He was lounging in a hotel bed in Cincinnati when his phone rang. The Dallas Cowboys always knew they could reach him. Even at 7 a.m. on a Saturday.
This was December 2012, and a team executive was calling. He spoke fast. Two players were missing. No one had heard from them since the previous night, and neither was answering his phone.
The man in Cincinnati listened. He took notes.
This David Wells isn’t famous, but he might be the most influential behind-the-scenes figure for the NFL’s most valuable franchise. Part crisis manager, part fixer, part therapist, he’s tasked with helping public figures, not becoming one. All teams have in-house security experts and problem-solvers, employees who untangle legal problems. But this extra layer of protection may be unique to the Cowboys. Wells brings a special set of skills, so when something or someone jeopardizes the image of pro football’s signature franchise, the Cowboys know whom to deploy.
Hours before this call, there had been a drunken-driving accident. Linebacker Jerry Brown was dead, and nose tackle Josh Brent was in jail. The team’s chartered plane would be leaving soon, a game scheduled for the next day.
Stick to the schedule, Wells told the executive. He would handle it.
He’s almost always on the move, and on this Tuesday morning in July, he’s walking on the fifth floor of the Frank Crowley Courts Building in downtown Dallas.
An ex-judge calls toward Wells, and attorneys stop him to catch up or bust his chops. One gets his picture taken with Wells, a 54-year-old ex-cop and ex-con and ex-bail bondsman wearing shorts inside the courthouse.
He takes the elevator down to the fourth floor, reconnecting with a judge he hasn’t seen in months; he waves to another old friend on the escalator back up. He zigzags through hallways, into offices and open courtrooms, never knocking or asking permission. A defense attorney beams when Wells walks in; a clerk in a cramped office tells him she’s finally transferring; a security man tells him about his son.
“It ain’t about what you know,” says Wells, and most of the people here don’t just know him. They’re familiar with his intimate knowledge of the law, how he’s learned to maneuver through its systems, and how no matter his skill at fixing others’ problems, Wells has never been much good at managing his own. He almost went to prison a few years ago, his marriage fell apart and he lost his business. Now on this summer morning, there’s this: Dez Bryant, the Cowboys wide receiver, is accusing Wells and an associate of swindling him out of $200,000.
Wells is as crafty as he is charming, in the business of collecting friends and leveraging secrets. If anyone in this building is turned off by the man or his methods, they don’t show it.
A few people call him the mayor of Crowley courthouse, and he likes that okay. There’s a nickname he prefers, and when he swings open the door of Judge Dan Patterson’s courtroom, the bailiff shouts it from across the room.
“It’s . . . the . . . Wooooooolf!” she says, and Wells smiles.
He is, like the “Pulp Fiction” character Winston Wolf, a fixer who exists on the margins and functions without ceremony. He considers the angles, contemplates the ifs, solves the most complicated problems. No wonder the Cowboys, known for acquiring players on their second or third chances, have come to trust Wells implicitly with their most valuable and unpredictable assets. Whatever route a player is trying to find through the system — from simple help with a driver’s license to thorny entanglements involving criminal charges — there’s always one more option to help find a way: Call in the Wolf.
“I haven’t had a question that Dave couldn’t answer, I can tell you that,” said Adam “Pacman” Jones, the Bengals cornerback.
“Whenever something is messed up and you need to go outside the lines a little bit,” former Kaufman County, Tex., district attorney Rick Harrison said, “he’s your guy.”
“A tremendous asset to the franchise,” Jerry Jones said. “. . . I won’t get into detail of the kinds of things [Wells does], because he does everything.”
A few months ago Wells vetted the free-agent quarterback Johnny Manziel as the Cowboys considered signing him, and Wells’s latest task is transferring a rookie’s driver’s license to Texas without the player visiting the DMV. Pacman Jones and Bryant once moved in with Wells. So did former defensive back C.J. Spillman as he awaited trial earlier this year on sexual assault charges.
Because he’s at the courthouse anyway, Wells decides to dip into the Adult Probation office and check on the status of Josh Brent, who four years ago drove drunk and crashed his Mercedes in an accident that killed Brown, spurring the early-morning phone call in Cincinnati.
