By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Yes, you're that good.
In just 59 games of football at Lufkin High School and Oklahoma State, Bryant amassed 73 touchdowns. Fast enough to run around, strong enough to push through and athletic enough to jump over opponents, he dominated at both schools.
"He's as good as I've ever coached," Lufkin coach John Outlaw said the night the Cowboys drafted Bryant back in April. "I'd like to take credit for him, but most of the plays he made were just natural, God-given ability. He's a special player. I've known that for years. He'll show it in the NFL, too."
At Lufkin, 175 miles southeast of Dallas, Bryant led the Panthers to an 11-1 record in 2006 and was ranked the 29th-best high-school player by ESPN. He chose Oklahoma State over LSU, Nebraska and Arkansas, and as a freshman caught nine passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the Insight Bowl. As a sophomore he was even better, earning All-America honors and producing an amazing 13-catch, 167-yard performance in the Holiday Bowl despite missing almost the entire second half with a knee injury.
With projections of him being a Heisman Trophy candidate and the No. 1 overall pick in the impending NFL Draft, Bryant scored four touchdowns in OSU's first three games last year before the NCAA suspended him for 10 games. His transgression: When NCAA investigators asked about the details of Bryant's meetings with former Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders during the summer of '09, Bryant panicked and lied, though the contacts were totally legal.
Bryant was suspended October 7. He blew off his senior season and officially declared himself eligible for the draft on November 5. The non-incident-turned-incident was a black eye on a golden future. It was also an isolated wart. Despite a chaotic childhood, he has never been arrested, prone to violence or associated with drugs. Still, to some NFL teams his lying, in an attempt to wiggle out of an uncomfortable corner, raised flaming red "character issue" flags. To others—like the Cowboys—it did little to detract from his unique skills on the football field.
"He's a game-changer," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said at training camp in San Antonio. "There's just a handful or two of players in our league who can erase a bunch of bad plays or bad field position in one swoop. Dez is one of those. When he gets the ball in his hands you can kind of throw out the script, let him do his thing and usually good things are going to happen. "
Bryant is equally dangerous as a receiver and kick returner, running back three punts for scores at OSU. After watching him for just a week in training camp, Cowboys special teams coach Joe DeCamillis compared Bryant to Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl kick returner Joshua Cribbs.
"If we don't mess this kid up," DeCamillis said, "he can be very, very special."
Despite having a Pro Bowl receiver in Miles Austin, a former Pro Bowl receiver in Roy Williams, a Pro Bowl tight end in Jason Witten and a capable veteran receiver in Patrick Crayton, the Cowboys discarded their needs in the draft and surrendered to their wants. Sitting at No. 27 in the first round and with seemingly two glaring holes to fill after the releases of Flozell Adams and Ken Hamlin, the Cowboys couldn't resist cutting in line when the dessert tray was being passed their way.
Afraid the Baltimore Ravens would pick Bryant with the 25th pick, Jones traded a third-round choice to the New England Patriots for the right to move up to No. 24 and draft the receiver who reminded him of a player with similar skills he infamously passed over in 1998: Randy Moss. Bryant was the first receiver drafted first overall by the Cowboys since Kevin Williams in 1993, and was Jones' latest maneuver to erase the nightmare of skipping Moss. The Cowboys bypassed Moss and his character issues to pick defensive end Greg Ellis 12 years ago, then sent two No. 1 picks to the Seattle Seahawks for Joey Galloway in 2000 and two years ago gave up multiple high picks for Roy Williams. If not for the disappointment of Williams—who has consistently run lazy routes, dropped passes, missed connections and generally failed to replicate his Pro Bowl play as a Detroit Lion—the Cowboys might not have even considered selecting another receiver.
Before the Cowboys jumped up to grab Bryant, several teams passed. Because of his "life skills issues." His warning signs. His supposed irregular heartbeat. ("Not a concern at all," Jones said on draft night. "Zero.") All now chips placed squarely on his shoulder pads.
"Whoever passes up on me, it's over with," Bryant said two weeks before the draft on a conference call with reporters. "I feel like I'm going through the same situation Randy Moss did. That man had issues and teams were passing up on him, and when he got on that field, he killed them. He murdered them. Look at him today. One of the best players in the NFL."
While Galloway and Roy Williams have relatively flopped, Moss crafted a Hall of Fame career with the Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots to the tune of 14,465 receiving yards and 148 touchdowns. Though Jones won't mention Moss by name, he's still trying to catch the big one that got away.