By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I ain't saying it's right," Bryant said on a draft-night radio interview on KRLD-FM (105.3) The Fan. "But I understand why she did what she did at the time. She had to."
With Mom locked up, Bryant bounced from living with his aunt to living briefly with his father and, finally, his girlfriend's family. He had anger management issues and academic difficulties that landed him in special education classes as a high-school freshman.
"People are quick to jump on him, but Dez probably had seven or so different places he called home," Coach Outlaw said. "He didn't have any sort of structured environment. That's not an excuse, it's a fact. He doesn't need an excuse. He's a good kid."
Wells, who was introduced to Bryant two years ago while serving a similar mentor role to former Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree, says he gets frustrated when the media twist Bryant's childhood challenges into supposed character flaws.
"He lived on the streets and doesn't have a criminal record," he says. "Trouble was all around and he avoided it all. How is that misunderstood? How is that bad character?"
Football was the only constant. Determined to go to college and play in the NFL, Bryant pushed himself and amassed three years of math and English credits his final two years at Lufkin.
"I always loved football," Bryant said on the radio. "I felt if you don't like football, or didn't play football, you didn't have a life. That's how I looked at it. I feel like I have to have it. No telling where I'd be without it."
Bryant's "posse"—as he likes to brag—includes his best friend since third grade. But as Bryant likes to put it, "I ain't never got in trouble with nobody."
Except, of course, the NCAA.
After his sophomore season at Oklahoma State, Bryant was introduced—through his friend Crabtree—to Sanders. The former Cowboy-turned-TV-analyst likes to "minister" to young players. The two had lunch. No biggie.
"We developed a relationship because I could relate to a lot of things that he's encountered," Sanders said on the radio after Bryant's interview. "I could relate to public success and private struggles, and I could relate to having a fairly young mother. I'm brutally honest with kids like Dez. I feel like I can be a navigation system for them."
When the NCAA made a routine inquiry about the details of Bryant's dealings with Sanders, Bryant panicked and claimed he'd never even met Sanders. That lie led the NCAA to suspend him for 10 games. When the NCAA turned down Bryant's appeal after the third game of the season, that effectively ended his college career.
"That's in the past," Bryant said on The Fan. "It was my fault."
Aside from that lie, the most tangible liability you can pin on Bryant is his habitual tardiness, doting too much on his sons, incessant sleeping and a quirky fondness for drinking pickle juice. He does admit to forgetting a pair of cleats for his pro workout day in April, but, though sidelined two weeks by the sprained ankle, recently passed a playbook pop quiz administered by Garrett. If packing the wrong shoes and being late to a meeting or two are the worst things he ever does, Bryant might well wind up in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor.
"He won't cause any trouble," Outlaw said. "He's not a troublemaker at all. He's a good one, trust me. He'll play hard and he'll do all the right things. The Cowboys are lucky to have Dez."
The Cowboys know Bryant's warts better than he knows them himself. They sent multiple scouts to Lufkin to talk to his family, root around his past and rummage through his skeletons. Simply put, the team that wanted Dez Bryant the most was the team that knew Dez Bryant the best.
By all accounts he's a good kid from a bad background who made one horrible decision in college and one questionable, naïve hiccup as an NFL rookie.
Bryant needs babysitting but, so far, not bodyguarding.
"We know with a rookie how we'd better not get carried away," Jones said while walking off The Alamodome field after a practice early in camp. "But if we can keep his feet on the ground and his mind on his business, boy, we've hit on something big time."
Bow your neck.
The Cowboys cut their starting left tackle and free safety in the off-season but still used their first-round draft pick on a receiver. Catch-and-run scores. Kick-return touchdowns. Acrobatic catches in traffic for crucial first downs. They're counting on you to make plays—to win games—and push this team to a place it hasn't been since 1995.
Yes, your role is that vital.
He was dazzling, debonair Dez. Highlight catches. Fan friendly. Accessible and affable with the media. Though only 21, he was a man amongst the 'Boys.
Then came Day 2 of training camp.
After the Cowboys' practice on July 25 in The Alamodome, Roy Williams took it upon himself to commence the long-standing tradition of NFL rookie "hazing." Long as anyone can remember, newcomers have been asked, if not forced, to perform certain duties as a way of earning their place among the flock. Witten carried veteran tight end Dan Campbell's shoulder pads off the field as a rookie in 2003. Tommie Agee ordered Emmitt Smith to sing for his supper. And Terence Newman carried a cup of water to head coach Bill Parcells at each break in camp practice. But when Williams dropped his pads at Bryant's feet while the newcomer talked with the media and said "Here ya go, rook," Bryant laughed, shrugged and eventually walked away empty-handed.