“I have to say, he’s a different person,” he tells the woman at the desk. “He’s adjusted to everything.”
Is he attending support groups? “Yes, ma’am.” Does he acknowledge the consequences of what he’s done? “He don’t hide it. The anniversary kind of gets to him.” Is he continuing to learn from his mistakes? “He’s in a really good place,” Wells says.
He turns back toward the hallway.
“I’ve seen it go a lot of different ways,” he says, and Spillman comes to mind. In July the former player was sentenced to five years in prison, and Wells sees one discernible reason for that: He didn’t follow instructions.
Two decades ago, when Wells opened his bail-bonds business, he put it on a gritty block of Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood, miles from the other bond offices near the courthouse. Rather than travel into town, he reasoned, clients could walk down East Saner Avenue no matter the hour, and there was David’s Bail Bonds.
“I deal with the real-ass world, man,” says Wells, who parlayed these little advantages into a business that, during one stretch about 15 years ago, earned about a fifth of the city’s $50 million bail-bonds market.
Years earlier, he watched his grandfather operate a corner grocery. The neighborhood was modest, and the grandfather wouldn’t allow anyone to go hungry. Sometimes bills were paid through chores or favors.
Wells remembers his first time he worked through an issue from both sides: He was 15 years old when a friend had stolen from the wrong people and was now in trouble. Wells went to work. He told the aggrieved party that he understood retribution for his friend was unavoidable, but he said if the beating wasn’t too severe, he’d see to it the items were returned. Later, the young dealmaker waited until nightfall and sneaked the stolen goods onto their porch.
Later as a community liaison for the Dallas Police Department, he learned the law — and how it is often not watertight. Five years he spent walking the streets in the southwest district, learning how residents’ needs varied from block to block.
Once, some inner-city kids complained about the cost of boxing gloves, so Wells swiped a pair from the Police Athletic League. He was fired and charged with theft; almost three decades later, Wells still believes it was the right thing to do.
He worked private security and did freelance investigations for attorneys, leaning on the connections he had made. Ministers and politicians and reporters confided in him, and as the years passed he found himself entangled in adventures that only enhanced his aura: going broke years before striking it rich, the robber Wells says he fought off despite being shot in the leg, the merchant who propositioned Wells to have a competitor killed — a conversation Wells secretly recorded before delivering to the FBI.
Over time, that became Wells’s thing: He bridged the divide between cops and criminals, playing for whichever side fit his definition of right and wrong. Or, just as often, who might remember a favor. Time passed, and the attorneys he’d befriended became DAs, judges and politicians; at every level they remembered how Wells had come through for them, often repaying him in his preferred currency: information.
He became a folk hero at the courthouse, rushing to a crime scene to interview bystanders before investigators could, or marching into a courtroom with a witness no one else could get to. Wells was so effective, the lawyers who hired him stopped caring about how he did it.
Said longtime attorney Anthony Lyons: “There are going to be times that David comes up with a result that you’re just not going to ask him about.”
In the mid-1990s, as the Cowboys were winning Super Bowls, wide receiver Michael Irvin couldn’t seem to avoid some scandal or another involving sex or drugs. Irvin’s attorney, Royce West, had hired Wells in the past and, at least while Irvin stood trial for cocaine possession, needed a buffer to keep Irvin out of trouble.
Wells did his job, and Irvin escaped with probation; it wasn’t long before Irvin hired Wells to be his full-time bodyguard. In 2000 Irvin was arrested again, this time on a minor drug charge along with a 21-year-old woman.
Tipped off, Wells quickly corralled an attorney familiar with the north Dallas courts, hurried toward Plano in his SUV — the one with the license plates that read “BAIL ME” — and floored it once he saw a news van going in the same direction.
When Wells arrived, he convinced Irvin to hold an impromptu news conference to declare his innocence. “I really don’t know what went on,” the befuddled Cowboys receiver told reporters, and the entire episode wound up being just as forgettable as Irvin’s words. And that was the point: While Irvin spoke, the woman hid inside the apartment; later, the attorney who had come with Wells quietly drove her away.
“Nobody,” Wells says proudly, “got the real story.”
