DESOTO, Texas – When the call came, and the most excruciating wait of his young life had ended, Dez Bryant only had a few seconds of daylight. Then the disbelieving receiver braced for impact and collapsed in a heap of humanity.
Hiding away in the weight room of a house full of restless relatives, friends and reporters Thursday night, Bryant had barely answered owner Jerry Jones' blessed question – Are you ready to be a Cowboy? – with an emphatic, "Yes, sir!” when a bear of a man wrapped him in an emphatic embrace he will never, ever forget.
Bryant, the much-maligned and ultra-talented wideout who Dallas was about to select with the 24th overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft, was quickly gang-tackled by his closest friends. The first hit, however, was the sweetest: It came from David Wells, the adviser and father figure who the former Oklahoma State standout credits with helping to put him on the path to maturity.
"He's one of the best things that's ever happened to me,” Bryant said of Wells, who hosted Thursday's shindig at his home in suburban Dallas, spending most of the day outside cooking ribs and chicken. "He's a blessing to me – I'm not gonna lie.”
On Thursday night Bryant felt the same way about Jones, the owner who swung the trade that turned a bummer of a draft night into a raucous, Texas-sized celebration. Bryant, a native of Lufkin, who has been staying with Wells in DeSoto, had said earlier in the day it was his dream to play for the Cowboys, whose facility is a 40-minute drive from his adviser's home.
After a harrowing pre-draft period that saw his character repeatedly questioned and one team go so far as to ask him whether his mother was a prostitute, Bryant got the happy ending – and new beginning – he'd craved. He sees Jones as a non-judgmental employer who'll provide him with the best possible environment in which to thrive – and to rebuke his critics in the process.
"This is what I wanted most of all,” Bryant said a few minutes after being picked while soaking up the love from partygoers outside Wells' luxuriant home. "I like everything about Jerry. He's a straight-shooter. He just shoots through all the b.s. – and being a Cowboy just feels right.
"I'm ready to go to work and show the world I'm not the guy that people think I am.”
Bryant, who joins a receiving corps that includes burgeoning star Miles Austin(notes), high-priced and under-achieving Roy Williams and perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten(notes), had better be ready. A few minutes after Dallas picked Bryant, I got a text from Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo(notes) which read, "Tell him to be ready to go to work. I'm expecting a lot. Gonna be fun.”
When I showed it to Bryant, he smiled and said, "I like that. I'm ready.”
If he ever wavers in his commitment, you can bet he'll hear about it from Wells, who owns a bail-bond company and has advised pro athletes for 15 years, dating back to an association with Cowboys Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin in the ‘90s. Wells, a cousin of 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree(notes), met Bryant at an awards show two years ago and, he said, "Dez grabbed onto me and hasn't let me go ever since.”
On Wednesday night Wells stood in his kitchen and had an emotional telephone conversation with his sister, Michelle Wells-Milton, who was fighting for her life in the intensive care unit of a Southern California hospital.
"She got cancer in 1997, and it's all over her body,” Wells said. "Thirteen years ago they told her she was going to die, and I came in the hospital and she was unconscious. I started yelling and told her, ‘There's no way you're going to stop fighting. Get up out of this bed!' Security threw me out, but five days later she walked out of that hospital, and she's been fighting it ever since. I call her my pound-for-pound champion. She's the toughest person I know.”
Michelle, who was in a coma a week ago, was unable to talk Wednesday, but her husband held up the phone so that she could listen to her brother's encouraging words. "Tomorrow's draft day, and we're having a party for Dez,” Wells told her. "You watch – he's gonna be a Cowboy. A Cowboy! And you'll come out here and watch him play.”
Wells was teary-eyed as he hung up the phone. "The Cowboys are her favorite team,” he said softly. "And I just have this feeling … ”
As most of the people in his house watched Thursday's first round play out with anxious scowls on their faces, Wells kept the faith. About nine picks into the draft, Bryant went outside to get some air, ultimately retreating to the weight room with his girlfriend, Ilyne Nash, and a handful of close friends.
"I just needed some time to myself,” he explained later. "I just wanted to be relaxed – and I wasn't relaxed in front of all those people.” (Camera crews from ESPN and the NFL Network and other local and national reporters probably didn't help, either.) "As the draft went on, I kept telling myself, ‘God has a plan.' And I was just praying: ‘Man, I hope Dallas comes up and gets me.'–”
It had been a stressful day from the start. Bryant woke up to learn that his month-old iPhone was malfunctioning, and he ended up at a local Apple store waiting hours for it to be repaired. Ultimately, he was given a replacement phone – with all of his contacts erased.
Given his reputation for unreliability, Bryant knew some might be skeptical of his story.
