By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Wasn't a factor," Jones claimed of Moss on draft night. "Dez stands on his own."
The Vikings who, like the Cowboys, had reliable receivers (Cris Carter and Jake Reed) on their roster, used Moss to vault to a 15-1 record and a spot in the 1998 NFC Championship Game. Though they hope for a similar impact, the Cowboys say the similarities between Bryant and Moss are exaggerated. Moss makes plays with blazing straight-line speed; Bryant's strength is his catch-and-run agility. Moss was arrested for battery in high school and kicked out of college for possession of marijuana, costing him chances at Notre Dame and Florida State. Bryant, it's worth repeating, has never run afoul of the law.
"They're both exciting players who can hurt defenses anywhere on the field," said Cowboys receivers coach Ray Sherman at training camp. Sherman coached Moss in Minnesota. "But as far as their background or personalities, no comparison at all. Dez is a 'Yes, sir' type of young man. His head is on straight."
It didn't take Bryant long to wow the Cowboys, and their fans.
During the rookie minicamp at Valley Ranch in May he—despite being so winded he almost vomited—made spectacular catches look mundane, contorting his body, snaring the ball with one hand and somehow hitting the ground on balance, in full stride and at top speed.
Surmised an impressed Irvin, "He's gonna be a baaaaad dude."
As training camp dawned in San Antonio in late July, Bryant was the first player on the field before group stretching and the last player off after signing autographs or posing for photos. Ovations for him from routine crowds of 10,000 were louder than for any player other than quarterback Tony Romo. He smiled. He caught everything. He—according to offensive coordinator Jason Garrett—"attacks practice like a kid who loves to play football."
Said Bryant after his first full-pads practice as a Cowboy, "This is one of the best days of my life."
While Jones is afflicted with spontaneous bursts of hyperbole, Garrett is naturally stoic with superlatives, and head coach Wade Phillips is flat-out frugal in gushing over rookies. But even after 34 years in the NFL, Phillips' heart pulsated with each Bryant grab. "I'm not real excitable," Phillips said at minicamp. "But you don't see that very many times that a rookie comes in and a lot of people, including the coaches and players, say, 'Wow.' He's got that. He can do things that you just don't see a lot of people, even veteran players, be able to do."
Then, just like that—before any real regret could be felt by teams that passed on him—Bryant made national news by refusing to carry Williams' shoulder pads. Five days later he badly sprained his ankle when he became entangled with cornerback Orlando Scandrick.
The pizzazz of camp withered. The questions about Bryant lingered.
Grit your teeth.
A lot of the character assassination aimed at you is founded in various forms of misinformation, but that doesn't stop it from stinging. Countless caretakers. Temper tantrums. Academic struggles. Unfortunately, your background precedes you.
Yes, your childhood was that bad.
Often during the heat of competition a football player will hear trash-talking along the lines of "Your momma wears Army boots!" But it's rare when in the process of a job interview a draft prospect hears questioning along the lines of "Your mom was a hooker?"
But that's exactly what happened in April, pre-draft, when Bryant visited the Dolphins. Digging for more details of a background low-lighted by Bryant being shuttled from home to home, not having a consistent relationship with his father and watching his mother spend 18 months in prison for selling drugs, Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland posed the inappropriate, insulting question.
"They asked me if my mom's a prostitute," Bryant later confirmed to a group of media at the minicamp. "No, my mom is not a prostitute. I got mad—really mad—but I didn't show it. I got a lot of questions like that: Does she still do drugs? I just sat and answered all of them."
While Ireland almost immediately apologized, Bryant has since said he harbors no hard feelings and will shake the Dolphins' personnel boss' hand if approached. When you grow up in a hardscrabble existence with little or no structure, you develop a petrified, almost impenetrable exterior.
"I'm not a diva," Bryant maintained. "I'm too rough to be a diva. Hate that word. There's nothing diva about me."
Calling Bryant's childhood tumultuous is akin to labeling his grasp of grammar unrefined. His mother, Angela, had Dez at 15 and two more children before age 18. His dad, in his early 40s at the time, didn't much stick around. Saddened by having to feed her kids only ramen noodles and hot dogs, Angela turned to selling drugs for extra income. She eventually also began using—marijuana, PCP, cocaine—and in 1997, when Dez was eight, was arrested after selling drugs to an undercover policeman in Lufkin.
She was sentenced to four years at the Plane State Jail in Dayton, but served only a year and a half.
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