DEZ BRYANT is not just sorry. He is calling from his Bentley to let a reporter know that he is "super, super, super, super sorry"—roughly one super for each hour that he is overdue for an interview and photo shoot that he agreed to a week earlier. The Cowboys' receiver is calling now to decant his contrition and to announce, at last, that he will be at the team facility within the half hour. Even before Bryant is finished apologizing, the stiffed sportswriter—worn down and codependent from decades of dealing with star athletes—is assuring him that it's no problem.
But it is a problem. That's the message from various figures in the Cowboys' complex, including the indispensable Marilyn Love, executive assistant to team owner Jerry Jones. Her phone calls to Bryant on this humid morning have ignited enough of a fire under his backside to roust him out of his house and into his car.
"I saw it in college all the time," says Derek Dooley, the ex--Tennessee Volunteers head man who is now Bryant's position coach in Dallas. When a chasm exists between a player's talent and his level of accountability, "sometimes there's a lot of enabling that goes on. The people around him say, He's so gifted, we'll cut him some slack, offer a shortcut."
Now entering his fourth NFL season, the 6'6", 222-pound Bryant is about to blow up, in the good way, in large part because the Cowboys have throttled way back on the slack that they're willing to cut him. Bryant—whose 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012 "barely scratched the surface" of his abilities, according to coach Jason Garrett—is poised to realize his vast potential. While Bryant's play down the stretch last season constituted a two-month highlight reel, his best catch might have been a touchdown against the Giants in October that was erased upon further review (a finger touched down out-of-bounds), but which Babe Laufenberg, for one, can't forget. "He takes off from the middle of the end zone and makes this unbelievable grab," says the ex--Dallas quarterback and current Cowboys radio analyst. "The guy defies physics, like Dr. J."
Bryant is ridiculously gifted, but for the longest time his stores of talent and his maturity were out of balance. He wasn't a bad seed: He didn't steal, do drugs or get in trouble with the law. Yet stories about Bryant usually included the modifier "troubled."
In his rookie year, Garrett recalls, "we could have fined him five hundred times. He's late for this, late for that. The meeting's at 8:30; he's not in the meeting. Where is he? He's in the equipment room talking to the equipment guys; he's throwing the ball around. He misses another meeting. Where is he? He's sleeping. Why? He was up talking to his girlfriend till five in the morning. Dez, why did you miss Tuesday's workout? 'My little son, I had to take him to the doctor.' [Bryant has two boys: Zane, who is five, and three-year-old Dez Jr.] How long did that take? 'Half an hour.' But Dez, you had 23 hours left in the day.
"He had no structure in his life."
As the Cowboys have added structure, the light has gone on for Bryant, who might have been the best receiver in the NFL over the second half of last season—he caught 10 TDs after Week 9, far and away the league high. "It's not like I didn't want to do things the right way," Bryant says. "I just really never knew how to get there, if that makes sense."
No one ever questioned his love of the game or his work ethic. "Dez is one of my favorite teammates I've ever had," says eight-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. "I gravitated toward him early because of his passion for the game. What's happening now is that he's raised the bar for himself. He's attacking meetings the way he attacks practices and games. He's becoming a true pro."
Late in a scrimmage during the Cowboys' first day of full contact at their Oxnard, Calif., training camp, Bryant ran a 12-yard square-out to the right sideline. It wasn't his best or his crispest route; he didn't get much separation from the cornerback. Unfazed, quarterback Tony Romo forced a bullet through a welter of arms. The ball hit Bryant in the left shoulder pad, but he somehow pinned it to his body with one arm.
Standing on the sideline, a longtime team observer noted, "A year ago, there's no way Romo makes that throw. That's why Dez is going to have a big year. Romo trusts him now."
The QB himself has a simple explanation for Bryant's recent, dramatic improvement. "More than anything, Dez has made football a routine. He already had the competing aspect of it. He loves that aspect. But there's a lot of little stuff the job entails, and it can be tedious. This is an all-day job. Part of his growth has come from his ability to start thinking about the game on a level deeper than just competing and playing. Once he started to grasp that, he started to improve overnight."
True, the 24-year-old still squirms his way through meetings. But he's in the room. He has become, as Garrett says, "a more consistent person," doing what he's supposed to do on a more regular basis. "He gets back to you when you text him. His routes are more precise. He knows what his hot adjustments are."
Ten minutes into this particular interview, Garrett is interrupted by the Cowboys' vice president of public relations, Rich Dalrymple, who asks with mild sarcasm, "Is the two minutes almost up?"
"It's O.K.," Garrett interjects. "I love this kid. I love talking about him. I want to make sure it's presented the right way."
The implication: Bryant is often presented in the wrong way. This most misunderstood of Cowboys has made unwanted headlines dating back to his junior year at Oklahoma State, in 2009, when he was suspended for most of the season by the NCAA for lying to investigators about his relationship with Deion Sanders. The 20-year-old had paid a visit to Chez Sanders following his sophomore season, and when NCAA gumshoes asked him about the trip Bryant panicked, assuming it was a violation.
