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REALITY CHECK

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BY TRADITION, NFL ROOKIES FOOT THE BILL FOR A TEAM DINNER. BUT AFTER DEZ BRYANT IRKED THE VETS IN DALLAS, THEY CHOSE TO STICK HIM WITH AN EPIC TAB

ONLY TWO DAYS into his first training camp with the Cowboys, in 2010, Dez Bryant made an enemy of fellow receiver Roy Williams. When Williams told Bryant to carry his shoulder pads to the locker room, the brash rookie refused to be hazed. "I'm not doing it," Bryant told reporters. "I feel like I was drafted to play football, not carry another player's pads."

Williams, then in his seventh NFL season, was not amused. As a rookie with the Lions he had to buy sandwiches and doughnuts for the veterans before team flights, nearly missing departures because he had to stop at so many restaurants to fulfill specific orders. Of course, he recalled lugging around the vets' pads too. "I was drafted No. 7—I still had to do it," says Williams.

Meanwhile, Bryant, the team's first-round pick out of Oklahoma State, and Williams were fighting for a job. Bryant was emerging as a fan favorite, flashing a game-breaking ability that Williams had yet to show. Still, Williams says he tried to resolve the matter amicably, explaining that the duties were part of an NFL tradition. Bryant's response? "'I'm not going to do that, blah, blah, blah,'" recalls Williams. "O.K., no problem."

When reporters asked, Williams said there was no feud. "We talked about it," he told ESPN. "[Dez] wants to concentrate on football. We're going to let him. But, when we go out to eat, I'm going to be a little bit more hungry and a little bit more thirsty."

ONE MONDAY in late September, about 30 Cowboys gathered at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse for the offense's annual group dinner. These meals are common around the NFL, and they follow a similar pattern: The veterans order whatever they want, and the rookies foot the bill.

Everyone understood, then, that the undrafted free agents would pay a flat fee; the other rookies would pay a prorated amount based on their draft slot; and Bryant, who had $8.3 million in guaranteed money, would cover the rest. A select few veterans saw it as a chance to teach Bryant a lesson. What ensued was one of the most gluttonous team dinners in the history of sports.

Lobster tails as appetizers. An assortment of other seafood. "We were ordering $90 Kobe beef steaks, and guys were ordering two!" says Jesse Holley, a second-year receiver then. Pappas Bros. has one of the most extensive wine lists in Texas, with some bottles going for as much as $58,000. "Cristal, Ace of Spades, Patron bottles—you name it," Holley recalls. "They were ordering bottles of Cristal and pouring them in the flower pots."

Rick Turner, the restaurant's general manager, denies that it went that far, noting, "There were no plants in the room." He says that Pappas Bros. has hosted these dinners since the Bill Parcells era and that the spending was pretty typical. The difference this time was the shots. One of the players asked for the most expensive cognac, and soon a server wearing white gloves brought out a sparkly case that held a bottle of Louis XIII Rare Cask.

Says Turner, "It's extremely rare. I think there was a total, throughout the world, of only 640 bottles from this cask." The server used an instrument to measure out each shot, to not waste a single drop. The Cowboys ordered roughly 10 to 15 shots of Louis XIII—for $1,700 apiece. "Just sipped and then poured into the water glass," says Williams.

How was Bryant handling all this? "Dez came late and saw them with the [Louis XIII] shots," Chris Gronkowski, an undrafted rookie fullback on that team recalls. "At that point he was like, Man, this is already happening? He joined in and had one for himself."

As the night wound down, people ordered entrees, wine and dessert to go. "I made steak and eggs in the morning," Holley says. Then they passed around a few empty wine bottles for everyone to sign, to commemorate the night. The final bill was reported as $54,896.

News of the dinner sparked another round of stories about the Bryant-Williams feud. Pappas Bros. staffers were offered money for a copy of the bill. "People from all over the country ask, 'Isn't this the place where Dez spent all that money?'" Turner says. "Yes, yes it is."

When the bill came, "I don't really remember [Bryant] flinching," recalls Stephen McGee, the third-string quarterback. "If it would've been me, I would've crapped my pants. I don't think he blinked an eye." But Bryant had some help. "Several veteran players stepped in and helped with the tab as well," says Turner. "The leaders of the team. A couple of linemen put in $4,000 apiece. There was another player who put in $5,000." (Bryant did not return multiple messages sent to his manager.)

And Williams? The Cowboys cut him after the 2010 season. He played one more year, with the Bears, then retired, moved back to Texas and became a season-ticket holder at AT&T Stadium. Looking back on the dinner now, Williams says it all could have been avoided. "But, nope. [Dez] got stuck with [most of] it. I can't tell you who paid for [all of] it. I know one person that didn't pay for it, and that was me."