Dez Bryant has a role model handy

OXNARD, Calif. -- One of the best examples for Dez Bryant on how to overcome a wretched upbringing and become an elite NFL player and role model shares the huddle with the 23-year-old receiver just about every play.

His name: Jason Witten.

The Dallas Cowboys' perennial Pro Bowl tight end grew up in a household in which he regularly watched his father slap his mother and beat and curse her.

Finally, when Witten was 11, his mother moved her three young sons back to her hometown of Elizabethton, Tenn., and asked her father to care for the boys because she couldn't do it.

"A lot of people had it worse than I did and a lot of people had it better than I did," said Witten, "but I was never going to allow that circumstance to be a crutch for me, and I was able to turn out this way."

Bryant, as most of you know, grew up with little parental discipline in Lufkin, Texas, about 175 miles southeast of Dallas.

Angela Bryant gave birth to her eldest son, Dez, when she was 14. As a teenager, Dez Bryant bounced from house to house in Lufkin, searching for a sofa or a bed or a floor on which to lay his head at night.

Sometimes he ate. Other times he didn't.

Most days, Lufkin High School's assistant football coaches showed up to work with extra sandwiches or snacks in case Dez needed to eat.

That's because Angela spent a portion of Dez's formative years in jail for selling drugs, and Dez has said his father asked him to move out because he didn't get along with his stepmother.

Dez Bryant isn't the only professional athlete with a childhood he'd prefer to forget. Neither is Witten.

And this isn't about who had it worse. Or how come Bryant just can't get over his childhood and grow up.

It's not that simple.

Each of us handles success and failure and adversity different.

But a childhood none of us would wish on our enemy isn't an excuse for not conforming to society's rules. Or your employers'.

These days, Bryant is finally getting the message that rules apply to him. Understand, he might not have thought that, as absurd as it sounds, because we're talking about a young man who's never really had any structure in his life off the field until now.

Now he has security personnel with him virtually everywhere he goes. The restrictions he's had placed upon him by the Cowboys are designed to keep him out of trouble, so he can maximize his immense potential.

The reality is Bryant must ultimately decide for himself what he wants out of his life.

That's where he can use Witten as an example. Witten made a conscious decision to overcome his situation and become the best man, football player and athlete he could become.

Thus far, it appears he's achieved it.

He's earned more money than his children's children can probably spend. He's created a foundation, S.C.O.R.E, that helps victims of domestic violence. One day, he'll be in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor because he's been among the NFL's best tight ends for nearly a decade.

Bryant can do the same types of things in his life. All he has to do is make a choice.

"You gotta have people to guide you and believe in those dreams with you and kind of show you the way," Witten said, "but there's something inside of you that kind of wires you a certain way that says no one is going to define who I am.

"That bad decision he made or they made time and time again isn't going to get in the way of what I am and what I want to become."

This isn't about putting Witten on some lofty pedestal and imploring Bryant to emulate him. We've seen all too often what happens when we look up to role models who turn out to be flawed.

That said, it seems obvious Witten will be contributing to Dallas-Fort Worth and society long after his NFL career ends. What a success story it would be if we're saying the same types of things about Bryant a decade from now.

All he needs to do is follow the example he sees in the Cowboys' huddle each day.