"I lied," he concedes. "I didn't take any gifts. But I should've told them I went to his home."
His punishment seemed (and still seems) excessively harsh—another example of NCAA overreach. "He's never been arrested. He's never tested positive for drugs," his high school coach, John Outlaw, later told the Lufkin (Texas) Times. "The only thing he ever did was lie when he got scared."
Even after Bryant moved to the pros, falling to No. 24 in the 2010 draft (despite being No. 1 in some mocks), his off-field transgressions had a penny-ante flavor: They weren't that big a deal. Early in his career he spent profligate sums on jewelry and tickets to sporting events. He was also sued by two creditors seeking to recoup their money. While improvident, this does not exactly distinguish him among the fraternity of professional athletes. In a March 2011 incident that might have doubled as a lost scene from Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Bryant was ejected from an upscale Dallas-area shopping center because the guys he was walking around with were, according to a police report, sagging—the waistbands of their trousers had drooped, revealing their undergarments.
Then came a January 2012 nightclub altercation with the rapper Lil Wayne in Miami Beach. "One of his guys said something to me, then shoved me," says Bryant. "I told him he could've just said, Excuse me." Profanities, but no punches, were exchanged. Police were summoned; no one was arrested. Yawn.
One incident unquestionably rose to the level of disturbing. On the afternoon of July 14, 2012, Bryant's mother, Angela, placed a 911 call to DeSoto, Texas, police, claiming that she had argued with her son and that he'd assaulted her. Bryant turned himself in and was charged with a Class A misdemeanor for domestic violence. The charge was dismissed last November on the condition that Bryant undergo anger counseling and that he not be charged with a crime for the subsequent year.
According to the police report, Bryant grabbed his mother by her T-shirt and hair, bruised her arms and "hit her across her face with his ball cap." Asked by SI to address those allegations, Bryant says, "I would be a crazy dude, man, to put my hands on my mom. I did not put my hands on my mom, did not even attempt to put my hands on my mom"—other than to defend himself, he clarified. When she grabbed Dez by his arms ("like a DB would grab me"), he used his hands to remove hers, he says.
Did he strike her with his hat? "I remember taking my hat off and slamming it on the ground," he says, but he denies hitting her.
So her accusations were exaggerated?
"I love my mom," he replies. "We love each other."
FOOTBALL'S a big deal here in Texas, Brooke Stafford is noting, somewhat redundantly, as he escorts a visitor into Lufkin High's indoor practice facility, a 37,000-square-foot Valhalla that would be the envy of many universities.
"This is where Dez had his pro day," says Stafford, a Lufkin assistant coach who remains close to Bryant. On that afternoon Bryant, working out for NFL scouts in shoes made by a company he'd just signed with, was "slipping and sliding all over the place," recalls Stafford, who saved the day by dashing to the equipment room and returning with a pair of Nikes. "That got spun into this story, completely untrue, that he forgot to bring shoes to his own pro day."
Stafford hung on to both pairs of cleats, just as he keeps in his office the plaque that Bryant was awarded for being named to the 2007 Parade High School All-America team following his senior season. "[Bryant] couldn't really hang it on his bedroom wall," Stafford explains. "He didn't have a bedroom."
After giving birth to Dez at age 15, Angela Bryant had two more babies before she was 19. (The father of all three children, MacArthur Hatton, was in his early 40s when Dez was born.) Struggling to make ends meet, Angela started selling rock cocaine when she was 19. Four years later, when Dez was eight, she was arrested for selling crack to a police informant, and she spent 18 months at the Lucile Plane State Jail in Dayton, Texas, an hour and a half down Route 59 from Lufkin.
While his mother was incarcerated, Dez moved in with Hatton, from whom he is now estranged. That move began an unstable, nomadic period that lasted until his senior year at Lufkin, when he moved in with his girlfriend at the time. Those frequent changes of address overwhelmed Bryant's high school coach, Outlaw, who told The New York Times in 2008 that "I [took] him to probably six or seven different places he called home.... He was from trailer to trailer and house to house."
Outlaw died two days before Christmas in 2011, felled by a heart attack at 58. While they certainly mentioned his 303-87-3 record as a coach, obituaries gave greater emphasis to his advocacy for the underdog. One quotes a coworker describing the young men the coach gravitated toward: "Those kids who had unstable lives at home. Those kids who needed someone to believe in them. Those kids who hung on to football as a lifeline."
This was Dez Bryant distilled to three sentences. Before his junior season Bryant met with Stafford, whose duties include making sure that the transcripts of students who aspire to play college football pass NCAA muster. For Bryant that path looked especially daunting. Diagnosed with a learning disability in elementary school, he'd been taking special-education classes. He didn't even get on the field for the Panthers varsity until late in his sophomore season, but with two years of high school remaining, Bryant informed Stafford that he wanted to take regular classes in order to meet the NCAA's standards.
