‘He made a lot of people around here better men’: Cowboys mourn death of strength coach Markus Paul

    usatoday– ARLINGTON, Texas — When Amari Cooper walked into The Star on Tuesday morning, he traced his path toward the team headquarters weight room.

    He figured he’d grab his cherry drink and beet juice from the weight room, just like he does every day. Then he expected the routine and regiment of game prep for Washington. The 8:05 a.m. team meeting, film breakdown with fellow receivers, 11:30 a.m. team practice. But all of that would come later. First, he would pick up his cherry drink and beet juice.

    Cooper was diverted.

    Just outside the weight room Tuesday morning, he saw teammates standing with expressions solemn. He asked what happened.

    “Someone told me,” Cooper said Thursday night. “We suffered a tremendous loss.”

    Cowboys strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul experienced a medical emergency at team headquarters shortly before 7:30 a.m. local time Tuesday. He was immediately treated by club medical personnel then transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he underwent further medical tests. Wednesday evening, surrounded by family, Paul died. He was 54.

    Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott offered an opening statement before answering questions after a 41-16 Thanksgiving loss to Washington.

    “I first just wanted to start this out by sending my condolences to the Paul family,” Elliott said. “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.

    “We are just grateful that you guys shared him with us.”

    Paul joined the Cowboys’ strength and conditioning staff in 2018 and was promoted to coordinator in January. He spent a total of 23 seasons coaching with the Cowboys, Giants, Jets, Patriots and Saints. In all, Paul contributed to five Super Bowl titles — two with the Giants and three with the Patriots. He played five seasons with the Bears and Buccaneers as well, after Chicago selected the Syracuse star defensive back in the fourth round of the 1989 NFL draft.

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    But to 2020 Cowboys players, Paul was the coach guiding everything from their lift sessions to pre-practice stretching. A “pleasant and calming voice” whose “passion for his work and his enthusiasm for life earned him great respect and admiration,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.

    On Tuesday, after Paul was transported to the hospital, the Cowboys canceled practice and team activities. Wednesday, they resumed without Paul at the helm of the stretch. The void was palpable.

    “We were lining up for practice, getting ready to stretch and you get the reminder that he’s not here with us anymore,” Elliott said. “We just gotta lean on each other and help each other through this tough time.”

    After Paul died Wednesday evening, the Cowboys devoted a portion of their team meeting to memorializing Paul. They celebrated his impact and swapped stories of how Paul influenced them as players and people. They marveled at how he always arrive to work “elite and alert,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said, a mentor and servant leader. They hoped to fight for him on the field Thursday, like he’d have wanted.

    “We really wanted to come out and do it for God and for Markus,” Smith said. “And we didn’t accomplish the mission. So, it’s tough.”

    The Cowboys coordinated public tributes to their strength coach before and after the game. In pregame warmups, they donned caps with Paul’s initials. “MP” decals adorned their game helmets, too. Cowboys center Joe Looney led a pregame prayer session, teammates kneeling in a circle on the field, arm in arm. The Cowboys honored Paul’s life in a tribute and moment of silence. And yet, players wished it wasn’t from the JerryWorld Jumbotron that Paul smiled over them.

    “It was really emotional,” Looney said. “Any time, like I said, 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.

    “He made a lot of people around here better men.”

    No player attributed their late-game unraveling to the emotional week, instead merely lamenting they couldn’t win in Paul’s honor. Elliott spent much of the week checking in on younger players, he said, some of whom hadn’t much experienced such a close death. Cooper described the balancing of what he called players’ two lives — their football life and their “real” lives.

    “It was tragic, and we kind of had to cope with it,” Cooper said. “And in the span of those two lives, still try to focus as much as we can on football while dealing with something in our personal lives.”

    Their Thanksgiving matchup is now behind them. A Thursday night game in Baltimore, pending COVID-19 concerns, awaits on the schedule next. Mourning stretches across it all, the vacuum in early morning lifts and pre-practice stretches difficult to fill. McCarthy told players in the postgame locker room to take care of themselves and their families.

    “It’s a week that I don’t think any of us will ever forget,” McCarthy said. “Markus was a special man. He was definitely someone [who] had a lot success in his professional life. But if you really look at the mark of a man, it’s more about significance over success. I can’t tell you the impact he made on our football team, really on the whole organization. I’ve only been working with Markus since January. But it’s very clearly evident throughout these last 48 hours, 72 hours what he means to everybody.

    “We’re definitely going to miss him. It’s unfortunate for his family, but we had the opportunity to celebrate him last night as a team. We’ll definitely continue to do that. His memory and his impact have touched a lot of people and will always live with us.

    “That’s where we are.”

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