Despite a 93 degree muggy day in Lufkin Thursday afternoon, hundreds of Dez Bryant fans from his hometown and from as far away as North Texas, streamed into Lufkin’s Kit McConnico Park for a free BBQ and picnic that the Dallas Cowboys star announced on social media barely 24 hours before.
Bryant said he wanted to give back to his hometown, offer up an estimated $16,000 worth of free BBQ, and have a chance to play kickball in the park just like he did when he was a kid.
But when you’re the Lufkin Parks director, the logistics are a lot to pull off in just a few hours. Although Mike Akridge says he did it willingly for Lufkin’s most famous son.
“He’s pretty much the biggest thing around," Akridge said. “It’s one of those things that a celebrity of that status in Lufkin, Texas, that’s our job to make it work.”
Among the hundreds who showed up, many of them wearing their Dez Bryant 88 jerseys, were kids like Lufkin resident Zachary Lumpkin, just hoping for a chance to meet the football star.
“I’ll probably say hello or probably freak out or something, I don’t know.”
Nine-year old Jayden Trujillo from Lufkin had #88 shaved into one side of his hair and the Dallas star on the other just for the occasion this morning. And long-time Lufkin residents like Clinton Durham came to see the little kid who used to play football in his Lufkin backyard.
“He was always the smallest one, but the toughest,” Durham said. “What he’s doing now, he was doing when he was 10 years old.”
But as they started to serve up the free BBQ, we noticed there was one non-Dez fan at the front of the line. Tony Penson of Lufkin was wearing a Pittsburgh Terrible Towel on his head. He admits he just came for the free food.
“Before Dallas, even had a Dez Bryant, I wasn’t a Dallas fan,” Penson said. “I like the free plate, and that’s why I’m here and that’s what it is too,” he joked.
Lufkin police led interference and provided crowd control as Bryant arrived shortly after 2 p.m. for the event scheduled to last from noon to 8 p.m. He shook hands and then exchanged hugs with his former teachers at Lufkin High. Then he climbed onto a portable stage in the middle of a baseball field to address the crowd, even he was surprised so many people showed up.
“I just want y’all to know I love y’all. I’m gonna always respect Lufkin. I’m gonna always let people know Lufkin is number one in my heart," Bryant said.
Afterwards, I asked why he’d decided to do this at the lasts second, with less than 24 hours notice.
“It works better that way,” he said. “Not less chaos. I just think it’s a real moment. It was real. Straight from the heart. Just something that I wanted to do. I wanted to go home.
“I’m gonna keep being me. I’m that kid who wore number 8 at Lufkin High," he said.
The Cowboys star signed autographs and took pictures with fans for a couple of hours in the muggy southeast Texas heat, clearly glad to see his fans in Lufkin, clearly glad to be home.
Oh, and he might have made one more convert. The one non-Cowboys fan wearing the Terrible Towel did get his free food.
“But I’m fittin’ to get down and think about Dez,” Tony Penson said.
Maybe all this will make him a Dez Bryant fan yet.
And, on another subject, Bryant offered his thoughts and advice on the off-the-field drama surrounding fellow Cowboy Zeke Elliott. Speaking from his own experience, he said he believes Elliott will emerge from those distractions ok.
“It’s just a stepping stone that he’s gonna get over. Zeke’s a young guy. I’m not blaming it on that. Freshman college to playing for America’s team, it’s kinda hard to deal with. You gotta give Zeke credit because he do deserve it, he do deserve to have fun. Because he put that work in to have fun. But, as the years pass, as he gets older, he’s gonna mature and things are gonna get a lot smoother.”