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OXNARD, Calif. – The Dallas Cowboys don't have to teach Dez Bryant much about being a football player. If you watch a handful of practices, you can see the game comes easy to him. Teaching him how to be a man of good judgment? That's the hard part.
"When you're that talented, you're afforded a couple of extra chances," team owner Jerry Jones said Monday. This is the same Jones who spent Tuesday counseling Bryant about the wide receiver's arrest in July for an alleged scuffle with his mother. Jones had said early that he was upset about the situation, but waited a while before talking to Bryant.
"Nothing that has happened is surprising," one Cowboys executive said of Bryant, 23, and his mother Angela, who is all of 37.
In describing the relationship, another team source said, "It's more like brother and sister. Actually, Dez is really the parent in a lot of ways because he's the provider."
Bryant hasn't spoken publicly since the incident, in part on the advice of his lawyer because the matter is pending. Even more, the Cowboys are afraid of what he might say, according to one of the team sources. Bryant's family story is largely understood only at a surface level, and it's doubtful the entire picture will ever be revealed. For now, Bryant and people around him keep it to themselves out of fear. In a league where many of the top players are subjects of physical and mental abuse as children, Bryant's story is still shocking. It goes beyond the fact that his mother spent time in jail for selling drugs.
As an AFC executive recently said: "You run into all sorts of stories in this business. Guys who see their parents get killed or their brothers and sisters are shot. Guys who had to steal to survive as kids. It's ugly. You wonder how some guys make it. When we looked at Dez [during the NFL draft process], I wondered a lot."
This executive and others like him wondered if Bryant could ever become part of a structured life and be depended upon. The Cowboys and Jones believe Bryant can get there, but they know it will take time. They know there will be pain along the way. They know that his silly behavior at a shopping mall near Dallas and involvement in a Miami nightclub fracas are part of the deal they accepted when they drafted him in 2010.
Jones, who has brought in the likes of Terrell Owens and Pacman Jones in recent years, thinks it's worth the risk. Bryant's stunning moments on the field for Oklahoma State were too much to pass up. Such ability was on play this week when he made a wonderful adjustment on a pass during the opening day of Cowboys training camp. Running from left to right across the field, Bryant slipped ever-so-slightly as he tried to cut back toward the left. He gathered himself enough to keep going, running down the timed pass before galloping through the defense at full speed.
Bryant turned awkward to awesome as only an elite athlete can. His gifts make up for mistakes. Moreover, he plays with joy. As hard as he runs on pass patterns, he does the same on running plays, sprinting to where he's supposed to block downfield. Even when he's not in the play, he's into it.
On the final play of practice Monday, after speedy rookie receiver Saalim Hakim caught a deep slant and jetted through the defense for a score, Bryant was the first one to run out to congratulate Hakim.
There are still plenty of rough edges for Bryant as a player. He's not a great route runner and he still doesn't grasp conditioning the way great ones embrace it. That showed up last year, his second season. Still, without an offseason to prepare because of the lockout, Bryant caught 63 passes for 928 yards and nine touchdowns.
Guys who put up those numbers get a lot of chances.
[Around the NFL: Philip Rivers knows time running out on title quest in S.D.]
"Each year, Dez has done a terrific job of coming in and learning a little more and a little more and improving his game," said quarterback Tony Romo, who deftly avoided any mention of Bryant's personal life after being asked twice if he worries about Bryant.
Another teammate summed it up: "Don't even waste time talking about his skills. Dez can do anything and he has a great heart … I genuinely like the guy and I don't think he means to do anybody any harm, except when he plays. He loves to be physical. But when he's not on that field at practice or on game day, there's no telling what he's doing.
"I don't think he has any understanding of consequences and he's a grown man. How do you teach a grown man that kind of stuff?"
[Eric Adelson: Suicide contagion should be concern in NFL]
That's the $1 million, $10 million, maybe $50 million question regarding Bryant. How do you teach boundaries to someone who grew up without them? Bryant isn't somebody you can say, "You have to be more mature" and expect him to get it.
Sadly, he may not learn it until the game is taken away. Either in small doses or completely.
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