Fri, 22 Jan 2021

Cowboys Coping With Sudden Loss of Markus Paul

Dallas Cowboys
02 Dec 2020, 19:24 GMT+10

Mickey Spagnola

Regrets, we've had a few.

Here is one of mine.

Not getting to know Cowboys strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul better than I had during his three years with the Dallas Cowboys. The shame of that is not discovering my loss until after he passed away tragically on Wednesday, Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving and less than 24 hours before the Cowboys were to play Washington in the annual holiday classic.

Dying unexpectantly at the tender age of 54 is heartbreaking enough. But suffering the medical emergency he did - what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones termed a stroke - in his weight room office at The Star that Tuesday morning, less than an hour before the Cowboys' team meeting, intensified the pain of this organization.

Let special teams coordinator John Fassel explain the emotions of that day.

"Pretty extreme, to be honest with you. I was rounding, I was rounding - sorry, just a minute please," Fassel began, pausing for a good 10 seconds to compose himself during his conference call three days later. "We had a 7:30 special teams meeting Tuesday morning, and I was in the locker room about five minutes before the meeting was going to start, just kind of rounding guys up. And one of the trainers came racing through with, um, the defibrillator, and I followed him into the weight room and, um, was a witness to everything that happened. It was hard, hard to see."

Same for Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, and remember neither of these two coaches had met Paul until signing on with the Cowboys in January as part of the new coaching staff.

"It's been emotionally challenging," said McCarthy, who was in his office at the time, but running down to the weight room within a few minutes of Markus collapsing. "Overwhelming. I don't know what words I can use to describe the feeling because it was something that was so personal for all of us, especially how it happened, where it happened, the timing of it all."

McCarthy would hold the team meeting as scheduled at 8 a.m. that Tuesday, and explained to the players exactly what had happened, although some had been in the weight room at the time. He then proceeded to cancel what would have been the main practice during that short week preparing for the Thursday game, basically giving the players the day off.

Paul was placed on life support at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. The Cowboys arranged for family members to be flown into town as quickly as possible before Markus passed away later on Wednesday afternoon.

What happened next created my regrets, making us realize the measure of a man might not be what he accomplishes during this life, but the trail he leaves behind. My interactions with Markus had been quite limited, passing him at the Training Table during lunch. Maybe in the hallways. Always had a smile on his face. Always upbeat, moving quickly with that little hitch in his get-along.

Maybe our longest conversation occurred in the spring of 2019 while Markus was still the assistant to strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik, who had worked with Paul at previous stops in New England and New Orleans. Was showing a visitor around The Star, looking into the weight room through the glass walls when Markus came out saying, "Mickey, Mickey, Mike said to come on in."

Come in?

Understand, the weight room has always been Woicik's domain, sort of sacred territory to the rest of us. Had never been in there since The Star opened in 2016.

Who, me?

"Yeah," Markus said with a big smile. "Mike said to come in."

That was it, just a shame.

Now when something like this happens, you would expect an outpouring of emotion from within, initially with official statements.

From Jerry Jones: "The loss of a family member is a tragedy, and Markus Paul was a loved and valued member of our family. He was a pleasant and calming influence in our strength room and throughout The Star. His passion for his work and his enthusiasm for life earned him great respect and admiration from all of our players and the entire organization. We offer our love and support to his family in this very difficult time. Our hearts are broken for his family and all of the individuals whose lives he touched and made better."

From Mike McCarthy: "We extend our love, strength and support to Markus' family during this most challenging of times and ask that their privacy be respected moving forward. Markus Paul was a leader in this building. He earned the players' respect and attention because he cared so much and was a naturally gifted communicator, both on the personal and professional levels. He handled every situation, sometimes with a smile and a pat on the back, and sometimes with tough love. He had innate toughness in a job that requires that quality, and he was admired throughout the NFL by his peers and the players he coached. It was a privilege to work with him as a coach and laugh with him as a friend. Markus did everything the right way."

