*This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.*
Dez Bryant soars into the air, adjusts behind Morris Claiborne 20 yards downfield, torques his body in a shape other receivers wouldn't try, extends his arms and somehow comes down with a catch during 1-on-1 drills near the goal line that Claiborne can't believe.
For all intents and purposes, he appears to be the same Bryant he was last season in Oxnard, Calif. Only, that couldn't be further from the truth.
He's still capable of all the highlight-reel catches he could make a year ago, but now his focus has reached another level. Bryant has become a reliable target on the outside, not the occasional playmaking receiver he's been in seasons past. The Cowboys' top receiving threat and his coaches both know, Bryant's steady gains on the field can be attributed to his steady gains off it.
He has come so far in a year and is so comfortable with his life right now that Bryant says he's ready to move past helping himself. The young veteran now accepts the responsibility of being the same kind of role model that Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Miles Austin were when he came in the league. They still remain mentors and leaders for Bryant to this day.
"I think there's no backward for me," Bryant says. "I feel like I got a set road here to lead by example, doing all the right things. Me being in that role to make sure these new guys are doing the right things, not only on the field, but off the field. I take that to heart." [embedded_ad]
This change in mentality wouldn't have happened at training camp in 2012, when the "troublemaker" stigma couldn't be shaken. It wasn't until last year, midway through his third season in the league, that everything fell into place for Bryant.
He wasn't ready for that kind of responsibility, off the field or in the offense, before the incident with his mother was behind him and the charges against him were conditionally dismissed. Since then, he says, everything in his life has been on the right path.
Bryant doesn't want to do anything to jeopardize that. He says everyone performs better with their work when they're at peace with their lives.
"I'm doing everything that I'm supposed to," he says. "It doesn't feel like I'm structured and I've got to do this. I'm doing it out of my own heart. This is the type of guy that I am. I'm not a bad guy. I feel like I owe it to these guys just coming in. I feel like if somebody goes out and does something bad and I know I had a shot to let them know what to do and they did wrong, I'll put that on me."
A quiet offseason for Bryant gave further proof to the change that has been occurring in his life. When asked if he felt like he's proven he was worth the risk, he thought the question was irrelevant because of how far he's come.
It's clear the player the Cowboys drafted has come a long way. Jason Garrett would agree. The head coach says it's technically a risk drafting any player regardless of his background because a team can never predict with certainty how any pick will turn out.
"I don't even want to use the word risk with him," Garrett says. "He is no greater risk than anybody else."
Bryant's talent has always been there. Even the 23 teams who passed on him in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft have to realize that.
But if he can continue to couple those skills with the focus it takes to be an elite receiver in the league, there's no reason to think his 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns last year couldn't turn into at least 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns this year.
"I didn't say I'll get 2,000 yards, 20 touchdowns, but anything is possible," Bryant says. "You've seen Calvin Johnson, he was, what, 40, 50-something yards shy of that? That's outstanding. That's big ups to him, man. Anything is possible. If you've got the right mindset, the right work ethic, you can do anything."
Garrett felt confident that, with some direction and the resources the Cowboys had, Bryant was the type of person he wanted on his team. He has always known Bryant's love for the game was never in doubt. That was confirmed last year when a finger injury that needed surgery was pushed to the offseason because Bryant didn't want to let his teammates down. Garrett says that gained him immense respect in the locker room.
"I told you guys the story last year when he came into my office really emotional, almost breaking down when he heard that we might have to put him on IR," Garrett says. "He said that there's no way that I'm doing that. I'm playing."
Bryant would go on to finish that game against the Bengals, recording a touchdown. Two weeks later, he'd put together a 224-yard performance against the Saints. The surgery waited until the offseason.
"Mental and physical toughness is the thing I think garners you the most respect in this league from your teammates and from your coaches and from your peers," Garrett says. "Playing through an injury is one of those things that's a real easy example. Dez was pretty amazing."
Following a quiet offseason, it appears he has reached a level the Cowboys always hoped he could.
Bryant is content with his life, moving far enough in a year both personally and professionally to start making an impact on others. That's a positive for the Cowboys, because he's slowly becoming a face of the franchise, one that young players were going to look to, regardless. Now the trick is keeping that going.
"It's all about putting days together," he says, sounding eerily like his own head coach. "That's what it is with me. You go out, you work hard, you forget about that, you come back and do the same thing over and over and over again. You don't have a choice but to have success, without even setting goals."
It's no wonder what his coaches think about his development off the field, which they believe has turned him into the receiver everyone now sees.
"We're real proud of Dez, the approach that he has taken, his consistency in meetings, walk-throughs, on the practice field," Garrett says. "It has a lot to do with the maturity he's made as a person. It reflects in his play. When you're doing those things and doing things the right way, there's no way you can't gain confidence. When a guy like that has confidence to add to his ability, he really becomes a heck of a player."
Bryant realizes he didn't get to this point on his own.
He thanks his coaches for putting him in a position to become that player. He's traveled a long way in his own right, but he also knows that would have been a demanding and laborious journey without the help of his head coach and general manager, Jerry Jones.
"I give a lot of credit to them," Bryant says. "They stuck their neck out for me and they stayed with me. When there were times I didn't understand certain things, they did their best to help me understand.
"Like I said, that all takes a role on me helping those younger guys on what I've learned from the older guys – to Romo to Miles to D-Ware to [Jason] Hatcher to all those guys. I take what they give me and pass it along to someone else. I feel like I'm so comfortable in my life, that's what it's about."
The only thing with which Bryant does seem uncomfortable is sitting on the sideline for part of camp, as the Cowboys coaches have attempted to rest him early on. No sense in pushing a receiver who has become a workhorse on the outside.
Of course, that doesn't sit well with Bryant, who wants to be on the field for every practice and implored his coach to let him play in the first scrimmage, which mostly featured backup players. Garrett knew that would happen, but also knows he's got to be smart with his star receiver.
Bryant says a player can't be great unless he loves the game. In his case, he'd probably still be on the field in a set of pads even if he wasn't getting paid.
"You've got to have a strong passion to be great," he says. "You just can't come out here and goof off and then expect to be good."
He's no longer an immature kid – on or off the field. Along with his obvious ability, that's the biggest reason he's turned into the threat he is to opposing cornerbacks down after down.
When Bryant steps on the field, Claiborne knows he'll see the same thing in practice.
"Dez is going to be Dez," Claiborne says. "He's going to have that mentality that no one can stop him, and if you do stop him, you didn't stop him. He's just got that mentality."
It's a mentality that the rookies do notice. Which in his growing role as a team leader, is just what Bryant wants.