Dez Bryant: The Survivor

Deep poverty, family drama, mudslinging and power struggles: The trials and triumph of the Dallas Cowboys' most explosive star

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here Dez Bryant was raised, they call it the come-up — that Tupac-twisty climb from starveling to stardom, from rags-to-Rolls-Royce royalty. Bryant, whose first five years in the game stack up against any receivers in the Hall of Fame, is a one-of-a-kind wideout with length, strength and speed, a beauty-and-beast-mode cocktail of Randy Moss and Marshawn Lynch. A former first-team All-American whose draft stock cratered when he was suspended from playing in his junior year of college, Bryant has been a bargain for the Dallas Cowboys since they traded up to pick him late in the first round in the spring of 2010: two consecutive Pro Bowls, one All-Pro selection and a season for the ages last year.

This summer, he's pressing to finally get paid in a manner befitting his stats and rock-star station. He's retained Tom Condon, the premier agent in football, and signed with Jay Z's Roc Nation Sports to handle his contract talks with the Cowboys and broker his marketing deals; and he can't leave his house in suburban Dallas without being swarmed by selfie-seeking fans imploring him to please remain a Cowboy. Anywhere Bryant goes, they come from all directions, many or most of them female. Whatever they're drawn by, it's deeper than sex, though he's drop-dead-Denzel and he knows it. What they want, besides his baby, is to mother him, to make sure no one inflicts further harm on a man raised hip-deep in heartbreak. How do they know he's suffered? The way women have always known, whether it was Sam Cooke or Richard Pryor or Marvin Gaye who stood before them: They know a battered star-child when they see one.

But all that's behind him now, the pain and the poverty and not knowing when he'd eat next. The bad old days were charnel-house bad: a grandmother on crack and running the streets; his mother selling crack to raise her three kids, all of whom she'd had by 18; the stepmother's house with the lock on the fridge. Here was a kid largely raised by his brother, who also happened to be his uncle; who knocked on neighbors' doors to beg for food stamps; who shared a tiny duplex with more than a dozen people and slept wherever there was room for him on the floor. "Crackheads in my house, potato chips and peanut butter for dinner — my life was shit all the way to college," says Bryant. The news is decidedly better these days: His mother, Angela, has cleaned her act up and is stable and married (to a woman, as it turns out); his siblings avoided the snake pit of drugs and have never been to prison or rehab; and Bryant, at 26, has the world at his feet, after carrying it on his back since he could walk. 

So why, sitting across from me at a plush hotel in Dallas, is he cartwheeling between outrage and wracking sobs, vowing to "show those motherfuckers who did me dirty"? Why is he so wounded by the bargaining machinations of reptilian Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who had refused to make him a five-year offer at the going rate for franchise wide receivers? And why is he spitting fire at the man who gave him refuge after he'd been booted out of Oklahoma State football in 2009, calling David Wells, a black businessman in Dallas and a longtime trusted proxy of the Cowboys, a "thief and a liar" who Bryant says ripped him off?

The answer is, it's football, which is as brutal off the field as anything you've ever seen on Sunday. Betrayal, race politics and a purported Walmart tape that may or may not depict a lurid crime: This one's the Super Bowl of player/owner battles, a midnight game of chicken between two bent-for-leather drivers, with the Cowboys' season hanging on the brink.

When you go back a decade and watch video clips of Bryant playing football in high school, what you see is a kid who, in every sense of the word, looked unstoppable in life. He wasn't just taller and tauter than those guarding him, with a condor's wingspan and an air-walker's way of taking the game three feet off the ground. He also had the knowledge — the impatient body wisdom — that he was going places the other kids weren't. It's there in every movement: the one-hand grabs; the whipsaw cuts after the catch. Even when he scores, it's clear he's just marking time. I'm ready for my close-up, Commissioner Goodell.

