More than 10 years ago, a local sports reporter attended a Lufkin High School football practice in hopes of interviewing head coach John Outlaw for a season preview. The Panthers were only a few short years removed from having won their first state title, and the reporter wanted to know if the players returning for the upcoming season would give the Pack another shot at a ring.
The late, great coach patiently answered questions regarding the more familiar names on the roster, but then he pointed to a gangly kid out on the field catching passes.
“Keep an eye on that young man,” Outlaw said. “He’s just a sophomore, but he’s going to be something special.”
A sophomore catching the old coach’s eye? The reporter pressed, asking what made the player special. At age 15, Dez Bryant wasn’t the most imposing physical specimen; he still had some growing to do, and his body hadn’t developed into anything an opponent would fear … yet.
Why would the coach want to spotlight this particular receiver?
“He’s got more ‘want-to’ than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Outlaw answered. “Just put it up somewhere, and he’ll go get it.”
Outlaw didn’t elaborate on his definition of “it,” and years later, there are plenty of possible explanations.
The simple version is that “it” was the football. Bryant went up and got that for sure, catching more than 100 passes for more than 2,000 yards and 37 touchdowns in his final two high school seasons. Many of those catches came on virtual jump balls thrown his way: He thrived on being the “oop” to the “alley,” almost always outfighting defenders to make catches. Following an All-State performance as a senior, Bryant landed on the Texas Super Team list.
He kept going up to get “it” — the football — at Oklahoma State University. In two years with the OSU version of the Cowboys, Bryant caught 130 passes for 2,102 yards and 25 touchdowns. He also set a freshman record for receiving yards in a game with 155, and added a pair of touchdowns on punt returns.
Those numbers were gaudy enough for the Dallas Cowboys to engineer a trade with the New England Patriots, allowing the ’Boys to snag Bryant in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. In his seven-year career with Dallas, Bryant has caught 462 passes for 6,621 yards and 67 touchdowns. Despite missing game time with injuries the past two seasons, Bryant has remained one of the league’s most dynamic playmakers and best pass catchers.
Yes, he still goes up and gets “it.”
Or was the “it” to which Outlaw referred something different? Maybe a strong desire to succeed? Much — maybe too much — has been made of Bryant’s upbringing. The story has been done to death, which wouldn’t be the case if people were looking for inspiration rather than something cheap and dirty. None other than Rolling Stone Magazine placed Bryant on the cover of its August 2015 issue. The story inside detailed Bryant’s rise from poverty, the family issues, all of it — and so much of it negative. The old life is a big reason for Bryant’s signature “Throw up the X” celebration. He’s “X-ing” out the negativity in his life. Still.
Maybe that’s what Outlaw meant by his “want to” comment. Bryant laid his own path out before him long ago, and he’s been going up to get his idea of success since then.
To get where he wanted to go meant plowing over and through roadblocks — especially those in the world of academics. Misdiagnosed early in his scholastic career, Bryant learned in high school he would need help achieving the academic status that would allow him to play football at the uppermost collegiate levels. That meant availing himself to tutors, especially his former math teacher, Jody Davis. To this day, Bryant still pays tribute to a lady he credits with helping him get “it.” He maintains contact with his former coach Brooke Stafford, who saw far more in Bryant than the young man did in himself.
Maybe “it” was the idea of success. Not just the money, although the Cowboys rewarded Bryant’s efforts with a massive contract. Known as a fiery competitor, Bryant’s idea of on-field success is pretty simple: win. That’s it. To him, there’s no other reason to don the pads and hit the field. Stats are pretty, but they’re meaningless without the win as far as Bryant is concerned. He finished with a monster game in Sunday’s heartbreaking, season-ending playoff loss to the Packers in the NFC Divisional — Bryant caught nine balls for 132 yards and two TDs — but losing on a last-second field goal felt just as bad as if he’d gone without a single catch. In Bryant’s mind, any year not ending with a Super Bowl ring is not considered a success.
What is “it” Dez Bryant keeps going up to get?
The answer could be something entirely different from what listeners gleaned from Coach Outlaw’s conversation.
“It” could be peace. Contentment. A normal life, something to which Bryant can go when he’s not on the field. He’s a family man now, a fiercely private father who discusses normal, everyday things like attending his child’s school play. All the things Dez Bryant missed as a child — all the things he’ll ensure his own children never lack. Bryant has it now, and so does his family.
Yes, Dez caught “it.” He caught the life he’d hoped to have, the life for which he worked so hard to achieve.
Whatever “it” is, Dez Bryant has it for sure.
And just like Outlaw said, he went right up and got it.