Purgatory in paradise: A behind-the-scenes look at Ezekiel Elliott's holdout and how the Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott spent purgatory in paradise.
A four-bedroom, hacienda-style villa in Cabo San Lucas had light-brown marble flooring and high ceilings from which a yellow-stained candle chandelier hung in the living room. The property was spacious, its 4,000-square-foot layout stretching into a backyard where the Cowboys running back could lounge around the swimming pool or hot tub and observe an adjacent golf course.
Not the one that Tiger Woods designed.
The resort's other golf course.
Few specifics on Elliott's day-to-day life surfaced publicly during his 40-day contract holdout in Mexico. From "Zeke Rolls," daily poker nights and dynamic workouts, this curtain is now raised. Alliance Management Group, the sports agency representing Elliott, and a Mexican resort collaborated to account for both body and mind.
Alliance insulated Elliott at Diamante resort for nearly his entire holdout. The summer standoff was less him versus the Cowboys and more him versus the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, which constricts how certain running backs are compensated late in a rookie contract. Elliott's fifth-year option for 2020 fell below market value at $9.1 million.
On Sept. 4, Elliott became the highest-paid running back in league history via a six-year, $90 million contract extension, with $50 million guaranteed.
That was a Wednesday.
He participated in his first practice since June 14 that same morning. He had three practices total before playing 37 offensive snaps in a season-opening Sunday win over the New York Giants. His involvement is expected to increase this Sunday against the Washington Redskins.
"He came back in shape and was ready to go," coach Jason Garrett said Friday. "I thought he did a good job in the game with the workload we gave him, but there's no question he's getting more and more comfortable. The more you do something, the more comfortable you're going to get at it. ... He looks good. He looked good from the start."
Elliott put in the work.
He also received help, a journey beginning with a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
The Cowboys chartered a July 24 flight from DFW International Airport to Los Angeles. From there, buses transported players and staff about 90 minutes north to the club's training camp headquarters in Oxnard, California.
Elliott had a different travel plan.
On July 23, he and his team at Alliance first met for dinner with Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse in Plano. Smith made for an ideal dinner guest, not only once the NFL's highest-paid running back but someone who earned that distinction following a 1993 holdout with these same Cowboys.
Owner Jerry Jones signed off then.
He would need to again now.
Smith stressed the importance of support from teammates during the holdout. A range of emotions are coming. The locker room needed to be Elliott's backbone to weather them. Stay ready. Mentally and physically, be locked in. There is no telling how long negotiations will last. Once over, it's time to go.
With that, Elliott and the Alliance group traveled to Mexico.
They checked into Diamante for the indefinite stay. The grounds' about 1,500 acres, about 10 of which are occupied by a saltwater lagoon, are designed to provide exclusivity and privacy to clientele. Developer Ken Jowdy was made aware Elliott would be staying at the property and, with a 967-person staff, ensured any specialized needs would be addressed.
Elliott took the king bed inside the villa.
Brian Hannula, Alliance's director of contracts, claimed a second room. Two free agent NFL players from the agency, former New York Giants running back Orleans Darkwa and quarterback Tanner Lee, moved in as well. Lee arrived after his Aug. 17 release from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Alliance CEO Rocky Arceneaux, general counsel Frank Salzano, general counsel Jason Lampert and director of football administration Caitlin Aoki were among the others in Cabo for all or a portion of the time.
Early in the stay, Arceneaux found a golf cart numbered "21," Elliott's jersey number, and decided this cart would be theirs for the trip. Weeks later, Elliott would autograph it for the staff before departing for Dallas.
A long road stood before then.
A Zeke Roll was an off-menu Elliott concoction prepared at a resort restaurant called Izzy's. The sushi roll features Wagyu beef and eel sauce on the outside with crab meat, avocado and cucumber included on the inside.
This was a popular order for Elliott.
And one part of his stay personalized to him.
