DESOTO, Texas -- "I hate the word diva, by the way," Dez Bryant said, his eyes ablaze with passion, his raspy voice nearly trembling with intensity. "I hate it. That fits me nowhere."
We were 30 minutes into a sit-down interview for NFL Network's "NFL GameDay Morning" -- one that had been perilously close to erupting into a surly screaming match before it began -- and I decided a little comic relief was in order.
"In fairness," I said, interrupting, "I kind of have my diva moments."
Bryant smiled. I smiled back. "I apologize, Mike," he said, and then we were essentially hugging it out on camera, letting go of five days' worth of tension and accessing four-plus years of goodwill and common ground.
We were sitting in the house of Bryant's advisor, David Wells, a room removed from the place where we'd conducted our first conversation, in April 2010. It was the night before Bryant would be picked in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, and he was still reeling from an unpleasant, probing pre-draft process that left him hurt and confused.
For what it's worth, he expressed his distaste for the D-word that night -- "I'm too rough to be a diva ... There's nothing diva about me," he said then -- and, well after midnight, he told me something that left me open-mouthed and speechless: During a pre-draft interview, one team's high-level executive had asked him if his mother was a prostitute.
Not surprisingly, this had not gone over well.
When I revealed a few days later that the executive in question had been then-Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, the story exploded -- and Bryant and I shared the belief that we'd done something to effect positive change. While I understood that he was a raw, immature young man whose attention to detail wasn't always tip-top, I felt invested in his career and got excited as he evolved as a person and burgeoned into stardom.
This summer, I pitched a story about Bryant's growth and unlikely emergence as a leader in the Cowboys' locker room. After several conversations with Wells and Bryant, I arrived at the DeSoto Holiday Inn Express -- which is awesome, sincerely -- dropped off my bags and started shadowing Wells, with a camera crew on call, waiting for the magic to begin.
In wideout terms, it was not a simple go pattern. It was more like a stop-and-stop-and-stop-and-stop-and-stop-and-stop-and-go.
First, there were timing complications that had to be hashed out with one of Bryant's sponsors. Then Bryant, distracted by his suddenly red-hot negotiations with the Cowboys over a massive contract extension, asked to postpone our scheduled sit-down because he was in the wrong frame of mind. (The deal he thought might happen that day would soon fall apart.) The next day, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett made a last-minute schedule change that caused Bryant to attend a team meeting during the time he and I would have been chatting on camera. And the next night, I went to the Cowboys' last preseason game, after which he told me -- twice -- "we are definitely doing this tomorrow afternoon."
Well, Friday afternoon became evening, and evening became night, and when Bryant still hadn't shown up at Wells' house, I was a stressed-out mess. At that point, I got in touch with my inner diva, which in retrospect doesn't make me particularly proud. Wells' engaging wife, Linda Ngo, tried to talk me off a ledge, while Bryant's lawyer, Royce West -- a Texas state senator since 1993 -- drove to the receiver's house and implored him to honor his commitment.
When Bryant showed up, he was visibly angry. "You've got 10 minutes," he growled, storming into the house.
"Oh," I shouted, "are you in a hurry? Really? 'Cause I've been waiting five days ..."
OK, so maybe there is something diva about me.
Happily, Bryant was worth the wait. To his credit, he made a point of telling me before the interview began that "this has nothing to do with you -- I'm just dealing with some stuff." I was still grumpy, but I couldn't stay mad at the guy.
Yes, he's still got some dependability issues; surely, he remains a work in progress. That said, Bryant had a chaotic, challenging childhood and has come a long, long way. I'm convinced he's a well-intentioned soul who is making a sincere effort to be a responsible father, and his passion for his sport is palpable.
Over the next 80 minutes -- yes, that's the 10 minutes he allotted, times eight -- Bryant opened up in a way that he never had in any interview. He revealed dark moments from his past: At 8 years old, he was watching the TV news and was jolted by the haunting sight of his mother, Angela, being led away in handcuffs after a drug bust. His mom would serve 18 months in a Texas prison, and saying goodbye, Bryant recalled, "was a dagger to the chest."
At 9, Bryant -- who had witnessed relatives doing drugs on numerous occasions -- made the decision to choose football over illegal substances. In a word: heavy.
Certainly, Bryant's intense drive to succeed is fueled by anger and a profound desire to make his skeptics "swallow those words." Yet, hearing how great he is makes him even more uncomfortable.
He'd rather be dissed than have his butt kissed.
"I don't like when people give me praise," he said. "Don't be telling me I'm good! I don't want to hear that!"
And for all his success, and the adulation that comes with it, Bryant still has trouble trusting others -- Wells is an obvious exception -- and sometimes struggles to form connections.
"You know still, to this day, I believe that not a lot of people care about me," he told me. "I believe that, and I think that's what gives me a lot of fuel."
For whatever it's worth -- even though he sometimes drives me crazy -- I do care about Bryant. I'm both heartened by his journey and excited about what lies ahead, and I think you'll understand him a bit better after you tune in to "NFL GameDay Morning" this Sunday.