? He implored the team Tuesday to celebrate a culture-builder loved and lost too soon. Paul’s old-school toughness, direct communication and steadfast belief in his players amazed McCarthy from the first of three interviews they shared when McCarthy was hired. After nearly a year working together, and a year remembering him, those traits continue to ring true.

“Strength and conditioning, trainers and equipment guys – I say this with a big heart – are the bartenders of our culture,” said McCarthy, who grew up with fond memories in his father’s bar. “They have that gift of connection and they make sure these guys are being supported at all times and during tough times.

“If you look for examples, Markus Paul was that person.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Markus Paul: How Dallas Cowboys are carrying on coordinator's legacy