Bryant was the kid on the playground who made everyone look like fat assholes. He was picked first in every game of kickball, tag, dodgeball, and red rover. He was the kid who jumped over people to catch a ball and destroyed everyone in footraces, a superhero of recess. His body was a natural asset, an asset he harnessed in the disciplined arena of athletics in the small Texas town of Lufkin where he grew up, a town that fits the bill for the kind of Texan football fanaticism that Friday Night Lights glorifies. But Lufkin isn’t so all-American dreamy: 20 percent of its residents sit below the poverty line and, until a recent crack down, it was home to a legitimate meth trade. “Growing up in Lufkin, you know, it wasn’t easy, but I don’t regret it,” says Bryant.
Born to a single teenage mother, Bryant had a family life that was perpetually in flux. His mother was incarcerated when he was eight, and he bounced around houses through high school. Still, he made his mark on the football field. When asked if his youth in Lufkin prepared him for his stardom at Oklahoma State University, Bryant takes a moment, then replies, “Truth be told, I didn’t know [much]. After my junior year, a lot of schools were interested, any school you can think of…and I started to get nervous. I never thought about me, Dez, going to a major university.”
He chose OSU because the school waited while he “stuck his head in the books” and improved his grades during his senior year of high school. Once there, Bryant took off, breaking OSU records and gaining notoriety across the nation—until a misstep that cost him big. During his junior year, he lied to NCAA investigators about a legal dinner meeting he had with mentor Deion Sanders. He was banned almost an entire season. [The NCAA forbids amateur college athletes from accepting money or gifts. As an aside, current college football star Johnny Manziel was banned only half a game for allegedly signing autographs for money.] The incident is where many of Bryant’s critics get their ammo.
NFL Draft Day 2010 rolled around. “The whole draft process, it was crazy for me. I damn near visited every team.” All Dez Bryant wanted was to be a Dallas Cowboy. Raised in east Texas, he was squarely in Cowboys country and grew up a devout fan; playing for the team would realize a dream. Luck was on his side and the Cowboys selected him late in the first round.
Now, to contextualize the recess superhero grown up: Bryant sits at 6’2” tall, 220 pounds, with 3.1 percent body fat. That takes serious work; the average human has the same body fat percentage as a free-range pig, around 20 percent. His hands measure 9 3/4 inches from the base of his palm to the tip of his middle finger—larger than both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. With the body structure of a Greek god and the hands of that pale man in Pan’s Labyrinth, Bryant is a one-of-a-kind physical specimen. But there are plenty of fit bodies in sports; it takes mental strength to actually put it all together; it takes repetition, and Bryant had that. Becoming a professional athlete was always the goal. Almost to a fault, he has considered it the only endpoint. “I told my mom, ‘I’m going to the NFL. I’ll never have a job, you won’t ever see me working,’ and I never had a job.” Had Bryant come from an affluent family, his comment might come off as snobbery, but it doesn’t. “It’s crazy, the same feeling I had when I was nine years old [about football], that feeling has not changed.”
In the 13th game of Bryant’s rookie season, he fractured his fibula, which took him out for the rest of the season with a recovery period of three to four months. Over the next two seasons, his statistics in yards, touchdowns, and receptions rose profoundly. During that time, he was also criticized harshly by the Dallas media for his missteps. Dallas writers are known to be harder on their own sports figures than the professional enemies of those sports figures. They feed the hype machine and fill the gossip column. In Bryant’s case, the leverage is firmly rooted in his past. “This is how I look at it: It all depends on where you come from, when you come out of the draft, if the politics are good or bad. If they’re bad, you’re going to get the worst end of everything, and if they’re good, you’re going to get the best of everything. When it’s bad you have to stay focused, stay grinding, and work your way up out of it.”
Bryant’s maturity in moments of criticism shines through infallibly. He believes everything he says. “I just felt like at times it wasn’t fair. They didn’t know me for who I really am. The thing about it, I’ve just been me. I’ve changed a couple of things—‘Maybe this is the reason I’m getting the negative vibe, if I do this I’ll get the positive vibe.’”
Oh, you know, just some self-help advice from an athlete who regularly barrels through opponents headfirst at break-neck speeds, an athlete who recently signed an endorsement deal with Michael Jordan’s Jordan Brand and regularly receives texts of affirmation from His Airness.
At 24 years old, Bryant’s ceiling is practically atmospheric; experts say he can be the best receiver in the NFL with ease, even by the end of this current season. And with his image on the rise, he can concentrate on what’s more important: career and family, including his sons Zayne and—you guessed it—Dez Jr. Football’s big, but family is where it’s at. “This was all a dream. We’re getting the opportunity to fulfill and see more than we ever thought.”
Photographer: Davis Factor for Artmixcreative.com. Stylist: Leila Baboi at leilababoi.com. Groomer: Kela Wong for OpusBeauty.com using Smashbox Cosmetics for face, Moroccanoil for Hair, and Sally Hansen for body. Photography Assistant: Brad Lansill. Styling Assistant: Caroline Yohanan.