DALLAS — It's high noon on a Tuesday in late June.
Ezekiel Elliott, less than 12 hours removed from a long weekend in Cabo, strolls onto the empty outdoor football fields at Plano West High School.
Layered in moisture-wicking fabric and a glistening No. 21 gold chain, the Dallas Cowboys star running back takes a pull of water and pours some on his face as the thermometer climbs to 91 degrees.
Cowboys training camp is still four weeks away, but the $90 million man is on a mission to prove last season was an aberration — and not the new norm.
"I'm definitely in a good spot right now," Elliott told WFAA, as the 25-year-old heads into his sixth NFL season.
2020 was the worst year of his career.
His four fumbles lost continue to follow him every time he's mentioned on Twitter or Instagram.
In Elliott's defense, injuries to quarterback Dak Prescott and multiple All-Pro offensive linemen did not help as the two-time rushing champion's numbers fell in every category.
Josh Hicks is the man helping Zeke get his groove back for 2021.
Josh Hicks is not your typical football trainer.
"He sounds like an auctioneer," Elliott laughs. "'Can I get $500 ... I got $600.'"
His methods are unorthodox.
"THERE YOU GO."
His copycats are emerging.
"THERE YOU GO."
His style is authentic.
"GOOD S—, BOY."
ALL CAPS doesn't do Hicks' training theatrics justice.
"If they messin' up, I’mma let 'em know they messin' up," Hicks asserts. "If it’s trash, I’mma let 'em know it’s trash.”
Trash cans and trash talk are part of the experience when you train with the 32-year-old.
From start to finish, his sessions are infectiously high-energy, smile-inducing —and so full of curse words you'd think a Guinness World Record was trying to be set.
"Man, I cuss," Hicks jokingly admits. “I cuss like a motherf-----."
Elliott swears by him.
"He's a great coach," Elliott said. "He demands excellence out of all his guys."
The FCC wouldn't last a second at one of Hicks' sessions, but many NFL, college and high school stars turn to J Hicks, aka @3hunnid_fitness.
Denver Broncos Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon is a Hicks client.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back and Super Bowl champion Leonard Fournette is, too.
Past and present Cowboys like running back Tony Pollard, cornerback Trevon Diggs, receiver Tavon Austin, defensive tackle Maliek Collins and defensive end Taco Charlton have also been serenaded by Hicks' profanity in recent years.
"I don't think anyone loves football the way I love football," Hicks said.
'A blessing in disguise'
Hicks grew up a Cowboys fan in south Dallas.
His parents, Peter and Reta, run The Ranch child daycare center in Oak Cliff.
They made ends meet to send Hicks and his three older brothers (Reggie, Chris Sr. and Todd) to private school: Trinity Christian School in Cedar Hill.
“[Josh] got the ball one time, I never will forget it," Peter Hicks recounts. "While he was in the air, another kid hit him and spun him around. [Josh] hit the ground. And he got right up. And I said, ‘He's ready.’”
At 5-feet-7-inches, Hicks was one of the shortest players on the team, but what he lacked in height he made up for with toughness and talent.
"Deion [Sanders] started training me at that time," Hicks says. "Deion started training me my sophomore year.”
(The Cowboys Hall of Fame cornerback later became offensive coordinator for Trinity Christian from 2017-2020.)
Hicks was a high school standout and led Trinity to the TAPPS state finals in 2005.
"I can’t say I was a cocky athlete, but I knew I was good, though," Hicks said.
The better Hicks got on the field, the worse he became in the classroom.
"I started smoking my junior year of high school," Hicks remembers.
A week before his high school graduation, he was arrested for gun possession.
The arrest, along with poor grades, forced him to travel north to prep school at Milford Academy in New Berlin, N.Y.
Hicks replaced eventual NFL star and former Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who left Milford months prior for the University of Pittsburgh.
Eight touchdowns in nine games turned Hicks' one season at Milford into a half-scholarship to Purdue, a Division 1 school in the Big Ten.
"When I got to Purdue, I wasn’t going to class from the moment I stepped on campus," Hicks said. "Bro, I used to smoke weed before going to practice. Literally walking to practice.”
Hicks would smoke multiple times a day, every day. They were habits he grew accustomed to at Milford, which Hicks says turned a blind eye to his behavior.
Before long, Hicks was kicked off the Purdue football team.
He came back to Dallas and immediately turned to the streets.
"I went to jail for possession charges, selling drugs, selling dope,” Hicks recalls.
His parents, religious and full of faith, had run out of options with their youngest son.
"I had to put him out of my house a couple times and it hurt,” Peter Hicks said, choking up.
By age 24, Hicks was arrested five times. His fifth arrest was for armed robbery in Dallas.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison.
“Going to prison was really like a blessing in disguise because if I didn’t go, I would probably be doing the same thing I was doing," Hicks said. "I probably wouldn’t be here. Because, when I tell you it got bad, it got bad.”
Hicks went to prison in January 2013. He was released in July 2015 on good behavior.
"Those two-and-a-half years saved my son’s life because if Josh had not gone there, he would probably be dead today," Peter Hicks declared.
"Amen, I believe it. Yes, I do," echoed Reta Hicks.
"He got his head screwed on right and started doing the things he wanted to do," Peter continued.
"Because he had a prayin' momma and a prayin' daddy," Reta added.
"Going to prison and to where I’m at now, that’s the craziest," Hicks points out. "Because after you get in that system, it’s really not designed for you to make it when you come out.”
Convicts are expected to assimilate upon release, but the reality is not many are expected to succeed.
Josh Hicks has defied those odds and expectations.
"You can't just be in [prison] living day-for-day," Josh notes. "You have to be in there putting together a plan for when you get out.”
Hicks' plan was to return to football, in some shape or form.
'I don’t care who you are, what your name is or what’s behind it'
He got a shot playing for the Mesquite Indoor Football League, but ultimately found his calling as a trainer.
Every day, Hicks witnesses the darkness turn to light.
He's up by 4 a.m. At the gym by 5 a.m.
As the sun rises, he begins teaching his group fitness classes or individual sessions.
His Instagram page has become a popular bookmark for exercise enthusiasts to mix up their routine.
"You could never catch me doing those crazy movement workouts he does," Elliott jokes.
By mid-day, Hicks transitions to his athletes and football players, a roster he's acquired over time through connections and referrals.
"When I heard he’s training Emmitt Smith’s son, I’m like ‘What?!’” Hicks' dad exclaimed. "It thrills me to the highest to see him out there with those guys.”
However, there is no star-struckness on Hicks' field.
"I don’t care who you are, what your name is or what’s behind it. When you come train with me, my name's behind it now," Hicks said.
Fournette, who worked out with Hicks last year, is the one who put Elliott in contact with him.
"He referred me to J Hicks and the rest is history," Elliott smirked.
To the naked eye, Elliott looks leaner than in the past two years. He said his diet has improved as he's eating cleaner and better, in order to stay lighter on his feet.
Hicks' offseason sessions with Elliott will soon taper off.
Elliott heads to training camp later this month and will be swept into the Cowboys in-season workout regimen.
Only time will tell how bountiful the fruits of their labor together will be -- Elliott's hard work to get in shape and Hicks' hard work to turn his life around once he got a second chance.
"I think it shows his character to go through that type of adversity and make what he’s made out of it," Elliott said. "He’s only getting started. I know for him, with his work ethic and his personality, the sky’s the limit.”
Josh Hicks is not your typical football trainer.
But, he doesn't give a ****.