By SCHUYLER DIXON
AP Sports Writer
OXNARD, Calif. — Dez Bryant moves from one set of autograph-seekers to another, fans screaming his name while he signs footballs and jerseys — and a baby.
The Dallas receiver is the star of training camp, playing like a leader and even talking like one after his first trouble-free offseason in three years.
The high-risk draft pick who fell to the Cowboys late in the first round in 2010 is very close to getting reclassified as high-reward — if he’s not already there.
“I’m just impressed at this stage with how he’s handled himself,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “Those that are the closest to him, those that have a dog in the fight, so to speak, which our fans do — a lot of other people are rooting for Dez, too — it’s a consensus that he’s making great strides.”
Bryant’s lowest point in a series of misadventures came last summer, when he was arrested on a misdemeanor family violence charge over an incident involving his mother. He struck a deal with prosecutors a few months later that could lead to a clean record and was one of the best receivers in the league in the second half of a breakthrough season.
Coming off career bests of 1,382 yards, 12 touchdowns and three games played with a broken finger, Bryant has been downright dominant early in training camp. He soars over starting cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne to make catches and is diving for balls more than six weeks before the regular season starts.
“Truth be told, I love this game so much,” Bryant said Tuesday. “Even if we weren’t getting paid, I’d still be probably be out and be a football player. That’s what I love to do. You’ve got to have a strong passion to be great.”
There was never any questioning Bryant’s talent or passion. But he missed most of his final season at Oklahoma State for lying about meeting with Deion Sanders, and there were whispers that he was late for team meetings in college and enigmatic when it came to pro workout days.
He didn’t help himself after his rookie year when he created a scene over sagging pants at an upscale mall about the same time he was sued for unpaid jewelry bills.
So to hear him tell a huge media contingent it was time to be a role model for younger players while the fans clamored for his attention, well, things have changed.
“I think there’s no backwards for me,” Bryant said. “I feel like I’ve got that role here to lead by example doing all the right things and me being in that role to make sure these guys are doing the right thing. Not only on the field but off the field. It don’t feel like, ‘Hey, I’m structured, I got to do this.’ I’m doing it out of my own heart. This is the type of guy I am. I’m not a bad guy.”
Bryant was already on his way to making believers out of his teammates last year when he broke his left index finger against Cincinnati and went on to catch a crucial touchdown pass after the injury in a come-from-behind win.
Coach Jason Garrett says the Cowboys seriously considered putting him in season-ending injured reserve, but decided not to in part because Bryant went into Garrett’s office and made an emotional plea to keep playing.
Bryant started two of the three remaining games, set a career high with 224 yards against New Orleans and vowed to be on his feet again quickly after coming home from a season-ending loss at Washington in a wheelchair with a back injury.
“How do you influence other people? Dez is a very influential guy,” Garrett said. “I think when young players come in, see how he practices, see his passion for the game, boy that influences them. And to be honest with you, guys who are his contemporaries, guys who are older than him, more veteran players see him and say, ‘Wow that’s how you’re supposed to do it.’”
For Bryant, it’s all a matter of payback — to Jones for drafting him, to Garrett for giving him time to mature, to Tony Romo for trusting him enough to start throwing his way in tight situations when there were problems with that even as recently as early last season.
“They stuck their neck out for me and they stayed with me,” Bryant said. “The time when I didn’t understand certain things, they did their best to help me understand things. And those things that I do understand now, that makes me that much more of a better person.”
And the star of training camp.