A version of this story appears in a special SI Eats section in the June 18 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
Just two days into his first training camp with the Cowboys in 2010, Dez Bryant made an enemy of another brash receiver, Roy Williams. After practice, Williams tried having the rookie Bryant carry his pads to the locker room—and Bryant refused. For years, veterans have had rookies carry their pads. It’s seen as an unwritten rule, an innocent hazing ritual, a small sign of respect. “I’m not doing it,” Bryant told reporters at the time. “I feel like I was drafted to play football, not carry another player’s pads.”
Williams, a seventh-year veteran, was not amused. He remembered back to when he was a rookie with the Lions in 2004, back when he had to buy sandwiches and donuts for the airplane, and all those times he almost missed the team flight because he had to stop at so many different restaurants to fulfill every player’s specific request. He remembered all those practices when he had to lug around the vets’ pads, too. “I was drafted number seven [overall]—I still had to do it,” Williams says now. “Larry Fitzgerald had to do it, and he was number three! It’s just an unwritten rule, man. You just had to do certain things. I always looked ahead and said, ‘When the next crop of guys come in, I’ll get to enjoy the donuts.’ ”
It didn't help that Bryant and Williams were both competing for a starting spot. Williams had been largely a disappointment in Dallas ever since the Cowboys traded for him two years earlier, and Bryant, the Cowboys’ first-round pick that year, had already emerged as a fan favorite in camp. He was making the big plays that fans had been expecting from Williams.
Even so, Williams says he pulled Bryant aside and tried to resolve Pads-gate peacefully, behind closed doors. “I tried explaining to the young man: ‘Hey, this is the easy part, everybody has to do it.’ ‘I’m not going to do that. Blah, blah, blah.’ O.K., no problem.”
When Williams spoke with reporters at the time, he said there was no issue between him and Bryant. “We talked about it. [Dez] wants to concentrate on football. We’re going to let him concentrate on football,” Williams said, according to ESPN. “But, when we go out to eat, I’m going to be a little bit more hungry, and a little bit more thirsty.”
Williams finally had a chance to whet his appetite one Monday night in late September, when about 30 Cowboys gathered at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse for the offense’s annual group dinner. These get-togethers are commonplace around the NFL, and while each team might do it differently, they typically follow a similar pattern: The veterans order whatever they want, and the rookies foot the bill. “Those dinners were kind of legendary in Dallas,” says John Phillips, a second-year tight end of that 2010 Cowboys team. “You go back to the [Michael] Irvin days, back in the ’80s and ’90s, it was always a big thing. It’s kind of a tradition there.”
And so everyone knew going in that the rookies were paying. The undrafted free agents would pay a flat fee; the drafted players would pay a prorated amount based on their draft slot; and Bryant, the first-round pick, 24th overall, with $8.3 million in guaranteed money, would cover the rest. It is believed that a select group of veterans viewed this dinner as a way to get back at Bryant. What ensued was one of the most gluttonous team dinners in the history of sport.
As soon as they arrived, the Cowboys started ordering the some of the priciest items on the menu. Lobster tails as appetizers. Prawn shrimp. Steaks as big as your head. “We were ordering $90 Kobe beef steaks and guys were ordering two!” says Jesse Holley, a second-year receiver on that team. “I wasn’t a rookie anymore so I knew I didn’t have to pay for it.”
The real damage, though, was done on the drink menu. Pappas Bros. owns one of the most extensive wine lists in all of Texas; some bottles go for tens of thousands of dollars. Then players were ordering their lavish liquors of choice. “Drinks were flowing,” Holley says. “There was Cristal, Ace of Spades, Patrón bottles—you name it. They were ordering bottles of Cristal and pouring them in the flower pots.” Rick Turner, the general manager of that Pappas Bros. restaurant, denies that it went that far. “There were no plants in the room,” he says.
Turner estimates that his restaurant has hosted eight or nine Cowboys team dinners, going back to the Bill Parcells era. In his view, all of this spending was actually pretty typical. “The lobster tails, the Kobe beef, the extended wines, the cognacs, the high-end scotches they enjoyed—it was pretty much normal,” Turner says. “Everybody was well-behaved.”
The difference this time was the shots. One of the Cowboys asked for the most expensive cognac on the menu, and soon a server wearing white gloves brought out a sparkly case holding a bottle of Louis XIII Rare Cask. “They had to read this story before we could drink it,” recalls Chris Gronkowski, an undrafted rookie fullback on that team. “Pretty much how Louis opened these casks of whiskey and this one was the best one, it tasted extra good, so he let it sit for another five to 10 years or something like that.” Turner, the general manager, adds: “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, so to not waste a single drop. The Cowboys ordered roughly 10 to 15 shots of Louix XIII—at about $1700 apiece.
“Just sipped and then poured into the water glass,” says Williams.
Now, how was Bryant taking all this? Multiple players say he showed up to the dinner late. “Dez came late and saw them with the [Louis XIII] shots,” Gronkowski 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 kept ordering steak, wine and dessert to go, to take home to their significant others. “I made steak and eggs in the morning,” Holley says. Then they passed around a few empty wine bottles for everyone to sign, as a way to commemorate the night. All of their ordering had added up. The reported final bill: $54,896.
When news of the dinner got out, it sparked another round of stories about the Bryant-Williams feud. People offered Pappas Bros. staffers money to get a copy of the bill. Cowboys fans asked Turner for stories from that night. “People from all over the country will ask, ‘Isn’t this the place where Dez spent all that money?’” Turner says. “Yes. Yes it is.”
Media reports at the time indicated that Bryant paid up. When the bill came, “I don’t really remember him flinching,” recalls Stephen McGee, the third-string quarterback on that team. “If it would’ve been me, I would’ve crapped my pants. I don’t think he blinked an eye.”
But Bryant did have some assistance. “There were several veteran players that specifically 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 that put in $5,000. Just to help out.” Several Cowboys also heard rumors that Jerry Jones may have intervened. “Legend has it,” Holley says, “because of the relationship Jerry and Dez had, Jerry said, ‘This one’s on me.’ ” The Cowboys did not return a message seeking comment from Jones, and Bryant did not return a message sent to his manager seeking comment. “As far as Jerry stepping in,” Turner says, “Jerry is always very passionate about his players, but I don’t remember [that].”
As for Williams? The Cowboys cut him after the 2010 season. He played one more season and then retired, moved back to Texas and became a Cowboys season-ticket holder. He was in the stands as Bryant went on to set the franchise record for touchdown catches. Looking back on the dinner, Williams says it all could have been avoided: “I think if you just take the pads, you know, now everybody splits the bill. That’s usually how that works. But, nope. [Dez] got stuck with it. I don’t think he’s the one that paid for it. They say, I don’t know—they say Jerry’s the one that paid for it. I can’t tell you who paid for it. I don’t know if Mr. Jones paid for it, if Dez paid for it. I know one person that didn’t pay for it, and that was me.”
Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.