Dez Bryant is playing his best stretch of games, feeling as healthy has he ever has and finally has peace.
The death of Bryant’s father last month initially brought pain and sadness, but it lifted a weight off his shoulders, allowing him to live free and play free in what he calls the most enjoyable season of his career.
“I don’t really want to talk about it, but since my dad passed I kind of feel calm,” the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver said. “I feel good. I feel like I can go do the things that I should have been doing. ... That put the icing on the cake. Some things you don’t have to think about any more or focus on.”
Bryant said he has a new understanding and a new place as the man of family.
“It just makes you look at things a little different,” Bryant acknowledged.
Bryant’s place and family has always been difficult for others to view from their own prism.
His upbringing in Lufkin was not normal, considering that his mother spent time in prison when he was young and he didn’t always live with his father or have the best relationship with him.
But there is no denying that MacArthur Hatton had a huge impact on his son’s life.
Bryant declined to expound on his relationship with his dad when interviewed shortly after Hatton’s death.
People don’t understand. They are never going to understand it. I swear, my daddy is the strongest guy I have ever seen or met in my life. Ever.
Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, on his father’s role in his life
But he recently offered a glimpse
“People don’t understand,” Bryant said. “They are never going to understand it. I swear, my daddy is the strongest guy I have ever seen or met in my life. Ever. Versus the perception that he got. Come on now, a man who dropped out of school in the sixth grade, taking care of five kids. I can go on and on about this. And look where I’m at. That alone tells you a lot.”
Bryant has been trending free and peaceful since the start of training camp. The death of his father just tied it all in a bow for him personally.
His career in Dallas has seen its share of ups and downs on and off field since owner Jerry Jones took a chance on him in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. Bryant had been ruled ineligible for his final year Oklahoma State by the NCAA for lying about a legal dinner with the NCAA.
There were run-ins with the law, tardiness, emotional incidents and bouts with immaturity that not coincidentally crescendoed during an injured-plagued 2015 season that came after he missed the off-season in a contract dispute and was capped by the worst performance of his career and a 4-12 finish for the Cowboys.
After an off-season of rehab and reflection, Bryant displayed a new air about himself during training camp. He refused to let a lawsuit with his former attorney, state Sen. Royce West, distract him.
And even when a new injury plagued him early this season, compounded by reports that he missed an MRI appointment, Bryant didn’t fall back into his immature tendencies.
Buoyed by the unwavering support of Jones, coach Jason Garrett and his teammates, he accepted responsibility for his actions and focused on getting healthy.
He’s playing at a high, high level, probably the highest I’ve seen him play at.
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, on Bryant
“You’ve got to grow,” Bryant said. “That has a big part to do with it.”
The result hasn’t been the stunning numbers of past years, namely 2012-2014, when he averaged roughly 91 catches for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns per season, resulting in a five-year, $70 million contract he signed last summer.
With 37 catches (for 634 yards and six touchdowns) through 10 games, Bryant ranks third on the team and is tied for 88th in the league.
That’s largely because he missed three games with a hairline fracture in his knee. It’s also because of a balanced offense led by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who spreads the ball around to the open receiver.
The Cowboys(11-1) are riding an 11-game winning streak and Bryant is happy.
“I feel like this is the best I have been by far,” Bryant said.
Bryant has returned to form with a vengeance, catching 21 passes for 352 yards and four touchdowns in the past four games as the Cowboys make their stretch run, beginning with Sunday’s game at the New York Giants.
He’s really running free. It doesn’t look like there is anything bothering him.
Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, on Dez Bryant’s recent surge
“He’s definitely feeling probably as good as I’ve seen him just from watching him,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “You’d have to ask him how he feels.
“He’s really running free. It doesn’t look like there is anything bothering him. I’m not saying there was, but he was dealing with a couple of things here and there earlier in the year. But he looks good.”
Bryant said he feels good because he has been taking care of his body. He believes he has the right attitude about life and football.
Veteran tight end Jason Witten has noticed his growth.
“I think just the maturity and development of him is really remarkable when you look at it,” Witten said. “To think what kind of player he was as a rookie. I mean, he loves to play and compete and do it with his teammates. That motivates everyone in this locker room. He’s playing at a high, high level, probably the highest I’ve seen him play at.”
Respect from his teammates in the locker room is what he cares about most.
It’s why he doesn’t care about his now-rising numbers, even though he needs just 366 yards in the next four games to notch his fourth career 1,000-yard season and six touchdowns to tie Hall of Famer Bob Hayes’ franchise career record of 71.
The Super Bowl and immortality as a member of a championship team is his new focus.
“You know what we’re chasing,” Bryant said. “We’ve got to focus right now to get that, and I can’t be focused on Hayes — much respect to them. If I was to get it, it’d be pretty cool. But you know what we want.”
Now that he is at peace, Bryant wants a title.
Cowboys at Giants
7:30 p.m. Sunday, KXAS/5