DESOTO, Texas – Dez Bryant sat in a plush leather chair late Wednesday night and looked up at a large, projection TV screen, assuming a position that has become all too familiar the past several months. As several NFL Network analysts discussed concerns about the talented wide receiver’s character, Bryant shook his head and balled his right fist, a young man tired of getting trashed in public.
“It’s crazy how I’m getting ripped up, and I just don’t get it,” Bryant said, his voice rising. “Before this started, I didn’t know I was such a ‘bad guy.’ I promise you, I didn’t. When I hear these things – I’m not a hard worker, I’m not tough, I’m a diva – I look at it like they’re talking about somebody else, because that’s not me.”
Roughly 20 hours before the start of the NFL draft, Bryant, a former Oklahoma State wideout likely to be selected in Thursday night’s first round, wasn’t projecting the anxious excitement you’d expect of a young man about to realize a longtime dream. During a long conversation at the expansive home of his advisor, David Wells, Bryant sounded beaten down by a process that has seen him repeatedly cast in a negative light.
“This is supposed to be a great moment for me,” the 21-year-old said. “Trust me, it’s not. But I try to stay positive for my mom and my younger brother and sister. I don’t want to ruin it for them.”
The media criticism has been frustrating, but some of the probing from prospective employers has been downright offensive to Bryant. During one visit, the receiver sat in the office of a franchise’s high-level executive and was asked a shocking question.
“They asked me if my mom’s a prostitute,” Bryant says, an account that was confirmed by Wells, who attended the meeting. “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 sat and answered all of them.”
Bryant’s mother, Angela, had him when she was 15 and conceived his younger sister and brother within the next three years. She reportedly sold drugs, and she served a prison term during Dez’s childhood; at various times he lived with relatives and family friends. Dez and Angela are very close, and she will be with him at Wells’ house for a festive draft party Thursday evening.
It’s very difficult for Bryant, or anyone else, to predict which franchise will end up selecting him. He visited 11 teams in 14 days earlier this month, and numerous others have reportedly taken him off their draft boards because of character concerns, notably his highly publicized propensity for tardiness. Bryant is regarded by most scouts, GMs and coaches to be far and away the most talented receiver in the draft. It’s easy to envision him being a top-10 selection, yet it’s also possible (though not likely) he could slip out of the first round entirely.
Whatever goes down, it’s clear that he will begin his NFL career feeling slighted. Even the fact that he won’t be among the 17 players attending the festivities at Radio City Music Hall has him peeved.
“I’m not in New York because of what’s been said about me, pure and simple,” Bryant said. “That’s got to be it – and that’s ridiculous, man. But it’s good; I’m fine. I’m not taking anything away from anyone in the draft, but I don’t think anybody wants it more than me. When I get drafted, I’ll hug some people and celebrate for a minute – but then I’m going to go to work.”
Late Wednesday night, Bryant took a phone call from his agent, Eugene Parker, who is in New York City with two other clients who’ll likely go in the first round, Ndamukong Suh and Trent Williams.
“I worked out today,” Bryant told Parker excitedly. “I’m the only person in this draft still working out. I’m working out tomorrow morning, too. I know I’m supposed to be relaxing, but I’m not. They don’t understand, Gene. I promise you, sir – no one understands.”
Later, Bryant told me of his plans to emulate one of his childhood heroes, Randy Moss(notes), by answering pre-draft criticism with a breakout rookie season. He remembers watching as a 9-year-old in Lufkin, Texas, as Moss, picked 21st overall by the Minnesota Vikings in the ’98 draft, carved up the Cowboys’ secondary as a rookie on Thanksgiving Day.
“Whoever passed on Randy Moss, I know they feel so sick to this day,” Bryant said. “They can never let that go. Twenty years later, they’ll still be regretting it. I honestly feel that wherever I go, once I get out on the field and start making plays the way I know I can, all that negative stuff will be out the door. And people will see that I’m not a bad guy.”
As far as anyone can tell, there is no criminal or malicious behavior in Bryant’s past. He admits he was “very, very, very angry” at times during childhood, especially toward his father, MacArthur Hatton, with whom he has virtually no relationship.