Between the No. 1 and 9 golf fairways on the Dunes Course, Diamante converted a sod farm into a training facility. A tent with beverages was stationed. Music played during workouts, as Alliance arranged via Florida-based Bommarito Performance Systems for trainer Joe Ferrer to stay in Cabo for most of the holdout.
Ferrer wasn't interested in Elliott's weight or 40 time.
He wasn't counting on Elliott reporting to the Cowboys ready for 30 carries.
"Every football player on earth will tell you that you can do as much offseason training as you want," Ferrer said. "You've just got to get those reps with the team to get in that real good football shape. We can run him all day, but until he puts those pads on, gets in those drills and plays with the team, that's a little different.
"Our main goal was to keep him healthy. Get him a little bit faster. Maintain his strength; he's already a big, strong dude. And make sure he shows up to camp in good shape, healthy and ready to go. ... He pretty much exceeded every expectation I had just because he committed every single day."
Former NFL running back Marshall Faulk visited on occasion.
Those training days were the most up-tempo, as Faulk shouted different football scenarios to which Elliott responded during a two-minute offense. Complete the assignment and sprint to the ball. Complete the assignment and sprint to the ball.
The living space in the villa was reworked to give room for Mike Jones, a performance physical therapist at Force Physical Therapy, to work on Elliott. Table tennis, cornhole, board games and washers were among the rec activities.
Fittingly, during a high-stakes holdout with the Cowboys, Texas Hold 'Em rose to popularity. Many in the group were new to the poker game, needing to learn the difference between two pair and a full house. By the end, no rules required explanation.
"Every day, we played poker three or four hours a night," Hannula said. "Thousands of hands. I'm sick of poker. I don't even want to play anymore."
Cowboys preseason games were streamed on a flat screen, stressing the Internet Wi-Fi in the house.
At one point in August, Elliott and Hannula went to Dallas for a couple days for various errands. They took a shared ride to Elliott's home and, on a delivery app, ordered Popeye's fried chicken sandwiches, which they'd read about repeatedly on social media from Mexico.
"We had to try it," Hannula said.
Closing the gap
The next time Elliott would leave Mexico was Sept. 3 on American Airlines flight No. 1117 to DFW International. By that point, the holdout had grown tiring. High ceilings seemed shorter. Good food was the same food. And talks with the Cowboys finally produced a basic contract framework, representing meaningful progress toward an extension.
But the final steps weren't simple.
Elliott needed to sign by Wednesday morning to realistically play Week 1. A late-night stall between Alliance and the Cowboys escalated frustrations to a point where one Cowboys executive told Elliott's camp to "go back to Cabo," one source said.
On Wednesday, after 3 a.m, Alliance submitted a counteroffer -- there were about a dozen -- with adjusted trigger times on guaranteed money. For both Dallas and Elliott, it was a priority that any extension leave salary-cap room to sign others; quarterback Dak Prescott represents the most sizable looming contract.
The accepted deal allows for this.
Elliott is fully guaranteed $28 million in the first two years with $20.5 million of that prorated for cap purposes. The latter figure is composed of a $7.5 million signing bonus, which Elliott pockets this month, and a $13 million option bonus for 2020 that will be distributed in varied cash installments next year.
The $13 million prorates against the cap across a five-year period.
Before the holdout, Elliott was in line to earn $9.1 million in 2020. He'll receive $19.8 million instead.
His $9.6 million in earnings in 2021 are fully guaranteed if Elliott is on the roster on the fifth day of the 2020 league year. His $12.4 million earnings in 2022 are fully guaranteed if on the roster the fifth day of the 2021 league year.
Elliott didn't need to return to Cabo, which is good because he already bid farewell. About 45 Diamante staffers gathered outside the villa to wish them off before the Sept. 3 flight.
Jeff Scott, Diamante's director of special events, served as the point person to Elliott and Alliance during their stay. He said that Elliott took time to interact with the staffers. He learned their names. He learned some Spanish. From their talks, Scott said, he and Elliott connected dots and realized they were both born at St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles, Missouri.
"We hope they come back," Scott said, "under different circumstances."
On this, everyone can agree.