Ten years later, the stakes have changed, but Bryant's still a man against boys. At six feet two and 216 pounds, he's LeBron in cleats. The game's most productive wideout since 2012 (almost 4,000 yards total, and more touchdowns — by far — than any other receiver in the game), he's essentially become Dallas' passing attack. Simply put, he does what the greats have always done: makes the extraordinary look ordinary. And vice versa.

In truth, though, no one ever had it harder than Desmond D. Bryant coming up. His mother, the oldest of eight children by six fathers, was impregnated at 14 by her mother's boyfriend, MacArthur Hatton, who'd also sired two of Angela's siblings. Her mom, Virginia, left the house several months later to smoke crack. Angela quit high school, and replaced her mother in Mac's bed, functioning — at 15 — as his spouse. Hatton was in his forties when Dez was born. No one called the cops on him for statutory rape, which should give some sense of the anarchy in that family. Asked about that time, Angela merely shrugs. She had other, more pressing concerns at the moment, like feeding her boy and keeping a roof overhead, and needed Mac's help to do it.

Dez's first memory is of a squalid duplex on the wrong side of Lufkin, Texas. The town of 35,000, in East Texas, was an industrial wormhole of mills and foundries. You could make out all right there if you had a job at one of the plants, which was what Hatton had till he hurt his back. Between the pittance he earned and Angela's income as a motel housekeeper, there was usually very little to eat in the house — or often enough, nothing at all.

"I'm talking at least 15 people," says Bryant. "You'd be lucky if you had a Hot Pocket for dinner. We used to eat at Salvation Army on the regular, when the neighbors couldn't help us out."

Desperate, Angela started slinging crack to make the rent. By the time Dez hit grade school, Mac was off living elsewhere, and she was selling from her door. Dez would come home to find crackheads hanging out — and his exhausted mother buckling under the strain. "The drug game wasn't going how it should go, I guess, and she would get mad and take it out on me," he says. "Hit me with a pipe and threw a car amp at me — slashed me across the back."

Angela got arrested when Dez was nine and served a year and a half in prison for narcotics. He and his two full siblings — both sired by Hatton — moved in with Mac and two of his other kids; Mac barely seemed to notice they were there. "We never, ever had that guidance, as far as report cards and homework," says Bryant. "We just did whatever the hell we wanted to do." (In Mac's defense, he never learned to read or write, and he needed his daughter to read his mail to him.)

Luckily, all Bryant ever wanted to do was have a football in his hands. He gets somber recalling his first day in pads: "Me and my mom" — she was out of prison by then — "went down to the field to sign me up. But when they told us that we needed, you know, to pay for the equipment, we . . . well, we didn't have the . . . " He breaks off abruptly and ducks his head, holding it in both hands as he sobs. "But I swear on my life, I was blessed that day," says Bryant after composing himself. "There was this abandoned trailer, and on the stoop outside, I seen these shoulder pads and helmet sitting there. The craziest shit was, they actually fit me. I stole those, man. I stole 'em and I played."

A tailback and a safety his freshman year of high school, he switched to varsity receiver as a sophomore when Lufkin's wideout got hurt — and he scored the first two times they threw him the ball. Off the field, however, it was protean warfare just to make it to the end of every day. Behind in academics and prone to verbal outbursts, he'd been shunted off to special-ed classrooms since middle school. "His disabilities were emotional, not intellectual, but he'd slipped through the cracks," says Brooke Stafford, a teacher and coach at Lufkin High who put together a program to rescue Bryant. Knowing he couldn't play college ball if he continued on the special-ed track, Stafford recruited a team of teachers to tutor Bryant. They crammed three years of learning into 18 months, and attended to his other, dire needs. "He'd literally have nothing to eat except what he got at school, so we took turns feeding Dez on our dime," says Stafford. Miraculously, Bryant rallied to receive a diploma and to meet the requirements for an NCAA scholarship. 