But what followed should not be surprising for such a highly-respected man who had been a co-captain during his college playing days at Syracuse University (1985-88), a fourth-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears in 1989 (through eight games of 1993) and Tampa Bay (1993) as an NFL safety. Then it was on to coaching, first as a strength and conditioning coach at New Orleans as Woicik's assistant (1998-99), followed by New England with Woicik (2000-04), next the New York Jets (2005-06), and then New York Giants (2007-17) before landing with the Cowboys in 2018 as Woicik's hand-picked replacement with retirement around the corner.

McCarthy found out on Friday, the day after the Cowboys were beaten by Washington on Thanksgiving, 41-16, the amazing number of lives Markus had touched.

"Frankly, I've been on the phone all morning," McCarthy said during his conference call, "and I can't say enough about the outpour for Markus and just the people I've heard from. ... Obviously he's a man of significance, and he'll greatly be missed."

Let's start from back at the beginning.

Syracuse Football Family Tweet: "The Syracuse football family mourns the loss of one of our own following the tragic passing of Orange great Markus Paul. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones."

Then current University of Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall, an assistant during Paul's time at Syracuse: "Proud to have recruited Markus to @CuseFootball and knowing him for over 30 years. They don't come any better than Markus. Always worked hard, did the right thing and always had a smile on his face. #RIP Love You!"

And how about this, from his Syracuse co-captain teammate, Cowboys former fullback Daryl "The Moose" Johnston: "It was amazing how many times I would see a clock and it would say 10:32. That meant Markus Paul was with me at that moment. During the course of a tough game, tough day, he was by my side. Even though he's left us, I know he will still be by my side. Miss you, Love You MP."

Or this from his former Chicago Bears teammate Ron Rivera, now Washington Football Team head coach: "The passing of Markus Paul is a true loss to the NFL community and anyone who had the privilege of knowing him. Markus was a tremendous teammate during my time with the Chicago Bears and a good friend to me over the years. He was just a great man and will be missed by many."

Paul won three Super Bowls with New England, then two more during his 11 seasons with the Giants.

So this from Pat Hanlon, Giants vice president of communications: "My heart is so heavy right now. Not a better being walking God's green earth than #Markus Paul . . . so thankful we, the Giants, had the good fortune to work with such a wonderful, thoughtful, determined person. Rest in Peace Coach Paul! Lotta love going to you and your family's way!"

And on the Thanksgiving Day Fox pregame show, analyst Michael Strahan, the Hall of Fame defensive end with the Giants, had this to say of his time with Paul: "I was very close to Markus. He was my bus-ride-to-the-airplane buddy, and bus ride guys are special. Laugh at the outfits. He was just the nicest guy you could ask for, so my prayers, my love and my condolences are with Markus' family."

All so heartbreaking, his trail long and wide.

But then there is closer to home. With the Cowboys. The assistant to Woicik for two years and then when Woicik decided to retire after the 2019 season, McCarthy, putting together his staff, had no problem retaining Paul, the heir-apparent.

And what most need to understand is how close players become to the strength and conditioning coaches, especially during the offseason strength and conditioning program when the coaches aren't allowed to be around the players during that segment of training.

So the strength and conditioning guy essentially becomes the head coach for that month.

"He was beloved, possibly the most of all our organization," Jones said. "He touches everybody in his role, and everybody has their stories about being with him. He's someone who touches everybody as opposed to a position coach that might see just a part of the team. He's a wonderful man.

"Frankly, Barry Switzer told me, the most import coach other than me is the guy who does our strength and conditioning. Big loss for us."

To help the grieving process, McCarthy gave his players a chance to basically stand up and speak, talk about their feelings for Markus Paul during Wednesday night's team meeting at the hotel.

"It was cool," receiver Amari Cooper said. "A lot of guys stood up and kind of spoke about their relationship with Markus and talked about the kind of man he was, and it was cool to remember him in a way that those guys spoke about him."

