By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Close your eyes.
Forget for a moment your responsibilities as a mature, responsible adult. Let your mind meander back to when you were 19, 20, 21 years old. You remember. Sleeping till noon. Taco Bell for lunch—and dinner. Video games. Sex, sex and more sex. Blaming everyone else for your mistakes. Worrying not about the ramifications of the future, but merely the address of tonight's party serving the cheapest beer.
While you're at it, go ahead and customize a new body for yourself: 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds with four-percent body fat, boundlessly obsessed with and blessed by football. Breakaway speed. Gigantic, pillowy hands. Uncanny athleticism as a receiver that allows you not only to outfight defenders to catch the ball at its apex, but also to avoid tacklers en route to serpentine touchdowns.
So gifted are you that the Dallas Cowboys chose you in the first round of the NFL Draft, awarded you a five-year, $11.8 million contract and are entrusting you to help push them into Super Bowl XLV February 6 in Arlington's Cowboys Stadium.
Before you rubber-stamp this hypothetical do-over, couple more little details to take into consideration:
You were raised in Lufkin, Texas, mostly by your mom, who served prison time for selling drugs. You're street-smart, but book-unexceptional. You missed most of your junior year in college and decided to skip your senior season after being suspended for lying to NCAA investigators. You raised eyebrows and red flags during the NFL Draft process, prompting more than one team to label you "undraftable" due to attitude and behavioral issues. During the first week of training camp in San Antonio you alienated teammates by refusing to comply with standard rookie initiation, lashed out at a media that had—until that point—slobbered over your every move, and then sprained an ankle that has kept you from making your first official preseason game catch as a Cowboy.
To fans and critics respectively, you are either the Pro Bowl missing piece to a championship puzzle or a diva deal-breaker who will generate negative news and sabotage a successful team.
So, how does it feel to be Dez Bryant?
By the way, you also have two children with different mothers, neither of whom you are married to. And, remember, you won't be 22 until November 4.
At this point Bryant is probably more immature kid than he is great football player or bad guy. "Probably" because, after his July 27 blow-up at the media in The Alamodome for their criticism of him refusing to carry veteran teammate Roy Williams' shoulder pads, he began limiting group interviews and altogether stopped granting one-on-one chats during camp.
"I ain't talking to nobody about nothing," Bryant grumbled to a group of reporters after one training camp practice in San Antonio. "I'm tired of y'all making me out to be a bad guy, no matter what I do."
Whether it was a diva move or simply a deft strategy remains to be seen. Other than a handful of refreshingly honest interviews before the draft, on draft night and at a Cowboys rookie minicamp in May, getting to know Dez is as difficult as trying to cover him. All we can do at this point is dig into his past, pick the brain of those who know him best and project what he might do on the field.
"He's a great kid," says David Wells, Bryant's advisor and father figure. "To be who he is today considering his background...what he's done is amazing. All he wants to do is be a good person, a great father and help the Cowboys win a Super Bowl. That doesn't sound so bad to me. He wants structure. He wants to succeed. He wants to win at life. You can see it on his face and feel it in his voice."
As the Cowboys entered Thursday's preseason finale against the Miami Dolphins at Cowboys Stadium and prepare for the September 12 season opener at the Washington Redskins, Bryant remains mostly a tantalizing mystery.
Off the field, he'll live in Wells' DeSoto home and make the daily 25-minute commute to Valley Ranch. He's attempting to surround himself with a semblance of structure, hiring respected agent Eugene Parker and Texas Senator Royce West to advise him on legal matters. According to Wells, Bryant is committed to providing economic and emotional support to his two sons—2-year-old Zayne, who lives in Lufkin, and Dez Jr., born June 25 in Killeen.
"Believe me, after how he grew up," Wells says, "Dez is determined to be a good dad to his boys. He's going to be a positive part of their lives."
On the field, will he ultimately be a passionate, performing Michael Irvin? A gifted but troubled Randy Moss or Terrell Owens? Or just another Antonio Bryant, with temperament suffocating talent?
"Dez is the real deal," said former Cowboys star receiver Drew Pearson. "He's a genuine personality and he's got those once-in-a-decade-or-so skills. Does he have some diva in him? Yeah, probably so. But don't all the great ones?"
Clench your fists.
It's not too far-fetched to envision yourself wrapping those biggie-sized paws of yours around 70 catches, seven touchdowns and the NFL's Rookie of the Year trophy. Size. Speed. Elusiveness. "It."