"Look,” he said a couple of hours before the draft began, whipping out the phone. "It's a brand new phone. Can you believe this happened today, of all days?”
As the first round dragged on, it seemed Bryant's image problems had negatively impacted his fortunes in a significant way. When the Bengals didn't take him with the 21st pick, and the Patriots traded out of the 22nd selection (and moved back two spots), there were groans all around. And a few expletives were uttered after the Broncos, who'd acquired the 22nd pick, took Georgia Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas – meaning Bryant, considered the most talented wideout in the draft class, would not be the first one off the board.
The Ravens, with the 25th pick, seemed to be Bryant's logical destination. But when it was announced that Dallas had swung a trade with the Patriots, who now held the 24th pick, to move ahead of the Ravens, Bryant's heart started racing, and he stood up and smiled excitedly.
Seconds later, his phone rang.
"It was an unknown number,” he said. "I said, ‘I'm answering this.' ”
The words he heard next were pure bliss.
Dez, this is Jerry. Are you ready to be a Cowboy?
"Yes, sir," Bryant answer. "All I needed was a chance, and I got my chance. I can't wait to get started …"
Then – bam, Wells entered the room and wrapped him in the bear hug, and boyhood friend Carldelro King piled on, and then a few others helped take him down, and the rest was a blur.
Soon Bryant entered the living room to raucous applause. He cried as people chanted "Cowboys, Cowboys," then put on a fresh, white Dallas hat the NFL had sent (along with those of 10 other teams) and held his 2-year-old son, Zayne, in his arms.
Later Bryant walked around the house and, one-by-one, embraced and thanked every guest. After that, he skipped outside and did a solo victory lap around Longmeadow Lane. A stiff wind whipped through the palm trees outside Wells' house, and a light rain fell.
This time, Bryant sought out Wells and locked him in a heartfelt hug.
"Dave has helped me in so many ways," he said later. "Put it this way: He's not a guy who tells me what I want to hear. He tells me what I need to do, and I appreciate him so much for that."
In that sense, playing for the Cowboys truly is an ideal situation for Bryant. "If he wants to stay here and commute," Wells said, "he'll be able to do that."
Late Thursday night, Wells smiled and thought about how Bryant's selection might brighten the spirits of a Cowboys fan dear to his heart.
"All I'm thinking about right now is Michelle," he said softly. "I can't wait to call my sister."
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. As a condition of his suspension under the NFL's personal conduct policy, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) will now refer to himself as "Little Ben" in the presence of commissioner Roger Goodell.
2. If two NFL teams that were good in 2009 are slated to play one another in December 2010, it will obviously be a game with playoff implications, one of many conclusions that should be drawn upon the unveiling of the schedule.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Did Goodell really announce the Washington Redskins' fourth overall selection Thursday night as "Trent (Silverback) Williams" to a prime-time TV audience, or did I just dream that? I've expressed my high regard for the commissioner on numerous occasions, and I'm utterly convinced that the man is the antithesis of a racist, so please understand that I'm not questioning his motives in making a reference to the silverback gorilla while introducing an African-American athlete. Apparently, Williams' teammates at Oklahoma gave him the nickname, and he requested that he be announced with the moniker included. But Goodell, a very smart and PR savvy man, should have politely replied, "Aw, hell no." I realize that Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison(notes) also has this nickname, and that as a society we should be beyond such overtones. But this was a high-profile moment with a sizeable audience, and I did a double-take when I heard Goodell blurt out the word. About a minute later, I got a series of text messages from a former player turned television analyst who happens to be African-American. This person tends to have a thick skin, but he was appalled. Again, I'm sure Goodell's intentions were completely honorable, but in retrospect it might turn out to have been a moment that he wishes he could replay. And while we're tackling race, I had an interesting conversation with a veteran Steelers player after Roethlisberger's suspension was announced, and his take was that, like Michael Vick(notes) before him, Big Ben now had an idea "what it's like to be a black quarterback." Oh, and in other draft news, Toby Gerhart was still on the board after Thursday's first round, while Jahvid Best's skill set was validated when the Lions traded up to take him with the 30th overall pick. It has been quite a week here in 21st century America, and I hope that over the next 10 years or so these discussions about race become increasingly less charged and more superfluous.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe(notes), who along with wife Maura has launched a new career as a winemaker. The Bledsoes' Walla Walla, Wash.-based label, Doubleback, released its first offering this spring, a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, and it's as smooth and robust as Bledsoe's passes during his heyday with the Patriots. It ain't cheap, but Drew and Maura gave me a good deal (we go way back), and my wife and I enjoyed a bottle at home last Saturday night. In retrospect, we probably should've complemented the wine with fat steaks and dark chocolate – instead, we snuck sips while enjoying homemade ground beef, refried bean and cheese burritos with the kids. "It goes well with nachos, too," insists Drew, who's clearly loving life as a budding vintner. "It's a pleasure doing business when your business is pleasure."