“Whenever my dad treated his stepkids better than [his own kids] – that was my lowest moment,” Bryant said. “But all of that made me stronger; it made me the person I am today. I really didn’t look at my childhood like it was a struggle. Don’t get me wrong, it was hard at times. But my mentality was, ‘As long as I stay positive, everything will be all right.’ ”
Though Bryant tends to downplay his poor time-management skills, his reputation for being habitually late is justified. One player who attended the scouting combine and was in close contact with Bryant said the receiver was “late to everything,” and one of Bryant’s mentors, former NFL great Deion Sanders, concedes, “He’s got to have a better regard for time.”
Prime Time’s suggestion? “He needs a Flavor Flav clock around his neck. That’s what he needs.”
Sanders, who’ll be part of the NFL Network’s draft coverage Thursday night, has been frustrated by the degree to which Bryant has been portrayed as a character risk.
“He’s not a bad guy,” Sanders insisted. “No one’s ever said anything about his true character; the worst thing they can say about him is he’s late. Guys flunk drug tests and don’t slip that far, yet Dez is supposedly going to drop because he’s late? Come on.”
It was a meeting with Sanders after his sophomore season at Oklahoma State that led to Bryant’s college career being cut short after three games last fall: He was suspended for the season after he admitted he’d lied to NCAA officials who had questioned his relationship with Sanders. “That was the first of the ‘red flags,’ ” Bryant said. “I’m starting to hate that expression.”
Here are his responses to some of his other reported transgressions:
• Bryant denied that he was ever late to a game at Oklahoma State. “That is impossible,” he said. “They said I was 30 minutes late to a game! I guarantee whoever said that has never been to a game at Oklahoma State, cause if you look at the big screen, I’m the first person to run out on the field.”
• He downplayed the profootballtalk.com report that, at his pro day workout in Lufkin last month, he forgot his cleats and instead had to run in a pair that wasn’t broken in, possibly causing him to register slower-than-expected times in the 40-yard dash (4.57 and 4.62 seconds). “The thing is, I didn’t forget my cleats,” he said. “I had a bag with me, and there were six pairs of cleats in that bag. I just didn’t have the cleats for one drill. It wasn’t the 40; it was the shuttle [drill].”
• Bryant took umbrage with several statements by NFL Network and CBS analyst Charley Casserly: “He said I didn’t like running slants. I never talked to that man, and I swear on my son (2-year-old Zayne, from a previous relationship; Bryant’s current girlfriend, Ilyne Nash, is due to deliver his second son in July) I never said that to anyone. People have questioned my toughness? Are they psychics or something? If I’m on the field, I feel like I’m the toughest guy out there – period.”
• Told of a St. Louis Post Dispatch report Wednesday night that he had “pulled the diva act” during a pre-draft visit to the Rams, Bryant said, “I wouldn’t eat; that’s the real reason. I was coming in from San Francisco and had eaten before I got on the plane. They kept asking me over and over and over, ‘You sure you don’t want to eat?’ I went to the [cafeteria] tables and talked to the people there. I just wasn’t hungry. Trust me, I’m not a diva. I’m too rough to be a diva. I hate the word, man. There’s nothing diva about me.”
Bryant conceded that his trip to St. Louis didn’t go especially well. “I was only there about 45 minutes, and then they sent me on my way,” he said. “What gets me is, go ask all the other teams who interviewed me – ask them who Dez Bryant really is.
“Ask Miami, Denver and Dallas. Ask 'em how quick did I learn their offense – it was kind of ‘amazing,’ the way they put it. The Rams didn’t take the time to see who I was. I was willing to tell them how I’ve changed, how I’ve matured. Once I get drafted, people will see that. I’ll get my image back.”
Early Thursday morning, Bryant sat in the game room at Wells’ house and got a haircut from his longtime friend Lee McKelvey, a Lufkin native. Carldelro King, one of Bryant’s closest friends since the third grade, shot pool a few feet away, goofing on Bryant for his habit of drinking pickle juice.
“This is my ‘entourage,’ ” Bryant joked. “Look, you want to spend time with me, you’re going to be mad as hell, cause it’ll be boring. We don’t do anything. I like to have fun, but I’m not a troublemaker. I don’t do drugs. I’ve never committed a crime. I like to play with my son, and I sleep the majority of the time.”
On this night, on the verge of an uncertain future and determined to blaze a redemptive path, Bryant wasn’t sure how much shut-eye he’d get – especially with a 6 a.m. workout looming.
“I really love sleeping,” he said. “But I don’t know if I’m going to sleep at all tonight.”