FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott’s initial thought in the post-touchdown jubilation was to resist.
The Dallas Cowboys quarterback had just rolled out of a sack early in the fourth quarter, zig-zagging into what would become a somersault of a 6-yard rushing touchdown. In their 2018 Thanksgiving game against Washington, the Cowboys now had the lead. Prescott celebrated with his trademark kiss to the sky, a nod to his late mother and celebratory embraces with his offensive linemen.
Then running back Ezekiel Elliott raced to the end zone, lifting Prescott into his arms before promptly dumping — donating? — him into the Salvation Army red kettle.
“At the point he lifted me up, I’m like, ‘I better not resist or I might hurt something,’ ” Prescott said. “Zeke’s a person and player I’m very thankful for.”
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The antics marked Elliott’s third touchdown celebration with the red kettle, the Salvation Army’s annual holiday collection campaign that launched in 1891. The Cowboys will host their 25th nationally broadcast Red Kettle Campaign Kickoff on Thursday, complete with kettles in the end zone and a halftime performance by country music entertainer Luke Combs.
This year’s red kettle involvement remains up in the air after Prescott and Elliott were fined in 2018 for what the league deemed unsportsmanlike conduct. But the Cowboys value what has become a source of team energy and philanthropic spirit. The campaign has served more than 748 million people with donations totaling $2.86 billion since 1997.
“It has become that tradition,” Cowboys Executive Vice President and Chief Brand Officer Charlotte Jones told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s as much a part of who we are with the Cowboys as eating turkey is on Thanksgiving Day.”
‘A completely authentic moment’
Perhaps Combs’ recognition of the red kettle antics illustrates that reach. The multiplatinum artist and 2021 CMA Entertainer of the Year said he’s “used to seeing” Elliott jump into the red kettle.
“How many times you jumping in this tomorrow, @ezekielelliott?” Combs posted to Instagram on Thursday.
It’s possible Elliott hasn’t decided yet.
When he first took the plunge in December 2016, the scheme materialized during warmups. Elliott saw the kettle and thought: “That bucket’s just sitting right there by the end zone, so it’s only right someone jumps in it.”
He checked before warmups to ensure nothing dangerous was inside.
His moment came after he scored 2-yard touchdown run against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Still holding the ball, Elliott hopped in. He then peeked his head over the top as if checking for a clear coast, which became an iconic meme. A longtime friend texted Elliott’s mother, Dawn, who was at the game and said: “That is totally something you would have done.”
Dawn Elliott saw how quickly her son beelined for the kettle and figured he had eyed such an opportunity.
“I know my child: He was waiting to do that,” she told USA TODAY Sports by phone. “He’s been always a big kid. He’s acted like that ever since he was little. He kind of never grew up.”
Jones said that contagious spirit paired with Elliott’s characteristic “Feed Me” gesture to form an eye-catching Salvation Army pitch. Watching from the owner’s box, she breathed a sigh of relief when Elliott emerged uninjured. After all, she said, the kettles were initially used to store pyrotechnics for the team’s halftime performance. Jones also laughed when someone suggested she had put Elliott up to it as a marketing ploy.
“It was just a 20-year-old kid who thought it was a good idea to jump inside the kettle,” Jones told USA TODAY Sports. “I almost think if it had been anybody else, it would not have been near as clever. But he has to even come up out of there peering, his full personality. To me, that’s just such good spirit, such great generosity.
“It was a completely authentic moment.”
Elliott subsequently donated $21,000 to the Salvation Army and solicited $21 donations from fans to help feed families in need. The campaign generated an additional $250,000 in donations, the team said.
And Elliott brought back the $21 donation in 2018 when he scored the game’s first touchdown. This time, Elliott had planted cash with an on-field photographer, donating the $21 after his own score a couple quarters before he’d ultimately donate Prescott. The Prescott donation, Elliott concedes, was not preplanned.
“It was kind of spur of the moment,” Elliott said. “Just remember I threw him in there. It was fun. We had a good time.”
Looking for a run
On Thursday, the 7-3 Cowboys will look to rebound from a loss at the Kansas City Chiefs when the 5-5 Las Vegas Raiders visit. The Cowboys struggled to establish the offensive rhythm and physicality they expect. Outside of one explosive 31-yard rush, their remaining 15 carries amounted to 51 yards.
“We need to re-establish our identity just being physical, obviously setting the tone at the line of scrimmage,” Prescott said. “From there, after we do that, we can re-establish our pace of play, get some plays going, get some momentum.”
Prescott’s and Elliott’s ground game can create that momentum on the field and off for the Salvation Army’s campaign. The kettles will be there, the social service provider collecting for Christmas gifts, food, shelter, rent and utility assistance with heightened need due to pandemic poverty. The Salvation Army estimates it will need $175 million to keep Americans in their homes this holiday season, the organization said. Prescott said Elliott can be counted on for “always great spirit.”
Jones said she would encourage a red kettle-involved celebration even as the league has penalized taunting more ardently this season. Her father, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, has said he’d love to sue the league for such a penalty and bring even more awareness to the Salvation Army’s cause.
“I encourage their ingenuity,” Jones said. “It’s certainly been something that’s used our visibility to inspire others to want to help and give back, but equally as important to us, it’s inspired an ethos in our organization in how important it is and the responsibility we have to be part of this team.
“Every year, us building upon this and letting the guys understand how important it is. They truly have embraced it.”
Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.