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
Last year, BYU's rugby team defeated Cal in a tight national championship match, ending the Bears' run of five consecutive titles. The two sides are on track for a rematch, as Cal thumped UCLA and Penn State last weekend to reach the national semifinals. The Bears will face Arkansas State a week from Friday at Stanford, while the Cougars will take on Army, with the winners meeting the following day. Under coach Jack Clark, Cal has won 17 of the past 19 championships, and as the Bears try to reclaim their place atop the college rugby world, no team on earth, in any sport, will be more physically and mentally prepared. Meanwhile, after a shaky beginning to Pac-10 play, my beloved Golden Bears softball team came alive in the desert last weekend, sweeping then-No. 6 Arizona State in a three-game series and winning the final two games by eight-run margins. Pitchers Valerie Arioto and Jolene Henderson shut down the Sun Devils, and Arioto, freshman catcher Lindsay Ziegenhirt and sophomore outfielder Elia Reid keyed a home-run barrage that put Cal back in the thick of the Pac-10 race. This weekend the Bears host defending national champion and top-ranked Washington in a three-game series at Levine Fricke Field, and I hope to free myself from draft mania to check out Sunday's finale. Across the Bay Cal's smoking-hot 15th-ranked baseball team faces No. 22 Stanford in a three-game series at Sunken Diamond. The Bears have won eight of their last nine Pac-10 games to move into second place in the conference. Finally, major props to my old paper, The Daily Californian, for the 20 awards it earned at the California College Media Association's event last weekend. The award haul included five sports-specific honors and was more than any other school paper took in, meaning the tradition my colleagues and I began in the mid-80s – reading aloud from other college papers in our newsroom and mocking them for being so lame – still applies today.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Reading's improbable promotion dream ended on the pitch at Glanford Park on Tuesday night as Scunthorpe United scored twice in the final 10 minutes to salvage a 2-2 draw and mathematically eliminate the Royals from a top-six finish in the Football League Championship. Building on momentum from Saturday's 6-0 thrashing of Peterborough at Madejski Stadium, Reading came out strong against Scunthorpe, going ahead early in the second half when Alex Pearce side-footed a volley into the net from six yards out. After United's Cliff Byrne took down Jobi McAnuff on a clear run at goal in the 72nd minute, Glyfi Sigurdsson drove home the penalty kick to make it 2-0. Remarkably, Byrne was not red-carded, which would have given the Royals a man advantage. Then Scunthorpe rallied to secure the draw on goals in the 82nd and 89th minutes, the latter coming off a cruel deflection that saw Matt Sparrow's diverted shot off a loose ball find the back of the net. Yet as United's supporters mobbed the pitch to celebrate the point that ensured that the club won't be relegated to League One, Reading manager Brian McDermott was wise enough to note that midway through the 2009-10 campaign, such a scenario seemed very plausible for the Royals. Then first-year manager Brendan Rodgers was sacked, McDermott took over and Reading went on a stirring run that included the club's first quarterfinal appearance in the FA Cup in 83 years. Currently ninth in the Championship table with two games remaining, the Royals can complete what the club would consider the eight-best season in its 139-year history by overtaking eight-place Middlesbrough, which leads Reading by a point. The Royals are at Watford Saturday before closing out the season at Madejski against Preston on May 2. And yes, two years removed from the Royals' banishment from the Premier League (following a two-year stint with the big dogs), I'm still Reading till I die.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
This is the time of year when, for many of you otherwise sane citizens, Mel Kiper Jr. becomes the most important man in the universe. As the draft proceeds in all its boundless splendor, it's not hard to imagine the venerated analyst picking up a guitar and getting in touch with his inner David Crosby, with fellow ESPN draft-coverage stalwarts Chris Berman, Keyshawn Johnson(notes) and John Clayton filling the respective Stills, Nash and Young slots. To the tune of "Almost Cut My Hair" …
Almost cut my hair
It happened just the other day
It's gettin' kind of stiff
I could've bleached it like Todd McShay
But I didn't and I wonder why
I feel like bein' that slicked-back guy
And I feel like I owe it, to Boomer
They say that I am in the tank for Clausen
You rank him 38th? That's a disgrace
Increases my entitled outrage
Like looking in my mirror and seeing Bill Tobin's face
But GMs are getting fired each year
And you'll notice that I'm still here
I feel like I owe it, to Boomer
When they finally find somebody better
I'm gonna get down in that sunny southern weather
And I'll find a dark room with a fan
Separate the Leafs from the Mannings
I feel …
Like I'm caught in a backdraft, yeah …
- Dez Bryant