OXNARD, Calif. – Dez Bryant didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether he wanted to be one of the Cowboys’ leaders.
That was going to happen, one way or another. Simply put, young players are going to follow superstars. But Bryant gets to decide the kind of example and tone he’ll set.
Laugh if you want at the thought of Bryant as a leader. Go ahead and crack jokes about the immaturity that caused him to drop in the draft and detoured his path to greatness. Just know that the fact that Bryant embraces the role is a phenomenal development for the Cowboys.
Like it or not, Bryant was going to be a leader. He’s determined to make sure he leads in the right direction.
“I know a lot of the new guys look up to me,” Bryant said. “I try to let them know what I know and, at the same time, still learn. So I try to come out and be the best I can each and every day and go to work.”
To be clear, Bryant wants to be a leader for the Cowboys, not the leader. He has the utmost respect for Tony Romo, in particular, and the rest of the team’s established veterans and wants to help them lead the Cowboys back into the playoffs.
In other words, unlike the last superstar receiver to play for the Cowboys, Bryant will never cause factions to form in the Valley Ranch locker room. He wants to win championships, not popularity contests.
Bryant believes he can help young teammates avoid the mistakes he made during his first few seasons in the league. In fact, he considers that to be one of his responsibilities.
There’s certainly no guarantee that a matured Bryant never takes another off-field misstep, but one doesn’t necessarily need to be a flawless human being for be an outstanding leader for a football team. The previous elite playmaker who wore No. 88 for the Cowboys is Exhibit A for that.
One thing that Bryant has in common with Michael Irvin, other than a number, is a burning passion for the game. There are precious few players in the league who practice or play harder than Bryant, who dives for balls during a July practice in Oxnard like he’s playing in a January playoff game.
That’s the part of Bryant that head coach Jason Garrett wants to rub off on the rest of the Cowboys.
“Dez is a very influential guy,” Garrett said. “I think when young players come in and see how he practices, see his passion for the game, boy, that influences them. This is how you play at this level. And to be honest with you, guys who are his contemporaries, guy who are older than him, more veteran players see him and say, ‘Wow, this is how you’re supposed to do it.’
“Dez is leading by how he’s practicing. He loves the game and practices really hard and plays really hard. I think that’s infectious. It’s a great example for his teammates.”
That part comes easy for Bryant. The football field has long been his comfort zone, dating to the days when life was hard in Lufkin, Texas.
"You’ve got to love this game to be great," Bryant said. "Truth be told, I love this game so much. Even if we weren’t getting paid, I’d still be probably be out and be a football player. That’s what I love to do."
But Bryant doesn’t want to be a positive role model only when he’s wearing a helmet and shoulder pads. He wants his year-round work ethic to be an example for teammates to follow, much like Jason Witten has been for Bryant and others.
That’s why Bryant reached out to Terrance Williams minutes after the Cowboys selected the Baylor receiver in the third round of the draft.
“He sent me a tweet and told me, ‘Welcome to the team and we’ve gotta work,’” Williams said. “I continued to work with him all offseason and before we came here. Just getting caught up to speed, taking tips from him. I’m learning from him and Miles (Austin). They’re great teachers.”
Again, Bryant’s choice is to be a positive influence. He was going to be an influence one way or the other.
If Bryant accepted mediocrity, that’d rub off on guys like Williams and fifth-round pick Joseph Randle, a fellow Oklahoma State alum.
Bryant had to learn how to be a professional the last few years. He’s had the importance of punctuality and paying attention to detail hammered into his head, and now he’s eager to pass it on.
Give Garrett credit here. He persistently delivered his message to Bryant until it got through. It's become part of Bryant, so much so that he naturally mixes Garrett-isms into conversation, believing every word he says when talking about "stacking days together" and such.
"That’s real, man," Bryant said. "That’s real."
Now, Bryant intends to be one of Garrett's messengers.
His priorities are straight. His passion is contagious. And his performance guarantees that others will pay attention to him. Those are a few pretty good qualities to look for in a leader.