Brandon Carr stared away from a small group of reporters, looking a little emotional and unsure how or whether to answer a question he probably knew was coming.

Breast cancer awareness month is a big deal in the NFL, putting pink on footballs, coaches, referees and all kinds of equipment worn by players throughout October.

This year it arrived almost two months to the day after Kathy Carr's death following a long battle with the disease, during the early days of training camp when the Dallas Cowboys were without their high-priced cornerback while he spent his 59-year-old mother's final days with her.

So yes, the league's tribute means a little more to Carr now. And he's a different person these days, shutting out almost all things that aren't football or family. His mom is part of the reason, but so is his team's surprising 3-1 start with the defense exceeding expectations.

"You just have to continue to try to live a great legacy and continue to motivate and do great things," Carr said. "That's what I took from everything my mom went through was she still was trying to get after it and motivate her grandchildren, kids at school or just whoever she came across. I'm going to try to finish out her task."

And that means helping the Cowboys, who face the equally surprising 3-1 Houston Texans on Sunday, break an 8-8 rut that has kept them out of the playoffs the past three seasons.

The postseason drought is actually four years, or two years before Carr arrived on a $50 million free agent contract to address one of the team's biggest needs.

Now he's consistently grading as the best defensive back Dallas has, and clearly seen as an emotional leader as well.

"He's got an old soul ... you know, very mature for his age," said defensive end Jeremy Mincey, a free agent who joined the Cowboys this year. "He's a poised leader. He's like Tony Dungy. He's got the quiet strength. But he's speaking when it needs to be spoken, and that's what makes him special."

Carr has had to put his quiet strength to the test several times in his three seasons with the Cowboys.

During Carr's first year in Dallas in 2012, former Kansas City teammate Jovan Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend before driving to the team facility and killing himself. Belcher's girlfriend was a close friend of Carr's fiancee, who is now his wife.

Just a week later, Cowboys practice squad player Jerry Brown died in a car wreck that resulted in an intoxication manslaughter conviction for defensive tackle Josh Brent. Carr attended two memorial services in less than a week.

This time around, he was back at practice just a few days after saying his final goodbye to his mom. He wears two bracelets that belonged to her "so we're skin on skin still."

"I think about her a lot," Carr said. "I still sometimes I feel empty, and I don't know why. What I've learned in this situation is that you're never alone. My mom always told me, 'You're never the first and you're never the last.' That's true in this case. I just lean on people."

The Cowboys are 3-1 for the first time since 2008, and the defense kept New Orleans out of the end zone for three quarters just a year after giving up an NFL-record 40 first downs.

Carr isn't really interested in film-type talk about a turnaround engineered despite the loss of linebacker Sean Lee to a knee injury, defensive end DeMarcus Ware in a salary cap move and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher in free agency.

He sees it as just another year in the system, more players knowing what opposing offenses and their teammates are doing, and therefore being in better position to knock down passes or deliver hits that make receivers think twice before the next catch.

And maybe the broken record of 8-8 seasons is part of it.

"You just get tired of the same results, get tired of the same story lines and everything," Carr said. "All the disappointments."

So Carr doesn't watch TV, doesn't look at the schedule. He swears he didn't know the Cowboys were visiting Super Bowl champion Seattle next week. He doesn't talk to "a lot of people" who used to be a regular part of his weekly chatter.

His dad's an exception, of course. The two have spent the past couple of weeks together, and when his dad was about to go home to Michigan earlier this week, Carr gave him the look that said, "Nah, you can't leave."

"In my case, I can smile," Carr said. "It's a victory that my mom was a strong fighter, courageous. Stood there in the midst of all the cancer, everything going bad for her, and was still able to experience life and her family. That's what it's all about to me. But this month is pretty big."

It's big in paying homage to his mom, and getting the Cowboys closer to that elusive playoff berth.

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