For seven seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, he was the heartbeat of a team that went to the playoffs four times. Twice he was an NFL rushing champ, four times he ran for 1,000 yards and he is the Cowboys’ third all-time leading rusher behind Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett.
A decline in production and a large salary-cap figure, plus the growth of Tony Pollard, led the Cowboys to release Elliott on March 15. While the move was not surprising, it was met with disappointment from some players who grew close to Elliott over the years.
“He’s always going to be loved here,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “The love that he has still today in the locker room is tremendous. He’s probably in my time, our time together, was clearly probably one of the most popular players. I mean he’s a tremendous teammate. He still is. I mean, his name usually comes up once a week. Great guy.”
Elliott was not without his issues while in Dallas, as he was suspended six games in 2017 for violating the personal conduct policy for an incident involving a former girlfriend that occurred while he was at Ohio State, but those ESPN spoke to painted a picture of a gracious and humble teammate and community member.
Here is what Elliott meant to some former teammates and the North Texas community.
Drafted together in 2016, they quickly became best friends. During their first rookie camp together, Prescott had a car, Elliott didn’t -- and one time Elliott left a $5 million check in Prescott’s car. The quarterback immediately called Elliott and said, “Come pick this up, I won’t make this in the next four years.”
On Thursday, Prescott said, "This locker room has always been special. And I've had a lot of teammates come from other places. Mark [Sanchez] told me my rookie year that not all locker rooms are like this, but we've got a great camaraderie. I give credit to the leaders in that locker room, the people that have played here in the time that I've been here. I don't think it's hard.
"Obviously, the relationship me and Zeke have, it's different. Came in together, played on this this team seven years strong, on and off the field together. That relationship had a little bit more time invested, I guess you could say.”
RB Tony Pollard
Pollard was a rookie in 2019 when Elliott held out of training camp. Pollard was so good that owner and general manager Jerry Jones facetiously said, “Zeke who?” after a preseason game. Over the years, Elliott became a mentor to Pollard.
“He’s had a great influence on me playing this game, just watching him, just watching how he does things, how he approaches things, his preparation throughout the week, his film study and things like that. Just trying to pick his brain, growing with him over time.”
Coach Mike McCarthy
In 2016, McCarthy was head coach of the Green Bay Packers when the Cowboys visited Lambeau Field in October. Elliott was coming off three straight games with at least 134 yards rushing and would add a fourth with 157 yards in a 30-16 Cowboys’ win against Green Bay.
“I told him this, and I don’t mean this in a funny way or anything, but I just remember my first impression of Zeke in 2016. He broke a run down our sideline and it was the side I was on at that time. And I just remember as he ran by me for a long run, I thought, ‘My God, that guy’s got a big head. That’s a big man.’
"I’ve always been so impressed with him. He was just such a big, physical runner. I think you watch guys on TV, you see them, I didn’t realize he was that big and that thick. And especially the speed and his tenacity, the way he played. Then, obviously, having the opportunity to work with him, just very enjoyable. I enjoyed our time together.”
Lamb was the Cowboys’ first-round pick in 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he never had an initial offseason program. He had to learn things on his own.
“When I first got in, he was the first person that invited me over to his [home], kinda accepted me as a teammate. We chilled. We vibed. And he said, the first thing, like, ‘Enjoy my body the way I felt when I came in, because that’s the best I’m ever going to feel.’
"That’s probably the most true thing, most factual statement that he could have ever given me. I mean you can’t train for it. Yeah, I do my best on recovery, but you can’t change what’s happening in a game. Facts.”
When Prescott broke his thumb in last year’s season opener, Rush became the starter. He had won his only other start in 2021, but now he would have a multi-week run with Prescott out. He ended up going 4-1, keeping the Cowboys’ playoff chances alive upon Prescott’s return.
“[Elliott] said, ‘We got you. Don’t worry.’ That’s how he is with anybody that’s new in there, a new O-lineman or a new tight end or anybody. That’s kind of his attitude. I think that’s something that doesn’t get talked about enough, just how good of a teammate he was.
"He brought energy for sure. And toughness. Like he’ll do whatever. He played fullback for us; he cracked on defensive ends; he just wants to hit somebody. He’s not out there yelling for 25 carries. He’s playing on third down, pass blocking his butt off. He took pride in all that stuff and everyone in the room felt that.”
In 2015, Toynes and Xavier Henderson founded For Oak Cliff, a non-profit organization to help an under-served community in south Dallas. A few years ago, Elliott became involved in their organization and has helped financially and with his time. In fact, a few days before he signed with the Patriots, he attended their Back to School Festival that had more than 4,000 people in attendance.
“It’s not about the football player. At the end of the day, it’s about the person, about the man. For me, it shows true to his character, his integrity. That’s one thing I talk to the young kids in our space about. You character, your integrity are things you do when nobody’s watching.
"When I think about Zeke, that’s him. He’s doing things when people aren’t watching. It’s not like he’s telling me, ‘Hey, I’m going to show up with ESPN and make myself look good.’ It’s ‘I’ve got some time. I want to help.’
"The kids know him as a Cowboy, but at the same time if you watch Zeke play basketball with our team, they’re talking noise like he’s some guy out of the neighborhood, ‘You can’t hold me,’ all that stuff. His relationship means a lot to us.”
McFarland is a Major with the Salvation Army, an organization with deep ties to the Cowboys. Each year the Cowboys kick off the Red Kettle Campaign for the Salvation Army, and when Elliott would jump into the giant kettle in the end zone as a celebration after a score, the donations would increase.
“I can’t say we were able to quantify what the contributions were every time he’d jump in, but what I can tell you is any time somebody jumped into the kettle, we did see an increase in donations that would come in -- and if he did it, especially, we would get $21 donations [matching Elliott's uniform number]. I was able to talk to him about that last November, and he was blown away.
"Years later, it was still having the same impact. He came to visit our Angel Tree operation in Dallas last Christmas. Every time I had encountered him, he is so gracious and so very humble. We were walking around the warehouse and he was looking at the operation when I asked him, ‘Did you learn about philanthropy when you came into the NFL?' and he said, ‘No, ma'am.’
"He was raised in a family that gave back to the community, and I thought that was beautiful. He saw his parents give back to the community, so it was in his DNA. So when he came to the Cowboys and to the NFL, what happened was the foundation was built upon and expanded.”