FRISCO, Texas -- As Tony Romo approached the podium on Nov. 15, 2016, nobody knew what he was going to say. Not the Dallas Cowboys' front office. Not coach Jason Garrett. Not his teammates.
“Feels like we just did this yesterday,” Romo joked at the news conference, knowing he had not spoken publicly since suffering a compression fracture in his back in a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks.
He took a swig of water and deflected an attempt by a reporter to ask a question and then went on to read a speech he put together that led to one of the best moments of his career and helped define the Cowboys’ success in 2016.
When Romo got hurt, the assumption was he would get his job back, but then the Cowboys won eight of their first nine games. Instead, rookie Dak Prescott played better than anybody could have expected. Two days earlier, Prescott stared down Ben Roethlisberger and his two Super Bowl wins by throwing for 319 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-30 Cowboys victory at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.
Romo had been informed the team would be sticking with Prescott.
He was upset, frustrated and disappointed, but instead of potentially tearing apart the team, Romo acquiesced and for six minutes gave a moving speech that came to define him as much as his fourth-quarter comebacks or playoff losses.
“I don’t think he needed to do it, but it speaks volumes to who he is as a person that he did do that,” Cowboys safety Byron Jones said recently. “Just incredibly selfless and showed what he did by allowing Dak to continue to start throughout that season. I remember a few things from the speech, but he basically said Dak was very deserving to get that starting position.
"As a guy who’d been playing for 14 years and played at a very high level, that’s hard to say and hard to do. That takes a lot of courage.”
Romo crafted the speech the night before mostly by himself. A close friend helped edit it, tinkering with some phrases, but Romo’s message was unchanged:
"To say the first half of the season has been emotional would be a huge understatement. Getting hurt when you feel like you have the best team you've ever had was a soul-crushing moment for me. Then to learn it's not three to four weeks but 10 is another blow. And through it all, you have a tremendous amount of guilt on having let your teammates, fans and organization down. After all, they were depending on you to bring them a championship. That's what quarterbacks are supposed to do; that's how we're judged. I loved that. I still do. But here you are, sidelined without any real ability to help your teammates win on the field. That's when you're forced to come face-to-face with what's happening.
"Seasons are fleeting. Games become more precious. Chances for success diminish. Your potential successor has arrived. Injured two years in a row and now in the mid-30s. The press is whispering. Everyone has doubts. You've spent your career working to get here. Now we have to start all over. You almost feel like an outsider. The coaches are sympathetic, but they still have to coach, and you're not there. It's a dark place. Probably the darkest it's ever been. You're sad and down and out, and you ask yourself, 'Why did this have to happen?' It's in this moment when you find out who you really are and what you're really about.
"You see football is a meritocracy. You aren't handed anything. You earn everything, every single day, over and over again. You have to prove it. That's the way that the NFL, that football works.”
Romo wanted to play, badly, but he said, “Something magical is happening to our team.”
“He’s earned the right to be our quarterback,” Romo said of Prescott.
Prescott didn't know Romo was going to make a speech, but Romo pulled him to the side to repeat what he said publicly. Prescott eventually saw the speech on Twitter.
“I don’t know if it affected our locker room one way or the other,” Prescott said. “We all know how great Tony is and the way he approached that situation last year; I can’t thank him enough, the organization can’t think him enough. It was cool. It was important for him to do that, but we didn’t have any problems.”
Like Prescott, a lot of teammates saw replays of the speech on their phones.
“I think he handled it unbelievably well,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “It was a tough situation. He was a guy who’s an elite quarterback, dealing with injuries, unfortunately. But he still came to practice. If you looked at him, he was still Tony Romo making plays. He could still really play, so I know it was tough for him, because obviously he felt like he could play in a lot of ways.”
Romo would play in only one series last season, in Week 17 at the Philadelphia Eagles, completing 3 of 4 passes before hitting Terrance Williams with a 3-yard touchdown. He quickly pumped his fist, jogged off the field and was done for the day.
Months later, Romo was released by the Cowboys and joined CBS to be their lead football analyst all in the same day. His work alongside Jim Nantz so far this season has been acclaimed by just about everybody.
“Tony is a stand-up guy. For all his great talents as a player, he’s just a great person, too,” Garrett said. “He felt like that was important for him to do at that time, and it certainly helped get himself to a place that helped him understand what his role was at that time, and it certainly helped our football team. I thought he handled it the right way, and I thought he handled the work the rest of the season the right way, as well. Our team did a good job last year staying focused on what they needed to do each week, and Tony did that on that particular day.”