CINCINNATI - As fate, cruel and otherwise, would have it, they rose above their weekend of grief and won a football game Sunday afternoon.
And when it was done, they carried linebacker Jerry Brown’s jersey - the No. 53 Dallas Cowboys jersey that he never got to wear - back to the locker room with them.
Along a row in the visitors’ locker room at Paul Brown Stadium, someone had affixed to one of the stalls a white strip of tape hand-printed with Brown’s name and number.
“I told our team that this is uncharted territory,” coach Jason Garrett said.
There is no playbook, no step in the process, Garrett knows, for how to deal with what happened to Brown - and to the Cowboys - over the weekend.
Veteran defensive lineman Marcus Spears agreed.
“Never, never,” Spears answered, when asked if he had ever been on a football team that went through such a difficult 36 hours. “This has been the toughest. You’re talking about 24-, 25-year-old kids. One life is gone, another is totally changed.
“And 48 hours ago, we were in the locker room laughing and joking.”
Behind Dan Bailey’s 40-yard field goal, the Cowboys came back to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 20-19 on Sunday. The particulars of the afternoon, however - dank and gray, in more ways than one - are destined to be relegated to footnotes.
“It’s emotionally draining,” Cowboys fullback Lawrence Vickers said. “Every play. It took everything out of me.
“I can imagine how the rest of my teammates feel.”
The anguish was compounded by the fact that another teammate, nose tackle Josh Brent, has been charged in Brown’s death with intoxication manslaughter, accused of driving while intoxicated. While the Cowboys’ defense was righting itself Sunday, halting the Bengals on three successive drives to end the game, Brent was sitting in an Irving jail cell, being held on a $500,000 bond. Brown and Brent were friends and former college roommates at Illinois. It’s likely that before Saturday, only the staunchest of Cowboys fans had ever heard of Jerry Brown. He had been a member of the team’s practice squad only since October. His loss, though, has been no less felt. As Garrett said Sunday, “I remember him as this big, strapping guy with bright eyes and a bounce in his step everywhere he went. Now, at 25 years of age, he’s no longer with us.”
Owner Jerry Jones said he had twice Sunday been in contact with Brown’s mother, Stacey Jackson. The team is planning a memorial service for Brown on Tuesday in Dallas.
“Jerry, in the short time he was here, was loved by his teammates,” Jones said. “They were real close, especially that area of our team - the defensive linemen.”
In a way, Jones agreed, the road game against the Bengals provided, at least briefly, a sorely needed escape.
As Spears put it, “We haven’t dealt with a lot of stuff yet that we’re going to have to deal with - remembering Jerry, and Josh, and trying to keep Jerry’s memory alive and Josh’s state of mind right, and reaching out to Jerry’s family.
“I think the tough stuff is still to come.”
The game, in the meantime, was a blur in a lot of ways, some of the players confessed. As soon as the Cowboys returned to the locker room, however, the realities of the weekend hit them all over again.
“Right after this game, my mind, personally, shifted right back to the situation,” Spears said. “Playing football is what we do. It’s an emotional game already. You’re in this locker room with 53 of your brothers. Somehow, some way, you’ve got to channel it.
“And I think everybody fed off everybody else today. That was the only way to get it done.”
Not a lot was said about the accident or about Brown before the game, players said. Much of the talking took place Saturday in the hours after they first were told.
“The plane ride might be a little different,” Spears said, as the Cowboys dressed for the flight home. “Guys might revert back to reflecting on what happened, and it may be emotional.
“But I think us being together and having each other will help us more than anything.”
A few feet away in the quiet visitors’ locker room, the tape above the now-empty orange locker read, “53 ... Jerry Brown.”
“I think it was a great gesture,” Spears said of the Cowboys’ bringing Brown’s jersey to their sideline. “Jerry would have loved the opportunity to be out there.
“I think it was a reminder to us, too, how we need to be grateful for what we have the opportunity to do.”
It’s a reminder that, hopefully, will resonate long after this sad day’s final score has been forgotten.