In a profession where short tenures are the norm, Tom Ciskowski’s time with the Dallas Cowboys is extraordinary. The senior personnel executive is in his 25th season with the team, a period that includes 12 playoff appearances and three Super Bowl victories. In that time, he has served as a scout, director of college and pro scouting and assistant director of player personnel.
This season may end with the fourth Super Bowl victory in Ciskowski’s career, but it did not look like it would get anywhere near that point in the preseason. After starting quarterback Tony Romo suffered a back injury, Dak Prescott, a rookie from Mississippi State University, filled in. The results have been quite remarkable. The Cowboys finished the season with 13 wins and three losses, positioning themselves as the NFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
Ciskowski does not let past or possible future success go to his head, however. He attributes his blue-collar work ethic to being one of eight children born to an Oklahoma farmer who put God first. Regardless of what else was happening, the now-62-year-old was taught to take the time to recognize God as the center of all things.
As the Cowboys take this week off and watch wild card games to see who their opponent will be in the NFC divisional playoffs the following week, Tom Ciskowski spoke of the foundation that faith and family provide and his longtime association with the men in silver and blue.
What do you think of possible matchups for the Cowboys in next week’s divisional game?
We’ve done very well this year, but you can’t take any team for granted. In the 1990s it seemed for a while like the best team in the NFC was either Dallas or San Francisco, but today there are many teams capable of coming out on top. New York is a prime example. They’ve handed us [two of our three] losses this season, so we know what they’re capable of.
Regardless of who the opponent is, though, a playoff game is just like a regular season game. When it’s over, you can usually look back and see that two or three plays made the difference in the outcome. The difference between the winning team and losing team is not normally that great, so it takes discipline and persistence to be victorious.
Many people thought when starting quarterback Tony Romo went down with an injury in the preseason that the Cowboys would have to forget this season and look toward the next. Have you been surprised by how well backup quarterback Dak Prescott has done?
I’m not sure anyone expected we would be doing this well, but we obviously thought highly enough of Dak to have drafted and signed him. He has a number of great qualities. He’s a smart leader who, instead of falling prey to the temptation of being a hotshot, plays within himself. He has the humility to know that his role, although very important, is not at odds with the rest of the team, but an integral part of it. He plays very well within the system and doesn’t let things outside his control affect him, which is what you want from every player.
The 2016 Cowboys’ season is similar to the St. Louis Rams’ 1999 season, in which Kurt Warner filled in after starting quarterback Trent Green went down in the preseason. The Rams ended up winning the Super Bowl that season with Warner’s leadership.
There are certainly similarities between the 1999 Rams and us this year. We still have a way to go before winning the Super Bowl, but that would be the ideal ending to a fantastic season. Not only has Dak done well, but so have fellow Pro Bowl selections Ezekiel Elliott, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith — along with the rest of them. We could not have asked for a better season thus far.
The Cowboys have won three Super Bowls and made 12 playoff appearances during your time with them. You seem to be very adept at getting the right players.
There are lots of things that go into making a great team, and choosing the right players is one of them. However, there are many others involved in the process. To start with, former head coach Jimmy Johnson brought me into the organization after I had been on his staff at Oklahoma State University and the University of Miami. He was a very intelligent leader who knew how to communicate with anyone and get the best out of him.
Jimmy wanted to know from scouts what a given player could do, but scouts can make their reports so complicated that you aren’t sure a player is worth drafting. Jimmy would want to know quite simply if the player could be a running back or a wide receiver or a tight end on the team, instead of getting a report that says under such-and-such circumstances the player might be able to do this or that. Bottom line: A scout should be looking for players that could fit with his team, regardless of what they have accomplished in college or what they may be able to do for another team
Another person who deserves credit is Jerry Jones, the owner, president and general manager of the Cowboys. From the time he bought the team in 1989, he has wanted them to be the very best. Recently, Jerry’s son Stephen has helped to make that happen, as the chief operating officer and also the director of player personnel — after I stepped down from that position a few years ago to spend more time with my family. The Joneses are directly involved in getting the right players, so when you see quality Cowboys, Jerry and Stephen should get credit.
Have you always been able to connect your faith with your job?
More or less, I think. One thing I try to do with the players is to take the time to communicate with them as just another guy. It’s always a business environment, so the player may not even be with the team the next week, but while he is here, I want to encourage him and treat him well, especially if he has come from a disadvantaged background.
Before the workday even begins, though, I make it Catholic by praying the Rosary in the car. It takes me 23 minutes or so to get to work, so that’s just the right amount of time to get all five decades in. The Rosary has a way of freeing my mind from stress and tension; I just think better after having prayed it.
Do you have a favorite Catholic book?
I really like Be a Man! by Father Larry Richards. He has a direct, no-nonsense way of stating things that someone in football can appreciate. He’s very real, so there’s no fluff to sift through in order to figure out what he’s trying to say. That’s especially appealing to men, so Father Larry uses it to minister to men specifically in talks around the country.
I’ve listened to talks on CD by Father Larry and almost got to see him in person when he came to Dallas a few years ago. However, my flight home was delayed, so I missed out on that. He can be heard on EWTN Radio now, which is good, but that show is more of a general program for everyone rather than one for men specifically.
Going back a bit further than Father Larry, I like St. Paul’s New Testament writings, especially the “prison letters.” I find it fascinating that a man who was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write parts of the Bible did so while in, or after being in, prison. There’s wisdom that adversity can bring, which would never have been possible in prosperity.
Younger people tend to let adversity get them down and prosperity boost them up, but by the time you reach my age, it’s easier to enjoy adversity by looking at what you can learn from it. Then, on the other hand, you don’t really take prosperity too seriously, because you know it won’t last without more work. Getting older helps you to accept desirable and undesirable results in almost the same way. You just keep plugging along, regardless of what the score of the game is, or what people think of your draft class, or whatever else.
Do you have a patron saint?
St. John Paul II is someone who has been an inspiration to our family, which has Polish lineage. Before being ordained, Karol Wojtyla was a factory worker, which my father could relate to in his work as a farmer. He had a simple, blue-collar work ethic, with unshakeable standards, that he passed on to his eight kids.
I’ve been working in the NFL for 25 years, but have never missed a Sunday Mass in that time. I’m not one of the players or coaches, but it would still be easy to make an excuse for not getting to Mass. “Based on injuries or performances in the game, there might be personnel decisions to make, so church has to take a backseat to work” would be an easy rationalization to make.
My father passed along to me basic foundations of faith, and the most important one is to always take at least one hour a week to publicly worship God. This is a primary duty to our Father, who created us and holds us in existence. If you think of what rightful claims God has on our every action, word, or even thought, one Mass per week is not unreasonable in the least. It’s easier to remember that in a small place like my hometown of Medford, Oklahoma, but continual prayer helps to remind those of us who live in a large metropolitan area that, no matter what else happens, God is always and everyone first. God is the real star of the show.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie
writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven
(Dynamic Catholic, 2015),
contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which
have appeared in the Register.