At home, though, Dez had hopped from one fire to another when his father moved in with his girlfriend Deidre, the woman who would become his wife. They were 10 people living in a double-wide trailer, including Mac's five kids and her three. "She put this padlock on the fridge, like a big old bike chain, and only opened it up to feed her kids," Bryant says. (Deidre Hatton, reached in Jasper, Texas, where she remains with Mac, who's beset by a cluster of serious ailments, disputes that claim, saying that she and Mac did lock the fridge — but only to keep all eight of the kids from eating them out of house and home.)

Soon, says Bryant, she was kicking his siblings to the curb: first his half-sister Ebony, who was 18 and pregnant, then Shaun, 17. Next, it was Dez's turn to hit the street; he got tossed out at the end of his junior year. Deidre denies that she pushed out Dez's siblings, saying they left on their own, and that "me, Mac and my God know what happened." She does concede that she forced Dez to leave, saying, "Dez had a problem with rules and the 'no' word." Happily, his girlfriend's family took him in; the months he spent on their couch were the most stable (and nutritious) of his teens.

This, then, was the Bryant who left for college in 2007 and entered the pro draft three years later: a battle-hardened kid with his eyes on the prize, but whose only life skill was catching a ball. "As good a player as I've ever had, but, man, he had a tough time getting to class," says Gunter Brewer, the wide-receivers coach at North Carolina who coached Randy Moss in college and was Bryant's position coach at OSU. "But he wanted so bad to do the right thing, and he didn't have a stitch of malice or horseshit to him." Bryant was an instant star in college, setting records as a freshman and making All-America as a sophomore. But just weeks into his junior year, he was suspended for the season by the NCAA for a minor infraction. Over the summer of 2009, he'd had dinner with his idol Deion Sanders, the Hall of Fame cornerback. When the NCAA asked about it, Bryant panicked and lied, saying he'd never set foot in Sanders' house. Suddenly, he was out of football and quit college as well, with six months to kill before the draft.

Bryant did have a fallback number to dial, though. At an awards dinner that winter, he'd been given an introduction to a very big man around Dallas. David Wells, a cousin of Texas Tech star Michael Crabtree, was presented to Bryant as an urban fixer, a wealthy former bail bondsman who rescued lost souls, particularly those who played for the Dallas Cowboys. Over the phone, Wells told Bryant he could stay in a room in his house and he would cover his expenses. Without discussing terms or a rate of repayment, he bought Bryant the things he'd always craved and never had: expensive jeans and Air Jordans and a Tahoe to knock around Dallas in. The two bonded so tightly that Bryant stayed with Wells through his first couple of years in the league, and had Wells handle his endorsements and in-store signings. Oh, and one more thing: Until he learned to manage a checkbook, Bryant granted Wells power of attorney to oversee his financial matters. It was a decision he's still regretting six years later.

The days ticked down to the contract deadline in July; both sides dug in and didn't budge. The Cowboys, who'd made Bryant a specious offer — nine years, $90 million, only $12 million guaranteed; by comparison, the Detroit Lions gave Calvin Johnson $113 million, the first $53 million guaranteed — and dared Bryant to cave, betting that he was broke or very near it. Meanwhile, Bryant vowed to hold out into the season and sell off what he owned, if need be. "I came from nothing and got no problem going back there," he says. "Mr. Jones thinks he knows me, but he don't know shit."

Now, most contract standoffs between men who've made millions aren't very interesting to those who haven't. But this fight was the exception in that it was never about dollars. From the beginning of his tenure in silver-and-blue, Bryant had been typecast as a stock persona: the Crazy Motherfucker whose mind-blowing gifts front a genius for self-destruction. It's a trope as old as the franchise itself: Hollywood Henderson, the crazed-dog blitzer who sucked down cocaine during games from an inhaler he stashed in his pads; and, most famously, Michael Irvin, the cosmic receiver with black-hole cravings for hookers and headlines. Two days before his 30th birthday, Irvin was busted by cops in a hot-sheet Dallas motel, where he was found with 10 grams of coke, an ounce of pot and a couple of "self-employed models." Fourteen years later, Jerry Jones anointed Bryant the Next Great Cowboy. So was Bryant initiated, and so perceived: the latest in a long line of head-job talents, all of whom just happened to be black.

