By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I'm not here to carry anybody's pads," Bryant said more playfully than defiantly after the practice to the group of reporters. "I'm here to play football."
Whether motivated by ignorance (as Bryant contends) or arrogance (as many of his teammates suspect), a rookie "keeping it real" in the face of a veteran—albeit one who is the team's No. 2 receiver and whose job is in jeopardy of being swiped by said rookie—is frowned upon. In any sport.
"I wouldn't have done that if I were him," said Texas Rangers Hall of Famer and co-owner Nolan Ryan when asked about the incident recently at a game in Arlington. "Right or wrong, that's just something you don't do. Rookies need to fit into the fabric of the team, not the other way around. That's just the way it is."
While Phillips downplayed the incident and chastised the practice of hazing, the Cowboys' respected elders dealt with the insubordination privately. Sternly.
Brett Favre has earned the right to dictate his own parameters. Bryant has yet to play his first NFL snap.
"It wasn't as big of a deal as the media made it out to be," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "But, yeah, we dealt with it. Something like that you can't let go ignored."
Echoed Witten, "Let's just say it was handled internally."
With a chance to endear himself to new teammates and old peers—picking up multiple players' pads and driving off in a cart might have been funny, for example—Bryant instead plunged into an angry, me-against-the-world pout. Instead of hanging around after practice to frolic with fans, he zipped off the field without comment the next couple days. When he finally stayed late one afternoon, he laid broad blame on the media. "I didn't know nothing about no tradition," Bryant snapped to cameras and notepads while the crowd chanted "Leave Dez alone!" "The only thing about me...When I try to do something right, y'all try and turn it negative and I don't feel like that's right. I'm trying my best to do the right thing but it seems like I can't do the right thing because every little thing that I do, y'all watching it and try to make a big deal out of it."
Bryant's passion—his temper—Wells explains, is merely an outcropping of his determination to succeed.
"Look at what he said about the thing with Roy's pads," Wells says. "He's all about football and the future. Dez isn't into traditions because, let's face it, some of the memories and traditions in his life aren't that great for him."
A week after the incident, five rookie offensive linemen emerged from the locker room with various, wholly ridiculous haircuts ranging from a checkerboard to a snake-shaped Mohawk to a half-and-half, complete with waxed eyebrow. Initiation, as it were, courtesy of veteran center Andre Gurode's creative clippers.
"Let's just say we didn't tip the barber," Phil Costa said. "But refuse? Yeah, right. I don't think so."
Before the Cowboys' second preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, Bryant displayed some humility, some unspoken regret and injected some hope that his ego might yet fit into a Cowboys' helmet. He bought Williams a video game system and each of the receivers a $300 pair of Air Jordan Olympic 7 shoes.
"Mine don't quite fit," Williams joked. "I appreciate it, but tell Dez I'm still hungry. Still thirsty."
Said Crayton, "It's a good start. But Dez ain't done."
Ideally, he's just getting started.
One of the reasons publications such as The Sporting News are picking the Cowboys as a favorite this season is Bryant. Whether born of symmetry or desperation, the Cowboys don't have to squint too hard to see it all finally coming together in a season that could culminate in them playing in a Super Bowl in their own stadium. With labor unrest and a possible strike on the horizon after the season and no team having ever played a Super Bowl at home, Jones struggles to harness his enthusiasm at the possibilities.
"You just can't squeeze any more hope into this Alamodome," Jones said early in training camp. "There's not a lot not to like here."
Coming off an 11-5 season in which they won another NFC East championship and their first playoff game in 13 years, the Cowboys return 20 of 22 starters. They entered camp with only three questions: Who will replace Adams? Who will replace Hamlin? Who will kick field goals?
"We had a good year and took a significant step last year," Romo said. "But you can't just pick up where you left off and act like it was just an eight-month break between games. It's a new season. We've got a new team. The farthest thing from our mind is the Super Bowl."
Maybe. But it sure didn't sound like it when Romo addressed a crowd of 23,000-plus in The Alamodome on training camp eve.
"We'll see y'all at the Super Bowl in Dallas!" Romo yelled. "Let's go!!"
Romo is entering his fourth full season as starting quarterback of the Cowboys. In his fourth season, Troy Aikman led Dallas to a Super Bowl title. Symmetry? Or desperation?