According to Stafford, Bryant had been steered into special ed more for his behavior than for any learning issues. When he bore down, "Dez could do the work," says the coach. "And he did it." In his junior and senior seasons, Bryant met all the core requirements for math and English. "He basically resurrected himself."
Bryant's unwavering belief in himself served as a polestar to help him navigate the changes of address, the stigma of special ed and the confusion he felt while in high school, when his mother explained that her sexual orientation had changed, that she was gay.
Regardless of the roof over his head, he drifted off each night with the certitude that he had been put on earth to play football: It would raise him up and out of Lufkin. "I always felt chosen," he says. "By that I mean, God gave me the ability to help myself and my family. I always had that in my head."
"Dez knew what he wanted, and knew how to make it happen," says Stafford. "He's always had his eye on this moment."
HE HAS not always had his eye on the clock. Three hours and 45 minutes after the scheduled appointment, he rolls into Valley Ranch. After posing for a photographer for an hour, he decides it's time to lift some weights; the interview has to wait. "Meet me at David's house at 5:30," he tells this reporter, who replies, wishfully, "It's a date!"
David Wells, whom Bryant describes as an adviser, is a brusque, profane and delightful character, personable yet somehow vaguely menacing, who appears to have sprung from the pages of an Elmore Leonard novel. The Dallas-based former bail-bond magnate is well-known to the city's cops, lawyers and judges; one former D.A. nicknamed him The Wolf, after the problem solver played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. Wells's unique ability to smooth over legal problems and keep them out of the media has made him a valuable ally to professional teams in the Metroplex. And his business has been good to him: He lives down the street from Bryant in a tony part of DeSoto, in a sprawling home whose amenities include a basketball court, swimming pool, in-home theater and a game room where, on this evening, Wells is running the table on a family friend in a lopsided game of eight ball.
Sitting on a bar stool, smiling at his host's trash talking ("We got a major ass-whupping goin' on right now"), is Josh Brent, who has been at Wells's place nearly every day since being arrested last December on a charge of intoxicated manslaughter in the death of Cowboys teammate Jerry Brown Jr. (Brent's trial begins on Sept. 23.) In the interim Brent, 25, has twice tested positive for marijuana. On July 18 he retired from football in order to get "the priorities in my life in order."
Wells's lavish abode is a kind of home for wayward Cowboys. Bengals cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones lived there during his one-year tenure with Dallas, in 2008. Even as he values his friendship with Jones, it angers Wells when people suggest that Bryant's missteps are remotely equivalent to the serial malfeasance of Pacman. "Dez was in this house when he got drafted three years ago," says Wells. "I've watched him mature into a man. This is a good person."
But not, alas, a totally reliable one. At our appointed hour of meeting, Bryant rolls up to Wells's house in his black Bentley ... and keeps on rolling. He's going to play some hoops at a nearby 24 Hour Fitness, he shouts through the open car window. He'll be back in half an hour.
Ninety minutes later, the reporter walks into the health club. Bryant's brother, Shaun, intercepts him. "We'll be at David's in a half hour." Two hours after that, the reporter gives up and checks into a hotel.
Bryant seems miffed, the following morning, to find the reporter parked in front of his house. Walking across the yard, he is unsmiling. "What did you want to talk about?"
The uninvited visitor wants to delve into Bryant's upbringing. Why did he move so often? Did he ever go without food or shelter?
"I knew it," he says. But he's not going there. "Me and my family aren't ready to talk about that," he declares with finality, before adding what can only be described as a teaser. "When you hear the whole story, I promise you, you're gonna be overwhelmed."
Zane, his five-year-old, has emerged from the front door. But where is Dez Jr.? "He's been in a timeout," Bryant explains, "for spraying mustard on the floor."
Tough to blame a three-year-old for being amused by the flatulent sound created by a squeezed mustard dispenser, the visitor points out. On the other hand, discipline is an important part of parenting.
"I don't coddle 'em," says Bryant.
He is determined to give his boys a smoother, more structured upbringing than his own. "They are my life, my heart," he says, his initial reserve now melted. "I couldn't control what was going on around me when I was younger. But I control everything now.
"I'm a work in progress, just like everybody else in this world. I've made mistakes, and I won't go down that path again. I've been through the bad things already. There ain't nothing but the right things for me from here on out."
Better late than never.
"That's why Dez is going to have a big year," says one longtime Cowboys observer. "Romo trusts him now."
"I always felt chosen," Bryant says. "God gave me the ability to help myself and my family."
Watch Jason Garrett's welcome-to-training-camp speech and read Andy Benoit's Deep Dive analysis of the Cowboys at TheMMQB.com
Photograph by GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TIM HEITMAN/USA TODAY SPORTS
RICH SCHULTZ/GETTY IMAGES
MATURING ASSET Bryant's reception, TD and yards-per-catch numbers have improved in each of his three pro seasons.
SHOW ME THE WAY As the Cowboys have helped Bryant find structure in his life, he's become a favored target for Romo (9).
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED