Football is a game. But the NFL is a business. It is cold, callous and unapologetic.
Sometimes a player learns that early, as it's thrust upon them like a punch in the face, which is what happened to Cowboys rookie receiver Dez Bryant before the NFL draft last month.
Sometimes it slowly wears them down over several years like a series of body shots, which is what's going on with receiver Patrick Crayton.
A frustrated Crayton has stayed away from the team's offseason program and the first week of OTA practices, despite being under contract for two more years.
He is the only healthy Cowboys player not to show up. He won't be fined because these are so called voluntary work outs. He will miss this week's set of OTA practices, too, according to his agent Fred Lyles.
"Crayton understands that the NFL is a business and organizations make personnel decisions that are reflective or based on their vision and goals," Lyles said. "In such an environment change is anticipated and accepted. Change is sometimes good for all parties involved. Currently, Crayton is a member of the Cowboys organization and excited about continuing his career in the NFL."
Bottom line, look for Crayton to show up when the Cowboys have a mandatory mini camp in June.
But right now, Crayton is staying away and doing his own thing, as he tries to come to grips with his suddenly tenuous spot on the roster.
And let's not kid ourselves: his spot is shaky at best following the team's decision to draft Bryant in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Although Crayton outperformed Roy Williams last year, he was already running third behind Williams and Miles Austin on the depth chart before Bryant arrived.
Remember owner Jerry Jones guaranteed Williams a starting spot in February.
Bryant's draft position means that he will be one of the team's top three receivers next year, moving Crayton to fourth on the depth chart.
Bryant has also already been given Crayton's duties as a punt returner.
Now if truth be told, the Cowboys don't want to pay Crayton $2 million to be the fourth and sometimes fifth receiver. Remember, they also want to increase the reps for Kevin Ogletree. And remember that he is not much help on special teams outside of returns.
Now they might still keep him. But odds are they won't.
The Cowboys shopped Crayton for a trade during the draft but their asking price was too high. Crayton has since asked to help out the process by soliciting his own trade offers.
Of course, no team is willing to give up anything significant for a player they think they can get for free in a few weeks or months.
Certainly, the Cowboys could do Crayton a favor and cut him now, giving him a good chance to latch on with another team before training camp. It's what they did with guard Cory Proctor. They released him last Monday to give him a better chance of finding a new home.
Crayton certainly wants to know why can't they do the same with him. Why not give him a chance to test the market and possibly get a new deal close to what he was expecting to make with the Cowboys? St. Louis, Miami, Pittsburgh, Washington, Cleveland and Kansas City are just a few of the teams who could use a veteran receiver like Crayton.
But the Cowboys won't make a move with Crayton because they don't have to. They selfishly need him as insurance.
The Cowboys like Crayton and respect him as a player. What if Austin, Williams or Bryant got hurt in OTAs or minicamp? What if they got hurt in the first preseason game? Then the Cowboys would be stupid to have gotten rid of someone like Crayton before they had to make a decision.
But come final cuts in August, if everybody is healthy, the Cowboys will most likely make a move with Crayton because of his contract. They know it and he knows it.
In the meantime, Crayton is being held hostage by the situation.
And while it's just business with the Cowboys, it's personal with Crayton. A DeSoto native, it was a dream come true for him to be drafted and play for his hometown team.
He initially impressed in 2004 as the surprise seventh-round pick out of tiny Northwestern Oklahoma State. He caught then-coach Bill Parcells' attention with his sure hands, maturity, versatility and ability to play all the receiver positions.
Crayton has come to be known as a reliable professional who did whatever was asked, although he was never truly appreciated.
His emergence allowed the Cowboys to cut Quincy Morgan in 2005. When Terry Glenn was out in 2007, he became a productive second receiver complementing lead dog Terrell Owens. But the Cowboys always yearned for more.
He was moved back to third receiver in 2008 when they brought in Williams. He returned to the No. 2 spot after Owens was released only to be surpassed by Austin's breakout play last season.
But Crayton was still a reliable part of the offense, becoming a sort of Linus' blanket for quarterback Tony Romo at times. When Romo needed bailing out as the play broke down, he could always rely on Crayton to be in the right place.
Still it was never enough. Jerry Jones wanted a "wow" receiver. Williams was paid as such but has yet to produce. And although Crayton was productive and reliable, he is not dynamic.
The same is true with Crayton as a punt returner. The Cowboys have tried for years to replace Crayton on returns, hoping for more explosion. He was valued for his ability to catch the ball but was considered a game-changer.
They tried cornerback Terence Newman. They brought in Pacman Jones. The signed Allen Rossum.
Each time they were forced to return to the reliable Crayton, who not only responded but thrived last season when he returned punts for touchdowns in back-to-back weeks.
It was the first time the Cowboys returned a punt for a touchdown since 2006. He joined Bob Hayes as the only Cowboys players in team history to return punts for scores in back-to-back games. He is the sixth Cowboys player in history to record to punt returns for touchdowns in a season and the first since 2000.
He finished third in the NFC in punt-return-average last season, averaging 12.1 yards per return.
But typically, the Cowboys entered the off season looking to improve their return game and now plan to hand the punt return job off to Bryant.
Crayton is prideful and is understandably frustrated at situation. He has done everything that has been asked. He works hard. He has accepted every decision as a professional.
But now he just wants the Cowboys to do right by him. At age 31, he knows there are not a lot of years left for him in the NFL.
He would love to continue his career in Dallas. But he doesn't think that is realistic.
If they are not going to use him, if they are going to cut him, he would they rather do it now so he can help find the best situation for himself and his family.
That's why he is frustrated and why he's staying away.
Clarence E. Hill Jr.