ARLINGTON, Texas - In the wake of another brutal loss, Ezekiel Elliott knew there had to be tough questions heading his way. Before fielding those questions from reporters, though, he had something important to say.
In the first public comments by a Cowboys player since the tragic death of strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul, Elliott made sure to get a message out to his family.
"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 said. "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."
It was a surreal end to what has undoubtedly been a trying week. The Cowboys lost their eighth game, 41-16, to Washington on Thursday. As much as that result might sting, though, it pales in comparison to the loss of Paul, who unexpectedly passed away at the age of just 54 on Wednesday evening.
To turn around and play a professional football game just 24 hours later was a new level of adversity for a team that has seen plenty of it.
"You find out a lot about people in these times. I can't tell you how proud I am of this football team," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. "But yes, it's a week that I don't think any of us will ever forget."
The Cowboys honored Paul with a pre-game moment of silence before kickoff, while players and coaches wore a commemorative decal on their helmets and hats. And while touching, the tribute had to have been a stark reminder of the absence of a guy who had been a constant around the team since he joined the Cowboys in 2018.
"You lose somebody so suddenly like that, it's really hard -- and then to see his face up on the jumbotron and to have him not on the sideline with us, it's tough," said Joe Looney.
A strength coach's role on a football team is unique in the sense that he works with the entire roster. Offensive and defensive players alike work with the strength and conditioning staff throughout the season and the offseason alike.
As Elliott noted, it was Paul who led the Cowboys' stretches before practices and games - which provided another sobering reminder when he wasn't there to do so on Thursday.
"We were lining up for practice, getting ready to stretch and you get that reminder that he's not here with us anymore," Elliott said. "It definitely is tough and we've just got to lean on each other and help each other get through this tough time."
That will be a challenge for this whole team. Obviously, the grief has not passed just because this game is over. If anything, without the distraction of a game just hours away, the real challenge may just be beginning.
Given this chance to share their thoughts with the world, though, the Cowboys were loud and clear in their love for Markus Paul and their commitment to honoring his memory.
"It was a tragedy and we're still praying for Coach Markus and his family," said Chidobe Awuzie. "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."