Ask Dez Bryant about the pain and listen up. The passionate Dallas Cowboys wide receiver has learned a lot in recent weeks about what his body can endure.
On top of rushing back from the fractured foot that sidelined him for five games, he’s battled a sprained knee. During the summer, a pulled hamstring wrecked his training camp.
It has been one thing or another, which many players can attest sums up life in the grueling NFL.
“It’s in my mind,” Bryant told USA TODAY Sports, pointing to his head.
“I’ve never in my life had a season like this. That’s why a lot of people ain’t really seen me talk too much (stuff), lately. Just because. I’ve been too busy trying to focus, instead of thinking about things you shouldn’t be thinking about.”
Bryant, 27, is trash-talking less on the field, but he’s proud to report, “I’m still Dez.”
That means frequently expressing his emotions, which over the years the Cowboys have come to accept as a positive part of his package. Sure, he might blow up – like he did in blasting the media in the locker room a few weeks ago – but, well, he cares.
“Like me and my brother talked about, I could have easily shut this down a long time ago,” Bryant said, when I asked him to describe his trying season. “Straight up, shut it down. That’s not me, man. You know, things creep in. Something is telling you something in this ear, something in the other ear. I’m me, man.
“(Expletive) that, I’m a competitor! I want to get out on the field. I want to play football. This is what I love. I don’t care what nobody thinks, what nobody says. I just want to win.”
No doubt, Bryant seemed poised to erupt during the first half of the victory at the Washington Redskins on Monday night when the Matt Cassel-led passing game was woefully out of sync. Of at least three glaring misconnections, none was more disconcerting than a third-down misfire in the red zone, when Bryant was open for a chance at a touchdown. The look on his face spoke volumes.
Explaining that to the group of reporters who surrounded his locker shortly after the game, Bryant said, “I’ll be honest: On that one, I was frustrated. But then, you’ve just got to understand. It’s the game. Everybody wants to make plays. Everybody wants to be there for the team. So it is what it is.”
Cassel, who won for the first time this season as Tony Romo’s fill-in, contended that he needs to do a better job of feeding Bryant for opportunities to make plays. He’s right. Whatever slim chances the Cowboys have to rally to a playoff berth will need the impact of their best playmaker.
The Cowboys left Washington at 4-8, but in the sorry NFC East that puts them just one game behind the other three teams in the division. With a quarter of the season to play, they somehow still have a shot at the playoffs.
On Monday night, coach Jason Garrett pointed to the team’s grit, another trait that defines Bryant. He entered the season with so many expectations to follow up on last year’s all-pro campaign and live up to the five-year, $70 million contract he signed in July. But even getting the big payday threw him off. He wasn’t a participant in the offseason programs and minicamp while stuck in franchise tag limbo. Then came the injuries.
“There’s no doubt that he was not the player that he ended last season as, because he didn’t practice through the spring, the fall and really throughout the rest of the season,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told USA TODAY Sports.
Jones considers Bryant one of the players that he has become closest to during his ownership tenure which began in 1989, in part because of attention needed to address off-field issues. He’s seen Bryant mature over the years. But he’s also learned a bit more this season with regards to the injuries.
“He is beyond description in his tolerance for pain,” Jones said. “Never seen anybody that has worked through his pain.”
Bryant believes his sacrifices have been worth it. When he faces the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field – site of the controversial reversal of his clutch fourth-down catch in the NFC divisional playoffs in January – there is still something to play for.
“Sometimes, I’ll walk with a limp in the early (part of the) week of practice,” he said. “By Friday, I’m walking straight, I’m ready to go. It’s a mind-set, man.”