By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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."
"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."
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.
"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.
"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.
"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?
On offense the Cowboys will plug in Doug Free at left tackle. They'll hope Williams improves and Bryant adjusts and Witten and Austin keep on keeping on. It will be Garrett's job to effectively distribute the ball amongst quality running backs Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice and to halt a troubling trend that last year saw his unit produce the second-most yards in the NFL but score only the 14th-most points.
"Whatever we do," Garrett admitted, "it won't be for a lack of talent. We've got some pretty decent weapons."
Ditto on defense, where the Cowboys return All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Ware and will fill Hamlin's vacated safety spot with Alan Ball. Phillips' 3-4 was again stingy last season, but failed to consistently create turnovers. The free safety spot, for example, had a hand in one turnover. New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper had 11.
"I think we've got a chance to be really good," Phillips said. "We could possibly lead the NFC in fewest points allowed."
After making six of seven field goals in the first three exhibition games and continuing to boom kickoffs into the end zone, second-year kicker David Buehler appears to be Dallas' kicker. Despite temporary injuries to Bryant and offensive linemen Marc Colombo and Kyle Kosier and a rigorous schedule featuring six playoff teams and last year's Super Bowl squads (the Saints and Indianapolis Colts), the Cowboys are almost irrationally giddy about 2010.
Phillips has lost 40 pounds on the Nutrisystem diet and is visibly happier and more relaxed than in years past. Romo seems at peace in the pocket and as a team leader. And Jones, of course, is ratcheting up the expectations.
"This is our best roster since 1995," he said.
Cautioned veteran linebacker Bradie James, "We hear all you guys talking Super Bowl, but that isn't coming from us. It's a long process, a journey. You can't microwave the season."
When Bryant fell to the turf, tried to walk off the field and then collapsed again on July 30, it sucked the life out of The Alamodome and temporarily derailed the Cowboys' preseason enthusiasm. By the time the season starts, however, the Cowboys expect his ankle to be healed and for him to contribute in Washington. By Halloween the Cowboys expect him to be a starter. And by early 2011 they expect Bryant to be a mature, menacing weapon on one of the NFL's best offenses.
Owner's orders, Bryant will wear No. 88. Two of the receivers to don that jersey—Pearson and Irvin—combined for 1,239 catches, 19,726 yards, 113 touchdowns and four Super Bowl rings.
The Cowboys don't retire numbers, and in special instances they reboot legacies.
"If he can keep his head together, embrace the team concept and keep working hard, the sky is the limit with Dez," Pearson said. "Athletically and talent-wise, he can be one of the greats. Considering his surroundings he's already overcome a lot in his life. But, let's face it, at this point he's a rookie with some question marks. There's got to be some doubt."
Close your eyes.
And, just in case, you might also want to hold your breath.