That being said, then you can imagine the emotional blow this was to the Cowboys players heading into that Washington game. A MP sticker has been placed on the back of the players' helmets. After pregame warmups that Thanksgiving Day, the players took a knee in a big circle, Sean Lee appearing to lead them in a prayer before heading back into the locker room.

And just before the pregame tribute to Markus on the video screen, all the offensive linemen toed the sideline, side-by-side. Stood there as a unit. And when the tribute was completed, they moved in a circle clockwise basically hugging each other.

"I do want to say I am very proud of the team for the way they went out and battled, because frankly it was emotionally exhausting I think for everybody, and our guys went out there - it was difficult," McCarthy said the day after his team hung tough in there for three quarters, trailing by just 20-16 with 2:32 left in the third. "There are so many reminders still, even today when walking in here. ... And everybody goes into the weight room, so he's missed greatly, obviously, but I just can't say enough about the team, the way they went out there and competed.

"And I'll say this, just be truthfully honest here: I had no idea how we were going to play, and that's a feeling you never have as a coach. ... We start the game and immediately we had some adversity with some injured players and our guys just kept battling. They gave it everything they had, and I appreciate that."

Then, immediately after this very tough loss, these players made sure to pay their respects to Markus.

First up was Ezekiel Elliott, starting off his WebEx call by saying this: "I just first wanted to start this out by sending my condolences to the Paul family. I want to thank the Paul family for sharing Markus with us. He meant so much to this team and had such a big part of everyone's everyday life. And we are just grateful that you guys shared him with us."

Then there was this from Jaylon Smith: "He was just that kind of guy. You knew exactly what you were going to get from him. At his best, he was going to be exact. He was going to be elite and alert. And, just may he rest in peace."

And this from cornerback Chidobe Awuzie: "It was a tragedy and we're still praying for Coach Markus and his family. It was really tough, but at the same time, we all know Coach Markus' impact on us. So that's what we're going to hold on to, the memories, the lessons and definitely the good times. So either way it goes, we give glory to God and we thank God that Markus had a great impact on all of us."

To understand even more the impact Markus makes on people, listen, too, to veteran quarterback Andy Dalton, who joined the team just this year, and because of the interrupted offseason and all the COVID-19 limitations, really hadn't been around Markus no more than four months.

Yet, he understood the essence of Markus Paul.

"You never want to experience a death within the organization, and Markus meant a lot to so many people," Dalton said. "He made an impact on so many people. I think, for us, just having the chance to talk about and remember him ... just talk about ways that he has helped mentor us. The way he lived his life.

"That's what made him so special as a person. You feel for the team, you feel for his family and you feel for everybody involved. Our prayers are out for everybody, especially his family during this time."

Maybe that the Cowboys' next scheduled game the following Thursday night against Baltimore had been postponed for COVID-19 outbreak reasons surrounding the Ravens, rescheduled to be played the following Monday afternoon on Dec. 7, was a very good thing. Physically and mentally. That brief reprieve would give the Cowboys players, coaches, heck, the entire organization, to not only further grieve, but process the loss of someone so close to them on a daily basis during some time off. Someone who, well, as Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said, "You won't meet a sweeter, better person than Markus Paul.

"It's with heavy hearts this week we proceed on."

Now maybe we all have a better understanding of Markus Paul, the life he led and just how much he meant to the so many people he touched in so many different walks of life during a life too short. Plus, how so many people are counting their blessings for having been able to cross paths with a man like this.

"Certainly, he was so loved, and you could see the emotion on our players' faces before the game, just as much as when they flashed his picture up on the big screen," Jones said. "He's just done so much for us, he's going to be so missed. You just can't say enough about what a special man, a sweet man and what a good man Markus Paul was, and certainly will be so missed by everyone in our organization, from ownership, to the coaching staff, right on down to the players."

And regrettably, someone like me, missing out on a rare opportunity to better know a man like Markus Paul.

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