Bryant doesn't need to wear a full-length mink to fill Michael Irvin's jersey (not shown).
Bryant doesn't need to wear a full-length mink to fill Michael Irvin's jersey (not shown).

Catch 88

He doesn't look like a troublemaker. Doesn't really talk like one, either. Not at first. The morning workout took a lot from him, maybe, and so he's preoccupied with hydrating himself, quickly slugging back a cup of dirt-colored sports drink.

Shirtless, wide receiver Antonio Bryant sits at his corner locker at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch practice facility. Sweat streams down his muscular, slender frame. He appears oblivious to the ugly-looking pack of reporters who have trapped him behind a fleshy, crescent wall. They have lust in their eyes and witless, homogenous questions on their minds. Naturally, they all want a piece of him--now, rather than later, because now he's hot, and who knows what later will bring.

This kid, this 21-year-old wideout, is making people talk--as much about his talent as his brashness. That's nothing new. He was an All-America selection at Pitt and left there as the school's all-time leading receiver in yards, but people in the Steel City talked as much about his antics as his numbers. Bryant had disagreements with Panthers head coach Walt Harris that led to an off-season suspension, and there were ambiguous rumblings about his interaction with teammates that led to reporters saddling him with the dubious "locker-room problem" tag. The evidence to support all that is thin at best, and he may have been unfairly branded, if only because he doesn't lack for self-assurance. A trait that, for some reason or another, doesn't tend to endear an athlete to most writers.

Unjust or not, he's been labeled, which may be why Bryant fields these particular questions softly and slowly, with laconic disinterest. Suddenly, he perks up some. He's asked about his new number, about what it means, about what he'll do with it.

The Cowboys gave him No. 88. Same as Michael Irvin. Same as Drew Pearson. Lots of history there, and pressure, too.

"You know, I don't think of that as pressure at all," Bryant counters, picking up speed. He's sweating beads of confidence. "I mean, that doesn't bother me. It's an honor. People compare me to [Irvin]; that's great. He was a great player. I say things; I do things. When I was growing up I'd say, 'Oh, that was Michael Irvin right there.' I hope people will see me and say they did it like A.B."

The rhetoric goes on, and if there were any question about his balls, it was immediately squashed. He may not be as charismatic or flamboyant as Irvin, but he's as sure of himself. But whether he, too, will become a "Playmaker" is something else entirely.

"Hey, he wants to do it," Emmitt Smith says. "He wants to do it just like any other guy, he wants to make it, whether he's wearing 88, 22 or 8. You have to have the desire in this league, or you won't do anything. He's got the desire and the ability. I'm excited for him. The number is just a number. Passing a number around ain't nothin' new. It's just new faces in old uniforms."

He has an opportunity now. Preseason and practices and abject losses to expansion teams may not build careers (four catches for 47 yards wasn't great, but there were far worse players wearing midnight blue on Sunday), but they do serve to offer glimmers. He has skills, clearly, an undeniable faculty for catching the football. With the rabble surrounding him, he'll likely get plenty of balls thrown his way. It remains to be seen whether those balls will reach his chest or die an ugly death at his feet. (Poor Quincy Carter. The kid has drive, and some talent, but he makes dreadful decisions. Note to Quincy: Finding the end zone is good; finding your own end zone is not so good). Even before Rocket Ismail was injured, and even without all of General Jerry's usual posturing, that corps of receivers was skeletal. Really, what have Joey Galloway and Rocket and the gang ever done? And Randall Williams may be fast, but the next time he catches a ball, it'll be the first, and likely by accident.

"[Bryant's] got a real chance to be special," says one NFC East scout. "But I think it's going to take time. Rookie wide receivers historically don't make many waves in this league. I think he's going to be real good, but I don't think he's going to have a Randy Moss year."

Probably not, but Bryant remains the man anyway, a role defaulted to the second-round selection because of the 'Boys receivers' alarming lack of production.

Second round, yeah, that was a bit surprising, wasn't it? I thought for sure someone would snatch him before that. Turns out all the other teams wanted a quality wide receiver, just not one with an ego they figured would require an accompanying locker.

That's the knock, and probably more true than the rest of the noise that emanated from Pittsburgh. He knows how good he is and doesn't mind sharing the knowledge or rubbing it in or even smacking you heavy across the head with it. Therein lies what looks to be his biggest obstacle, the devil within. How to embrace potential stardom without ostentation, how to be in the limelight without going Prime Time.

If he ever shows up wearing a red pimp suit and fedora or a full-length fur, you'll know he's gone over to the dark side. Dallas district attorneys are on standby, likely drooling over the possibility.

"People underestimate the nerve you must have, and the belief you must have in yourself, to play that position," Irvin says. "The only problem is, it's hard sometimes to leave that on the football field--it'll carry over into life. And that's where you'll get in trouble. But he needs that bravado--it's false bravery. Even if it's not there, you've got to build it up till it gets there and you can step on the field and say, 'Hey, I can do this.' You've got to think about the nature of the game of football. Your job is to build your body up with as much muscle as you can, then run as fast as you can and then run it into someone else's body. There's a mentality thing going on there, you know what I'm saying? When you think about it all, it's like, man, it takes something. That takes something. And you've got to believe in yourself. There's nothing wrong with that. Why does that rub people the wrong way, for him to say that he's good?"

Because the mix of aptitude and attitude is potentially combustible, that's why. (Refer to media guide: Irvin, Michael.) If head coach Dave Campo can somehow manage the situation, he and his Pokes will be the richer for it. In the meantime, you can see it's already begun wearing on him.

"I don't deal with numbers," Campo says tersely when asked about slapping No. 88 on Bryant's back.

There's nothing that rubs a coach more raw than the media--and the owner, for that matter--harping about what a world of potential said coach has at his disposal. (Except, that is, getting a beatdown from a first-year club.) Potential tends to get coaches fired, even loyal coaches. As it stands, he has as much riding on Bryant as anyone, at least if he's going to save the season and his job. But this isn't about him; it's about the rookie, the one with the smart hands and the smarter mouth.

The hunch here is that he'll make it big if Quincy Carter/Chad Hutchinson can stay upright long enough to deliver a quality pass in his direction. That's an enormous, Texas-sized if. If not, if he fails, they'll kick Bryant to the curb and throw some new face into that much ballyhooed jersey. That's just the way it goes.


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