I am a full-time live-in director at a sober-living halfway house in a small city in Indiana. The organization I work for houses men who are usually recovering from addictions and trying to rebuild their lives after years in and out of shelters, prison cells, and back alleys.
I say usually because every now and then we get a resident who has thrown away a good life. Six figures can disappear pretty quickly if you have no regard for your own well being. Success is no guard against destructive behavior and can sometimes even be a trigger.
Whenever I hear a story in the NFL about a player who’s struggling with so-called "off the field" issues, I take particular interest (especially if they’re a Dallas Cowboy). I want them to succeed because I know all the more what kind of possibilities they have in front of them. There is obviously a vast array of monetary opportunities at their fingertips, and of course the chance to play for the greatest team in the NFL—but what’s more is they have the opportunity to do something they love with the support of friends, teammates, and coaches.
Enter Dez Bryant.
I’ve always liked Dez. From the time he was drafted to this day I’ve never understood why the criticism has been so severe. Yes, he seemed to struggle with his routes early on and yes, he did seem to slow down as the games progressed—but his numbers were always solid and have only gotten better.
Even off the field things seemed to be magnified. Maybe it’s because it’s Dallas or maybe it’s because Dez’s issues paled in comparison to those of the men with whom I live and work, but it’s important to remember that the man has never been convicted of a felony or suspended from a single NFL game.
All of that aside, I realize perception is everything. Whether deserved or not, Dez came to be a symbol for every young player of color with incredible skill that seemed to be going to waste.
Dez had all the things people look for when creating the stereotype. He is an African American male born to a young mother who abused drugs and a come and go father. He had to move around from school to school all while honing his craft on the football field. He goes to school and puts up incredible numbers only to get suspended for violating the NCAA’s rules.
And it seemed to be moving in a downward direction—legal fees and jewelry debts, scuffles with security guards and rappers. I have to be honest. I, like many others, began to get that familiar sinking feeling. It’s the feeling I get all the time at work—someone understands what they need to do but with every step forward there are a couple steps back. Many of us began to wonder when the dam would finally break—a major arrest, a felony conviction, or worse. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Dez seemed to be falling into the stereotype that had most likely been put on him at a very young age.
When it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, they did, and Dez was taken in on domestic violence charges. But something happened that I’m not sure will be appreciated until time allows for more perspective.
In my line of work we talk a lot about "rock bottom." It’s a phrase used all the time in regular life but it has a very important meaning in the world of addictions. It’s that moment when your life sinks so low that only one of two things is going to happen—you’re either going to get one more fix and die or you’re going to get help. It’s the most terrible kind of suffering but it’s also often the only thing that saves a person’s life.
I’m not saying Dez was in jeopardy of death, nor am I going to speak for the man and say he hit his own rock bottom, but I do know that Dez did something, and is still doing something, that deserves far more credit than it has been given.
Dez got help and he trusted in the process.
He reached out to his coach and his teammates. He found those people in his life with whom he could place his trust and he allowed them to help. In a culture and a league that values power, dominance, and strength, Dez owned up to his own weaknesses and did the right thing. It was sad that certain people within the media had the gall to make this a point of criticism, that a "grown man" would need "babysitters." This shows not only a total lack of empathy and understanding but sheds light on larger cultural issues regarding circumstances and behavior.
This is all one of the reasons I think Jason Garrett’s message of "process" is so important for not only football but life. Becoming the person we are supposed to be does not often happen once and for all time. It takes years full of days full of moments making the right choices. Dez is the perfect example of how Garrett’s process-oriented leadership has not only made for better football players over the last few years but has tangibly made a positive impact in the lives of the men on this team.
You can see it on the practice field during training camp and so far under the lights of these pre-season games. You can also hear it in the interviews with not only Dez but also every other player on this team. Focus, accountability, trust, and hard work—these sound like clichés but they are the building blocks for winning football teams and, in my experience at the halfway house, sober living.
My hope is that one day Dez will no longer be a symbol for wasted potential but a symbol for positive process. I hope he puts up the incredible numbers he’s capable of. I hope he has a long Hall-of-Fame-worthy career. But more importantly, I hope he continues to be a positive role model for his teammates and every other person who has at one point been defined by their weaknesses, but who made the choice to stay focused, keep working, and reach out.