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CINCINNATI -- In the Dallas Cowboys' locker room, the jerseys of Jerry Brown and Josh Brent hung in stalls, waiting for someone to slide into them.
It wasn't going to happen.
How do you get through something like this?
How do you walk into your team facility and notice two of your teammates -- your brothers -- are missing? How do you deal with a plane ride to a road game knowing one teammate was killed because of the mistake of another?
How do you sleep at night knowing you must walk onto a football field the next day and try to win a game to keep the playoff hopes alive for your team and its fan base?
The Cowboys somehow did Sunday afternoon with a 20-19 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
|The Cowboys and Bengals kneeled in prayer to honor Jerry Brown.|
It was the most emotional game of the season and in quite some time.
This was about Brent, in jail after being arrested and charged with intoxication manslaughter early Saturday morning when his car crashed in Irving, Texas. This was about Brown, a passenger in the car, who died as a result of the crash.
Brent, a nose tackle, and Brown, a practice squad outside linebacker, no longer there.
How do you remember your brothers?
"I think the field was our refuge today," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "Being at the hotel and listening and hearing things and having to have meetings about it, the emotions that came out from guys, it kinda built up. We're talking about life. We're talking about football, and when you're in that situation and when something like that has happened, you got to put the game away for just a second to reflect on what's really happening."
There was a moment of silence before the game for Brown, and the players took his jersey and laid it across one of the benches during the game, a way of keeping their hardworking teammate's presence with them. After all, he was named scout team player of the week after one practice.
When the Cowboys finally beat the Bengals, DeMarcus Ware grabbed the jersey from Jason Hatcher and carried it into the locker room.
"I told our team that this is uncharted territory," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said after the game. "We have obviously been in a very difficult situation in the last couple of days. We lost Jerry Brown, a practice player for us that we picked up earlier in the year. It has been very emotional for everybody. As the head coach of the team, I have to talk to them about it and inform them about the situation. I had to offer some perspective on the situation, and the main thing I talked about was the value of a teammate."
Garrett was the rock the Cowboys needed during an emotional time.
"I've never told more people that I love them more than today," fullback Lawrence Vickers said.
The Cowboys' defensive line is a close group. Jay Ratliff, who did not attend the game because of a groin injury, views Brent as a little brother. Ratliff and Brent spent countless hours studying game film. Brent had replaced Ratliff at nose tackle.
Brent was close to Brown from their days as college teammates at Illinois, and that brought the young man from St. Louis into the defensive line club.
"It's great to have teammates you love and care about," Spears said.
How do you deal with it when they're no longer there?
"We tried to go out today and honor him the best way we could," said Dan Bailey, who made the 40-yard field goal in the closing seconds to win the game. "I think we did that, win or lose. It's a tough situation, but I think everybody handled it well. It's not going to be easy moving forward, but we're going to do the best we can."
The Cowboys must gather themselves for a memorial service tentatively scheduled for Tuesday while also preparing for Sunday's game against Pittsburgh.
"You have guys that you're with, and less than 24 hours later, one of those guys is gone," assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett said. "So it's bigger than football, it's real life, it's reality. I think that's tough. The guys, for three hours, had to remove what was going on and just play the game. I think it's really going to hit now. I think a lot of guys are still numb and it still actually (hasn't) hit them yet. When we get back, I expect it to be even more emotional still. I really do."
Life, as well as the NFL, moves on, and how the Cowboys handle it in the next month might be the hardest thing many of them have ever had to do.