Three plays into the Cowboys’ third preseason game, Romo’s night ended when he was crunched from behind while sliding by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril. The play was perfectly clean, but Romo immediately reached for his lower back.
In the three-minute-plus audio file of Romo after the game, there was no panic in his voice indicating long-term worries. In fact, it was the opposite.
“It was kind of a perfect storm as far as the slide and then going down, but the fact that you dodged a bullet is a good thing,” Romo said. “Honestly, just the back being stronger allowed me to get through that.”
He described the sensation as similar to “a stinger in your shoulder where it just feels hot for a second and then that just dissipates after a minute and you’re OK,” he said. “Then all those things you felt before with back injuries, those are all fine, and then your strength comes back and you’re like, OK. It just takes a little bit.”
Romo lobbied to go back into the game, but coach Jason Garrett opted against it.
Romo's preseason was over after 16 snaps. And as it turned out, so was his time as the Cowboys’ starter.
Romo did not have X-rays taken at the stadium that night, but the next day he was diagnosed with a compression fracture in his back. The team initially said he would miss the first six to 10 weeks of the season. The Cowboys were in the hands of a fourth-round draft pick, Dak Prescott.
They have been in Prescott’s hands ever since. He never let Romo have the job back. The Cowboys went 13-3. Prescott threw 23 touchdown passes with four interceptions and was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The next time Romo spoke publicly was Nov. 15, 2016, when he called his time away as dark a place as he had ever seen.
“You’re sad and down and out, and you ask yourself why did this have to happen?” Romo said. “It’s in this moment 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’s the way that football works. A great example of this is Dak Prescott and what he’s done. He’s earned the right to be our quarterback. As hard as that is for me to say, he’s earned that right.”
On Wednesday, Romo and his wife, Candice, welcomed their third son to the world, Jones McCoy Romo. Romo was supposed to make his debut as CBS’s lead analyst on Friday when the Kansas City Chiefs play the Seahawks in the same venue in which Romo’s playing career effectively ended, but the birth of his son canceled the opening of his second act.
Now his CBS debut will come in Week 1 of the regular season.
Romo is content with his decision to walk away. He had opportunities to continue to play, most likely with the Houston Texans. He was able to see what he meant to so many, even without a Super Bowl win, in the days and weeks after the Cowboys released him. The Cowboys put a giant No. 9 up on the digital boards outside their headquarters. For a day he was a member of the Dallas Mavericks. The Omni in downtown Dallas was lit up with a No. 9 on it.
“It just goes to show you, this game, just how quickly it happens and what transpires,” tight end Jason Witten said. “It’s amazing to think that a year ago, what all took place. I mean, you think about him, what he went through with that injury, then coming back and where he’s at now in his own career. And certainly for Dak, I mean, how all that transpired for him.
“What it teaches you more than anything is how precious every moment is in every relationship. I think the older I get, the more I get sentimental [about] the opportunities you have. Don’t blink because you see that it’ll be gone in a second.”
As Prescott kept winning, he kept saying the Cowboys were Romo’s team. Twelve months later, there is no questioning the Cowboys are Prescott’s team.
“He certainly has been remarkable with how he's handled everything, right from the start,” Garrett said. “You've heard me say this many times, but the first impression that we had during the draft process and once he got here, he's just a professional. He goes about it the right way and does not seem distracted by anything on the field or off the field. Just how he handled everything last year, the way our team handled it last year, is a testament to that. He's come back this year and worked as hard as anyone in the building. He sets the pace for us in practice and guys around him respond to him.”