The conversation by the coffee machine was the last one the two friends would share.
Nothing seemed amiss that Tuesday morning. Nothing in that moment signaled Markus Paul was on borrowed time.
“He seemed fine,” Harold Nash said. “No warning shot. No nothing.”
The longtime friends and Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning coaches began every day this season the same way – sharing a moment of calm and camaraderie over cups of caffeine before the chaos of football training commenced.
But a short time later, Paul collapsed in the weight room and never regained consciousness.
“I come in and he’s talking to another assistant strength coach and one of the players,” Nash said. “And he just passed out.”
Paramedics rushed Paul from the Cowboys facility to the hospital. The next day, a devastated football community was mourning his death. He was taken off life support after a blood clot cut off oxygen to his brain, according to a social media post from his daughter, Tabitha.
Paul stood well over 6 feet tall, but was “a gentle giant,” friends say. He was a physically fit man with a lean frame that commanded attention in every room he entered, despite being a man of few words.
He loved his family. He loved the Lord. And he loved his players like they were his own.
He was only 54 years old.
Christmas Day marked one month since his passing. But while the Cowboys’ season has continued – culminating in a regular-season finale against the New York Giants that carries potential playoff implications – the void left behind lingers like a fog over those who knew Paul best. Not only in the Cowboys’ facility, but across the NFL – within organizations like the Giants, where he spent 12 years and won two Super Bowls before he was hired by Dallas in 2018.
Paul was one of only three Black men this season – along with the Indianapolis Colts’ Richard Howell and Cleveland Browns’ Larry Jackson – to hold the title of either head strength coach or director of strength and conditioning for an NFL team. And his absence is acutely felt within the small fraternity of Black strength coaches.
“There’s not too many brothers in this business, so it was kind of good to speak with someone like him,” said Howell, now in his 21st season with the Colts and third as their head strength coach. “You just know that as another brotha in this business, you have some of the same challenges. And to have someone who’s had those same challenges and overcome those challenges and continue to move forward and excel, that’s priceless to have.”
Paul was a husband to his wife, Heidi, whom he affectionately called “Beautiful,” and a father to his “baby girl” Tabitha; son, Jairus; and stepsons Dwayne and Mathias Smith. He was a trusted friend to his peers, a listening ear for his players and a mentor to younger coaches aspiring to walk a similar professional path. Players respected him because he played the game, and was damn good at it too. He was an All-American safety at Syracuse, where he set a school record with 19 interceptions before being drafted in the fourth round by the Chicago Bears in 1989. After his career ended in 1993, he embarked on a coaching career that spanned almost 30 years, with stops in New Orleans, New England, New York and Dallas.
A five-time Super Bowl champion as a coach (including three with the Patriots), Paul was known best for being able to easily establish credibility with players. Unlike position coaches who oversee a very small group, strength coaches interact with the entire roster – and Paul understood the importance of setting the right culture and expectations of accountability for his players.
“You touch every single player on that team,” said Nash, who joined the Cowboys as Paul’s assistant strength coach this offseason after spending the previous four years as the Detroit Lions’ head strength and conditioning coach. “You interact with those guys more than their coaches.”
Weight room conversations can quickly shift from football to deeply personal talks about marital issues, child rearing and contract situations. And the best strength coaches are just as adept at navigating those discussions as they are dispensing training tips and daily motivation.
“The weight room is like the barbershop,” Nash said with a chuckle.
“You’re just the thermostat,” he continued. “When a room’s hot, you calm it down and you try to keep as much off the head coach’s desk. You’re a parent. You’re an uncle. You’re a teacher. You have so many different hats. You’re a disciplinarian. You’re a brother.”
Paul’s presence helped to make the Cowboys’ weight room a special place.
A sanctuary of sorts.
“The guys would say, ‘Is the weight room open?’ And I’d say, ‘The doors of the church are always open,’ ” Nash said.
AN IMMEASURABLE VOID
Within minutes, word spread across the NFL of a medical emergency involving a Cowboys coach at the team’s facility.
In East Rutherford, New Jersey, Giants assistant strength coach Thomas Stallworth instinctively reached out to Paul, Nash and fellow Cowboys assistant strength coach, Kendall Smith. But he didn’t receive a reply.
A short time later, Giants special-teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey broke the news that it was Paul.
“He knew how much Coach Paul meant to me,” Stallworth said.
The next update he received was that Paul was in critical condition.
“You go into praying hard and believing,” Stallworth recalled. “Hold on to your faith because Coach Paul was a man of faith. Regardless of what he was going through, he was always going to bring it back to a spiritual place.”
Almost 1,600 miles away in Frisco, Texas, Nash was doing the same.
“I’m just praying,” Nash said. “Like, ‘This can’t be happening.’ I’m thinking about his wife. I’m thinking about his kids. I’m thinking about the players. I’m thinking about the organization. You get to a point to where you’re like, ‘Man, how do I navigate through this?’ ”
He went to the hospital later that day. At the time, Paul was still alive.
“Well, technically,” Nash said softly. “He was on life support.”