"When I got to Dallas, they had this picture of me as somebody that I wasn't," says Bryant. "I was this crazy dude who was out all the time and spending up his money left and right. Man, all I ever bought was some clothes and two cars — and one of those cars was for my girlfriend."

In fact, say people close to him — Antonio Johnson, his schoolboy buddy who played at Baylor with Robert Griffin III; and his half-brother Shaun and full brother Deon, both of whom live with Bryant — Dez is uneasy hanging out in clubs and anxious around groups of strangers. He rarely has a drink, has never touched a drug and is obsessive about his body, working out twice a day on days off. For one so expressive on sidelines and in end zones, where he swaggers and nods at opposing fans, crossing his marbled forearms in an X, there's something recessive, almost bashful, about him, as though he's flummoxed by the company of adults. "The thing that sticks out about him is his innocence, which is infectious and needs protecting," says Tony Romo, the Cowboys' quarterback. "His passion is so intense — even in practice — that guys have no choice but to match his level."

But his vehemence — and his casual disregard for structure; he was often late to meetings and team functions — were read by the Cowboys as markers of something darker: a ghetto man-child's taste for sin and squalor. They seemed to have taken his early missteps for proof he couldn't be trusted: an episode at a mall in which he and some of his friends were tossed for wearing sagging jeans; civil suits filed by a couple of jewelers, claiming they'd been stiffed for bling. And when Bryant was arrested, in the summer of 2012, for striking his mother during a family spat, the Cowboys stepped in and put their boot heel to him with an unprecedented set of conditions. In a contract, according to Bryant's legal team, he agreed to pay Wells $17,000 a month for 24-hour security; to be home by midnight, and install cameras to record his comings and goings; and to bar anyone, including friends and family, from paying visits without prior consent from Wells.

It's unclear why Bryant would sign such a pact; he himself is murky on the subject. Tied to Wells in some ill-defined way in the three-plus years he'd been in Dallas, Bryant had come to believe that his mentor was stealing from him. There were marketing checks, he says, that he never received, and believes Wells pocketed. "I was done with him, man — I'd seen through his shit," says Bryant. "But then the thing happened with my mom, and that just let him right back in again."

That "thing with my mom" is equally obscure. Angela Bryant, who lives close to Dez outside Dallas and has had no trouble with the law in six years, says he'd been arguing with one of his brothers over a bottle of Sprite taken from his fridge. "Next thing, they're at my house raising their voices, and I had to step between 'em to try to squash it," she says. Indignant, Dez shoved her aside to continue shouting; Angela called the cops not because she'd been pushed but because "I couldn't calm Dez down no kind of way."

He was charged with a misdemeanor for domestic assault, though Angela urged the DA not to file: "Dez got a temper that he needed to get a hold of, not to get hit with a case." Bryant's charges were dismissed after he agreed to counseling. Since then he's had no other encounters with law enforcement. By Dallas Cowboys standards, that makes him a saint. This is the team, after all, that went out last spring and signed Greg Hardy, a player who beat and choked a woman. (The charges were later dismissed.) Yet "they treat me like I'm some kind of one-man crime wave," Bryant says. "I told Mr. Jones, 'I'm not Michael Irvin,' but he wasn't trying to hear me out." 

Afraid that the Cowboys would cut or trade him if he didn't accede to their terms, he signed the agreement to let them garnish his salary to cover Wells' fee each month (though the money ended up coming out of one of his bank accounts instead of his paycheck.) Meanwhile, Wells had power of attorney, which meant he had access to Bryant's bank accounts, where his game checks were wired. It wasn't until last winter, after hiring Roc Nation, that he got a fuller sense of what he calls "the foul play" involved.

