By Terrance Turner
Aug. 10, 2021
“I love scars.”
In the opening of tonight’s season premiere of “Hard Knocks”, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott displays the scars from his surgery last year. He opens up about losing his brother to suicide in April 2020 and his season-ending ankle injury on Oct. 11.
Prescott says he thought he had rolled his ankle initially, but the injury turned out to be more severe. It wasn’t until he got carted off the field that he began to realize how bad it was. A teammate came over to Prescott and told him it would be OK; that’s when the emotion took over. Footage shows that he wept on the field when he realized his season was over. He needed surgery. Twice.
“You had two surgeries?” asks an off-camera interviewer.
“Yeah,” Dak admits. “We kept it down; nobody knew that.”
We know now.
We also know that Cowboys training camp is filled to the brim with cheering fans. It’s a marked departure from last year’s camps, which, like nearly everything else in 2020, were scaled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But they’re back, and “Hard Knocks” features several glimpses of the enthusiastic crowds. The HBO series offers an unvarnished look at one NFL team every season: the highs, the lows, the roster changes, the on-field practices. Thanks to HBO Films, we now know that Prescott’s injury was even worse than it looked.
We also know that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is focused on one thing: the Lombardi Trophy. “I’d do anything known to man to get into a Super Bowl,” Jones tells reporters in one clip from the episode. “I feel as driven as I was when I first bought the team. And I was scared to death then, and I’m scared to death now.”
Jones says he works better when things are more positive. “Some people say I’m naive,” he reflects. “It’s a better world to be naive than it is to be skeptical and negative all the time.” Jones declares that he could be anywhere in the world, but there’s nowhere he would rather be than with his team.
We also know that Dak Prescott is an intense competitor. As practices begin in Oxnard, California, Prescott looks great: throwing accurately, moving nimbly, finding targets. But he soon suffers a muscle strain in his shoulder. The team begins limiting his reps. Prescott won’t have it.
“I’m not comin’ out this bitch,” he steams. “I sat last year enough.”
“I don’t what the f–k they took me off these reps for. I sat out enough. I’ll let y’all know if I’m f–kin’ sore or something’s bothering me,” Prescott goes on. He insists on being part of the action, visibly bothered as he sees backup QB Garrett Gilbert taking reps. When Gilbert recommends he take certain action on a particular play, Prescott snaps: “I’ll f–kin’ take ’em all. I ain’t never asked you to get in.”
Prescott is forced to leave practice to receive treatment for his injured shoulder. But minutes later he’s back on the field. That prompts Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy to approach and goad him into going back inside for treatment. It’s clear that the team doesn’t want to take any risks on aggravating Prescott’s injuries. And it’s patently clear that injuries can happen at any moment. Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb sinks to the ground after a hit in practice, squatting on the ground to catch his breath. Thankfully, he doesn’t have a broken bone or torn muscle — just a message for his teammates: “Stop hittin’ me in my nuts.”
Later, special teams coordinator John Fasser tells the players about his vasectomy, explaining the process as best he can. He talks about being numbed up before the procedure and how he got it reversed.
“Did you lose your drive?” one of the players asks Fasser.
“My sex drive, you mean? Oh, no,” Fasser responds. The players laugh.
It’s one of several light-hearted moments sprinkled throughout the episode. We see Dak’s best friend, running back Ezekiel Elliott, in a comical attempt to wrap Dak’s birthday present. We see players laughing as they review film. We see Coach McCarthy playing clips from “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and players cracking up.
McCarthy uses a catchphrase from the film to motivate his players. We see a poster displaying the phrase “MOJO Moment” — “When it’s time for additional confidence, charisma and performance.” No matter the time, place or situation, the poster commands, “kick in your MOJO”.
McCarthy explains to reporters that the slogan is meant to emphasize the momentum changes in a game. “Any time you have a chance to use an Austin Powers film clip, you should use it,” he smiles. It’s a glimpse of McCarthy’s offbeat sense of humor.
But we also see McCarthy’s toughness (and penchant for profanity). A speech to the team begins about “family and football” (“Every one of us comes from somewhere and from someone,” he says) quickly changes tone as McCarthy shows he means business: “It’s hard not to reflect on last year. F–k last year,” he says. “Charlie F–k Around? He don’t work here. High School Harry? Get his ass out the f–kin’ door,” McCarthy says. “This is about winning. This is about winning a world championship. Period.”
“Going to the playoffs ain’t good enough,” McCarthy tells his team. He rhapsodizes about winning a Super Bowl as coach of the Green Bay Packers in 2010. McCarthy, who grew up in Pittsburgh, won a Super Bowl with the Packers — who beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now, as coach of the Cowboys, he was facing the Steelers again — in the Hall of Fame game. The episode concludes with film from the Hall of Fame Game on Thursday. Rookie linebacker Micah Parsons shines, hitting hard on play after play. He even manages a fumble recovery.
“You’re trying to make every play,” fellow LB Leighton Vander Esch tells Parsons.
Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn (former coach of the Atlanta Falcons) watches Parsons from the booth. He calls Parsons on the phone during the game. (On the sideline, there’s a phone bank that coaches and staff use to call players while the game is ongoing.)
Quinn calls Parsons to give him some pointers. “Be super f–kin’ aggressive,” he advises him, after going over a certain play.
“Can I get one more?” Parsons asks.
“Nope. That’s it for tonight,” Quinn says.
“I’m just getting warmed up,” Parsons pleads. But Quinn won’t budge. Because it’s a preseason game, starters are limited in how much they can play because the team wants to avoid injury. But Parsons wanted more playing time.
“This sucks. I was just startin’ to get comfortable,” he complains. Parsons notes that he’ll be sitting on the bench for two hours of play — and sitting on the bus for an hour and a half. Then a four-and-a-half hour flight.
“This game will go down in the record books as a Cowboys loss. But it is about something more,” says narrator Liev Schreiber. “A reminder of the surprising graces of football, unfettered.”