The next day, Tabitha Paul disclosed on Instagram that her father “no longer has any brain activity” due to a blood clot “that cut off oxygen supply to his brain. We have no other choice but to officially take my dad off life support and lay him to rest.”
Back in Indianapolis, Howell struggled to comprehend the news.
He had texted Paul back in September, just to check in before the season became hectic. And now, his friend of nearly two decades was gone.
“This can’t be. This is not right,” said Howell, who first met Paul back in 2001.
As he described his late friend, Howell fluctuated between the past and present tense.
“You could talk with him about whatever and the way he could speak to you, you will leave feeling like, ‘Man, it’s going to be all right,’ ” Howell said. “He’s a good man. And that just came out of him. That just came out of his pores. I mean, you just knew this is a good dude. And he would do whatever he can for you.”
Stallworth can attest to that.
In January 2018, Stallworth was named the head strength and conditioning coach at Western Kentucky. But within a few months, he was on to a new gig. In the NFL.
All thanks to Paul.
When Paul decided to leave the Giants to become Dallas’ head strength and conditioning coach, he recommended Stallworth for the now-vacant assistant position in New York.
Stallworth was hesitant to change jobs so quickly, knowing that he’d have to relocate his family once again. But in the end, “He sold me on coming to work here,” said Stallworth, now in his third season with the Giants.
And now, there isn’t a day that goes by that Stallworth doesn’t think about his mentor.
“I really would not be here if it wasn’t for him,” he said, sitting at the same desk Paul used during his Giants tenure.
Stallworth sniffled as he simultaneously processed the void caused by Paul’s death and the weight of his mentor’s memory.
“He had a legacy in this building that I did not want to tarnish because I was replacing him,” he said, struggling to keep his composure. “He has set a standard of what a professional coach – let alone a Black man as a strength coach – is supposed to be. And so, I can’t let him down because he put his name on me.”
A LASTING LEGACY
The league lost a great strength coach. But the Cowboys lost even more.
Players and staffers lost a mentor, a father figure, a friend. And Nash, 50, lost what felt like a brother.
“He was the greatest example of a man,” he said.
Only four years separated the two friends, whose coaching lives were intertwined with their personal lives. They’d talk, laugh and clown one another like family. And that brotherly bond was evident wherever they were in the building – while they sipped their cafeteria coffee, while they trained players in the weight room, and in their goodbyes at the end of a long day.
“I would always say, ‘Bro, I’ll see you in the morning,’ ” Nash said. “And he would say, ‘All right. See you in the morning.’ ”
Paul was humble, easygoing and inviting. A man who always wore a big smile on his face. Whether he knew a person for two weeks or 20 years, he made that individual feel important. And with that level of sincerity and warmth, Dallas’ weight room had a supportive, family atmosphere.
But there’s one thing the deeply religious Paul didn’t tolerate.
“He didn’t like cussing,” Stallworth said. “He liked music in the weight room, but he didn’t like songs with cuss words in them.”
Paul would often play gospel music when he stayed late to work out.
“People didn’t realize Markus could sing, too,” Nash said with a laugh. “He’d put his music on and he would sing as he worked out. He sounded pretty good in falsetto.”
Those who knew him can’t help but lament the lives now irrevocably altered by his death.
“You think a little bit about your own mortality,” said Jackson, the Browns’ director of strength and conditioning. “And you think about his family. You think about who he left behind.”
In the weight room, Paul treated players almost like his sons: firm, but always fair.
“He was tough, but he was tough with his arm around you,” said Nash.
The same advice Paul often shared with his son, Jairus, was the same encouragement he provided young coaches, like Stallworth: “Be your own man.”
Paul, a stickler for doing the job the right way, wanted his players to be better. And, as a former safety, he had a strong affinity for defensive backs. “It was almost like they were his sons,” Nash said. “The guys loved him.”
So did his former colleagues.
And when the Giants and Cowboys meet Sunday, coaches and staffers on both sides will have Paul on their minds.
“I’m going to look across that sideline and think of him,” Stallworth said, before adding with a laugh: “Because he was bowlegged and he had just had knee surgery, you knew that walk from anywhere. Even behind a mask.”
In a sea of NFL coaches at various league events, it was Paul’s face that often provided reassurance for Black strength coaches trying to navigate the professional ranks.
“He had no problem taking time out to help any young Black strength coach, to answer any kind of question,” said Stallworth. “As Black strength coaches, we’re fighting the same fight that Black offensive and defensive coordinators are fighting: The opportunity to prove our intellect and our ability to lead these players.”
In Frisco, Nash and Smith continue to honor Paul’s legacy by conducting business just as he did.
But while the two assistant strength coaches now share Paul’s responsibilities, neither one uses his office.
“Everything we do is with respect to Markus,” said Nash, whose computer screen saver is a picture of him, Paul and Smith smiling over plates of food at a June cookout at Paul’s house. “Markus, as far as we’re concerned, is still the head guy. The best way I can honor Markus is to do right by the program, to do it the way he wanted it done.”
And even now, Nash ends his days like he always did. As if Paul is still by his side.
“Every time I leave the weight room, I say, ‘See you later, Markus.’ ”