Per a review of his finances by TravisWolff, an accounting firm he hired last February, between $700,000 and $900,000 of Bryant's money went to Wells or unidentified accounts. This included $377,000 paid to Wells or companies owned by him (part of which was the $17,000 monthly payments), an estimated $85,000 went to insure six cars not in Bryant's name, at least one of which belonged to Wells, and checks made out to Bryant that his financial team still hasn't been able to locate. Wells denies any wrongdoing. "I've made over $10 million, so why would I need his money?" says Wells. "Do you know who took care of Dez during the lockout? It was me, that's who!"

Bryant's team, for its part, continues to try to untangle the financial mess. "As an agent with fiduciary duties to his client, Wells would have had the right to take his agreed-upon fee," says Jordan Siev, a lawyer at Reed Smith who sometimes works with incoming Roc Nation clients. "But it wouldn't give him the right to help himself to additional funds of Dez's."

So who is David Wells, and how did this hulking ex-bail bondsman work his way into the Dallas Cowboys' graces? Six years before he came to Jones' attention as the burly bodyguard for Michael Irvin, he was a uniformed auxiliary for the Dallas Police Department who got fired over a missing pair of boxing gloves. He then became a private eye specializing in rounding up witnesses for trial. This connected him with judges and prominent lawyers like state Sen. Royce West, who later helped Wells put out a shingle for David's Bail Bonds without Wells investing a single dime of his own. (West also represented Irvin and Bryant in their legal troubles.) In short order, Wells was rolling around town in a Navigator with vanity tags that said bail me. Cash poured in but didn't always go out: In 2008, Wells pleaded guilty to tax evasion to avoid doing time. According to Bryant's legal team, Wells has been sued multiple times — for everything from fraud to unpaid debts and nonpayment of city taxes, with judgments exceeding $1 million.

Remarkably, none of this troubled the Cowboys, who've retained him to run background checks on players. Over the phone, Wells claimed to have served the team as a "crisis-management expert" since the 1990s, when he assisted Irvin in completing his community-service hours after Irvin pleaded no contest to felony cocaine possession. Describing himself as the "black Ray Donovan," he told me he'd worked closely with many fallen stars, including Erik Williams, an All-Pro lineman accused of gang rape (the allegations were later proved false); and Pacman Jones, who was a one-man crime wave when Dallas obtained him from Tennessee (six arrests in two years as a Titan, a season-long suspension and an ugly altercation in a Vegas strip club that culminated in three people shot). Asked what he'd done to try to put those men right, Wells says, "I'm one of the most credible people in courthouse circles, and have a relationship with every sitting judge in Dallas and with three different district attorneys."

In two conversations lasting a total of an hour and a half, we went point for point through his dealings with Bryant. In the first call, he said he'd spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on Bryant and his family; let him live rent-free the first three years he was in Dallas; paid at least part of Bryant's jewelry debts, a total sum of nearly $1 million; created lucrative deals for him with Air Jordan and BioSteel — and never received "a dime back for any of that from Dez."

However, Bryant's tax adviser John Karls tells a vastly different story. He claims there was a bank account set up under the name "David Wells c/o Dez Bryant" that Dez couldn't touch, and it received $75,000 in wires from the deal with BioSteel. Additionally, Karls says, electronic payments were made out of Bryant's accounts for mortgage and monthly bills with Wells' name in the transaction description during 2010-13, the same time Wells says Bryant was living rent-free at his house. As for the nearly $1 million jewelry debt? Bryant took a bank loan from Chambers Bank to pay that off. Presented with these facts, Wells responds: "If Roc Nation wants to bring charges, they're welcome to. But they better be aware of everything that's out there, 'cause I'm gonna be able to depose Dez Bryant — and I know things that they don't."

