FRISCO, Texas (AP) — A year ago, Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Joe Looney grabbed the spotlight during training camp as the prankster who took the field in star running back Ezekiel Elliott’s jersey, his cover blown by the gut sticking out under No. 21.
Now that Looney has become the starting center under the serious circumstances of Travis Frederick’s battle against a rare neurological disorder, the career backup plans to keep his sense of humor.
“Things are still the same,” Looney said Thursday, almost exactly a year after a similar throng of reporters surrounded his locker to discuss his antics in practice at team headquarters.
“Football is a game. And I’m going to come out here and have fun every day doing it. Sometimes it’s not going to be perfect. But at the end of the day, this is a game and I’ve got to enjoy it.”
Looney and the rest of the Cowboys will have Frederick on their mind as they prepare to start the regular season. The 27-year-old Frederick will likely miss the visit to Carolina on Sept. 9 and any number of games after that.
The Cowboys simply don’t know how long Frederick will be out as he undergoes treatment for Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune condition that causes the body to attack a network of nerves around the brain and spinal cord.
Weakness is one of the primary symptoms, in some cases signaled by burning sensations similar to what football players call “stingers,” usually injuries around the neck. That’s what Frederick was describing to the team when the Cowboys were still in California for training camp.
Frederick was cleared by a specialist in the Los Angeles area over concerns about his neck. But symptoms persisted after the Cowboys returned to Texas. He got the diagnosis this week and was in his third day of treatment Thursday.
The 2016 All-Pro said in a statement issued by the team that treatment will continue for several days. And while Frederick and his teammates are optimistic he will return soon, nobody can say when.
Most people recover from even the most severe cases of the disease, but some will continue to have some degree of weakness, according to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Former NFL lineman Mark Schlereth missed the second half of the 1993 season with Washington because of Guillain-Barre and wrote on Twitter that he didn’t fully regain his strength for a year. But Schlereth played until 2000 and won two Super Bowls with Denver after the diagnosis.
“It’s tough,” said 2014 All-Pro guard Zack Martin, one of Frederick’s best friends on the team. “During training camp, he really didn’t know what was going on. He was kind of telling us how he was feeling. It’s tough that he didn’t know until a couple of days ago.”
Owner Jerry Jones said he was relieved to get the diagnosis but deflected several questions about the severity of the illness, which likely will determine how long Frederick is out. Frederick said he was encouraged by doctors telling him they thought they caught the disease early.
In retrospect, there was a telling moment early in camp in California when Frederick was uncharacteristically pushed back several feet right after the snap by defensive tackle Antwaun Woods in one-on-one drills. A frustrated Frederick shoved Woods, causing a brief scuffle.
“It’s amazing to me that he’s been out here going through two-a-days and creating half the fights because he probably wasn’t satisfied within himself how he was responding (as) I look back on it,” Jones said. “But that’s Frederick.”
Jones didn’t want to discuss the idea of adding another center, although the Cowboys did sign undrafted rookie Jacob Ohnesorge this week.
“I haven’t and I don’t have a plan as to how we’ll work through this relative to the position on the team,” Jones said.
Martin, the right guard, has taken snaps at center occasionally since joining Dallas but is still viewed as an emergency option. He will miss the rest of the preseason but expects to be ready for the opener after hyperextending his left knee in the exhibition loss to Cincinnati last weekend.
Looney, who turns 28 next week, has started 13 of 59 games in six years. He has played all 32 games in two seasons with the Cowboys, with three starts. Looney started a career-best six games in his only season with Tennessee in 2015.
“Joe’s played more football with the ones this year than he ever has,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I think we’re playing better in combination because of the reps he’s gotten. He’s a veteran. He’s poised. He’s composed. He’s smart. I think he’s fit in really well.”
The 315-pound Looney didn’t fit into Elliott’s jersey very well. The increased importance of his role — replacing a four-time Pro Bowl player who hasn’t missed a game in five seasons — doesn’t mean Looney has stopped thinking about his next gag.
“You’ve got to be the same person every day,” he said. “It’s unfortunate what’s going on right now. We’re praying for Travis and wish nothing but the best for him. I’m definitely going to crack some jokes when I see him.”
The Cowboys can use the humor right now.