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'Hard Knocks' Episode 1 recap: Dak Prescott loves his scars

"I love scars. I've got plenty of them."

The 16th season of Hard Knocks begins with a private audience for the viewer and one of pro football's most recognizable stars.

Dak Prescott is explaining the challenges of the past year and a half. First, the tragic death of his older brother in April of 2020. Then, the compound fracture of his left ankle six months later. The Cowboys quarterback has made a complete recovery from the latter, but when he talks about scars, it's not hard to see he's referring to more than just marks on his body.

Like so many of us, Prescott was put through the ringer of life in 2020. And like the rest of us, he's optimistic for better times in 2021 and beyond. The recent tribulations have tested him in ways he never could have imagined, but Prescott is determined to regain control of his own narrative. That begins on the football field, a place he's always viewed as safe harbor. The events of that cursed game against the Giants in October challenged even that notion, but Prescott remains undeterred. Doubt has no place in his mindset as a top-tier pro athlete.

"There was a season of adversity," Prescott says. "Now there's a season of triumph."

With that, familiar strings jump into the mix and David Robidoux's stirring "Hard Knocks" theme delivers the goosebumps. Your favorite football show is back.

NFL Films tried to mix things up amidst last year's COVID-19 madness, documenting both the Rams and Chargers -- the first time Hard Knocks had covered two teams simultaneously. The season provided its usual share of memorable moments, but producers were right to return the show to its roots in 2021. A lot of the beauty of Hard Knocks comes via its simplicity. One team. One goal. One journey to Week 1.

And if you're going to focus on one team, you can't go wrong with the Dallas Cowboys.

The cold open with Prescott was an immediate reminder why the Cowboys remain fertile subject matter despite a Super Bowl drought that's now stretched over a quarter century. When you think of "America's Team," you think stars -- and that goes beyond the logo on the helmet and at midfield. Prescott has a magnetic quality to his personality that makes him a natural leader. His best friend is Ezekiel Elliott, the polarizing star running back who possesses his own unique brand of charisma. Mike McCarthy brings gravitas as the only head coach who ever got Aaron Rodgers to the mountaintop. And then, of course, there's Jerry Jones -- the franchise's longtime owner, patriarch, hype man and No. 1 fan.

"I would do anything known to man to get in a Super Bowl," Jones said during a camp-opening press conference. "That's a fact."

Later, Jones choked back tears as he told the huge throng of assembled media that he could -- as a man of immense wealth and status -- be anywhere in the world, but he chooses the daily grind with his football team. Jones' Cowboys have always been about spectacle, and perhaps Jones -- with the long pauses and glassy eyes -- is putting on a show here. But you know he means it.

Jones has scars, too. Two and a half decades of falling short have taken a toll on a man who has become otherwise accustomed to getting what he wants in life. You wondered what was going through Jones' mind last weekend as he watched Jimmy Johnson give his Hall of Fame speech in Canton. In the early '90s, Johnson and Jones ruled the football world together. Johnson retired from the sidelines years ago to golf in Miami and get that TV analyst cheese. Jones is still at it, hoping his quarterback is right -- the season of triumph is upon his beloved team.

And if it's not? Ol' Jerrah will be back in Oxnard again next summer, sitting at a dais in front of 50 cameras and 500 reporters, talking up another Cowboys team he deeply believes in. For the owner, this might all feel like Groundhog Day. For us, it's Hard Knocks.

Extra points …

  • Welcome to the 16th season of Hard Knocks and the 10th year of weekly recaps from yours truly. Talk about Groundhog Day. As always, I'll be offering up my insights on every episode from now through the finale on Sept. 7. New episodes premiere on HBO and HBO Max every Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET. I'll also be talking about the show on Wednesday editions of the Around The NFL Podcast.
  • Prescott was a near-constant presence in the premiere, which makes sense. His return from injury is the biggest Cowboys subplot this summer, and his strained shoulder is the biggest news story out of the team's camp. Throw in a surprise birthday celebration and it was DakTV. Not that I'm complaining. As I wrote above, Prescott has a magnetic appeal and I enjoyed learning more about him.
  • Speaking of Prescott, he was not happy about being limited in his practice work, a decision that still didn't stop the QB from suffering his shoulder injury. The question: Was the strain caused by Prescott doing too much, too soon? In a coaches meeting, McCarthy noted team "GPS" data that had Prescott's activity level in an earlier practice at a much higher level than they were comfortable with.
  • It's nice to see fans back at team practices and preseason action, isn't it? It's fair to wonder if it's the safest decision in the midst of an ongoing global health crisis, but man, it was oddly comforting to see all those Cowboys fans whooping it up. Sports simply aren't the same without the fans and the energy we bring.
  • How adorable is the friendship between Zeke and Dak? They're the new Rob & Big. It's also remarkable that Ezekiel Elliott had never attempted to wrap a present until his 26th year on Earth. Zeke's clearly not someone you ever wanted to get in Secret Santa.
  • I was left befuddled by special teams coach John "Bones" Fassel, who delivered a half-hearted vasectomy PSA to a bunch of 23-year-old football players who looked at him like he had a third elbow growing out of his forehead. Fassel also revealed ... he had the procedure reversed at some point? Strong Michael Scott vibes in the meeting room.
  • In other misguided-attempts-at-meeting-room-bonding news, McCarthy debuted his "Mojo Moment" motivational mantra by playing a clip from the first Austin Powers sequel (the one with Heather Graham and Fat Bastard in it). A total Dad Move that didn't quite land in a room filled with guys who were in diapers when The Spy Who Shagged Me ruled the box office in 1999.
  • That said, McCarthy won me back with this brilliance: "Charlie F---around? He don't work here. High School Harry? Get his f------ ass out the f------ door." Madness. I loved it.
  • Last but certainly not least: What was Jerry Jones' breakfast? My wife thinks it was sausage and cheese on a brioche bun, but I'm pretty sure it was a sausage, egg and cheese ... between pancakes? Whatever it was, he added a generous helping of salt to tie it all together. This is not what I expected the 78-year-old owner of the Dallas Cowboys to chow down on in the morning … at all … but I have to admit it made me like him a little bit more.
  • The Hard Knocks soundtrack!

Dan Hanzus hosts the award-winning Around The NFL Podcast and has been's Hard Knocks beat writer since 2012. You can check out his complete recap archive right here.

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