This, then, is the man the Cowboys turned to in 2012 when Bryant was arrested for pushing his mother. "Dez was under scrutiny from law enforcement, and there were people trying to take advantage of him," says Stephen Jones, Jerry Jones' oldest son and the Cowboys' COO. "We thought it was in his and our best interests to protect him with more security." Stunned, Bryant told Jerry Jones he wouldn't pay Wells, but Jones, he says, insisted.

For the next two and a half years, Bryant paid and seethed, counting down the days till his Dallas deal ended and he could fire Wells — who says he still works with the Cowboys. (The Cowboys confirm that they have paid Wells to provide background information on prospective players, but say that they've never hired him to work with individual players on the team.)

When Bryant signed with Roc Nation last November, the reaction in Dallas was reportedly toxic. Word spread that Bryant had "gone against the wishes" of Jerry Jones and that Jones was "reluctant to deal with Roc Nation," as if Bryant had switched over to Death Row Records, not a top sports-rep shop. Then someone turned the dog whistle of race up till it was practically deafening. ESPN's Adam Schefter said he'd spent months digging for a security-cam tape of Bryant assaulting a woman in a Walmart parking lot. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk went him one better, saying the release of the video was "inevitable" and that "we're going to see something in the next month." Rumors swirled all winter that the tape was being shopped, and that the act it depicted was "five times worse" than Ray Rice's punch-out of his fiancée. Bryant had a hunch where all this came from.

"The first time I heard that was from Mr. Jones last season: He said there was a tape of me that might get out," says Bryant. He'd scoffed at Jones, saying that no such thing existed. Then Schefter and Florio aired their stories in February, and Bryant took to Twitter in a rage. "I can't continue to get betrayed like this," he wrote. "I used to let people take advantage of my life. Now that I'm no longer allowing that to happen, it seems to be a problem." The tape never surfaced, and local cops put the story to rest, saying they'd looked into the tape's existence and found nothing. In my last call to Wells, I asked if he had leaked the story, either to the Joneses or to the media. He denied it, saying that if Bryant thought so, then so be it. "But have you seen the police report? Have you heard the 911 call? Something happened in that parking lot, and I didn't drum it up!"

It's worth noting that Wells says he was at Cowboys camp both times we spoke. Why was he staying at the team hotel and attending practices that first week? "I'm in camp to help any player Jerry sends my way," says Wells, though he declined to mention names. Wondering if he meant Randy Gregory and La'el Collins, two ballyhooed but scandal-tainted Cowboys rookies, I asked Bryant if he planned to warn them. "Man, I'm way ahead of you," he says. "I called them the minute they joined the team. And just let Dave try to mess with Greg Hardy. He'll slap the bitch right outta him!"

Two days before the deadline, I called Bryant's agent. No progress, Tom Condon said with a sigh. And then, on July 14th, Jerry Jones and Roc Nation agreed to a last-ditch sit-down in New York. He met with Jay Z and the sports agency's president, Juan Perez; the shape of an agreement quickly came together. Late that night, Bryant's agent told him over the phone that they'd gotten something too good to pass up: a five-year deal for $70 million, with $45 million of it guaranteed. In short, Jones had caved after having his bluff called. He wasn't willing to blow his first shot in two decades at reaching a Super Bowl, or fracture a team so dependent on Bryant for his fire and big-play bravura. "His passion sets the tone for us," Romo told me. "If he'd held out through camp, I'd have driven to his house and handed him my game check to suit up."

Bryant got off the phone with his agent at 3 a.m.; he immediately called his mom to break the news. When the ringing didn't wake her, he drove to her place. They sat up laughing and crying till dawn, reliving their long, strange road out of Lufkin. "So many hard times, so many tears — but look where my baby brought us to," says Angela Bryant, still a little throaty days later. "The stuff they talked about him, the lies they put out there: They don't know what he's been through. But people need to find out, 'cause it's a beautiful story. He's a miracle — and that's not just Mama talking."