Eventually the tales reached Jerry Jones, a prospector who had made his fortune in oil and his fame assembling teams known for either greatness or baggage or both. He heard about the bondsman who had friends at the courthouse and was skilled not just at handling matters but keeping them quiet, too.
The Cowboys, Jones decided, needed someone like that.
When the Cowboys unleash the Wolf, for instance if a player is arrested for drunken driving, Wells’s instructions often begin the same way: Do what the officers tell you — but say nothing.
From there Wells begins the paperwork on the player’s behalf for a restricted occupational license and learns the name of the presiding judge. He already knows the lawyers who are cozy with his or her honor. “I hate to say this,” Wells says. “I know who to hire based on what that relationship is.”
Fights, particularly those involving a wife or girlfriend, are more complicated. No matter the hour, Wells hurries to the scene — preferably, he says, ahead of police — and starts to, as he puts it, “kiss the girlfriend’s ass or the wife’s ass.”
He likes to calmly remind both sides that, hey, he gets it: Relationships are tough, but should one argument be allowed to leave a stain that could alter lives and curb earning potential? “Tell me what you want to do,” Wells says, recreating a typical exchange. “Let’s fix this.”
Almost nothing is as valuable to an NFL front office as discretion, nothing as threatening to a season or brand as a “distraction.” Forbes says the Cowboys are worth $4.2 billion, a value that in part depends on the team’s ability to keep star players on the field, contend for championships and maintain its global popularity. For every incident that generates a negative headline, Wells said, 10 are handled without the public’s knowledge.
As he sees it, that’s his job: protecting the interests of his employer, not asking himself whether what he does is right or wrong.
“I get called part of the problem,” he says, “all the time.”
He travels in advance for most Cowboys road games, often stays in the team hotel and usually attends training camp in Oxnard, Calif. He won’t discuss his financial arrangement with the team beyond saying he works on an as-needed basis. Wells boasts that when an incident involving a player occurs, he often knows before Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett does.
Asked about Wells’s actions on behalf of the team’s players, a Cowboys spokesman declined to comment.
If Dallas acquires a troubled player, Wells is occasionally assigned to help keep him on the right path. Sometimes he needs to be more hands-on. In 2008, Pacman Jones, following a season-long NFL suspension and a series of run-ins with police, moved into Wells’s five-bedroom house in DeSoto, a quiet suburb south of Dallas. He rarely wandered far from Wells’s sight.
“My manager, my security, my day-to-day man,” the cornerback calls Wells now. “Dave basically did everything I need. All I had to do is play football, you know?”
A year later, wide receiver Michael Crabtree — a distant relative, Wells says — introduced Wells and Bryant, a Texas native who moved in with Wells shortly after he was suspended at Oklahoma State. As the 2010 NFL draft approached, Bryant’s talent wasn’t in question; his ability to stay out of trouble was. But after months under Wells’s roof, Wells came to see Bryant as a misunderstood soul whose upbringing had been so chaotic he barely knew right from wrong.
With NFL teams backing away from Bryant because of off-field concerns, Wells contacted the Cowboys and vouched for his character. Jerry Jones agreed to meet with Bryant.
“When [Wells] tells me something is going on, it’s right,” Jones said recently. “. . . I have such trust in his skills.”
Not long after that meeting, Bryant held his draft party at Wells’s home. When the call came to say Dallas was using the 24th overall pick to select Bryant, the young receiver pressed a phone to his ear and, fighting tears, fell into Wells’s arms.
On this Tuesday morning in mid-July, Wells is on the highway, bobbing his head to the Old Skool R&B station. His phone rings.
Another problem. This one involves Wells himself. “What do we need to do?” he says.
West, the attorney who once represented Irvin and who is now a Texas state senator, is on the other line. A few months ago, Bryant moved out of a home owned by West, who filed a lawsuit that alleged the property was “littered with trash and feces” and sought $60,000 to cover repair costs. Bryant retaliated by countersuing — in part accusing West and Wells of skimming $200,000 off the top of endorsement deals.
Part of Wells wants to call Bryant and get the inevitable argument over with; the other part is almost amused at how perfectly symbolic this is of their relationship, so very Dave and Dez. A few days before, Bryant had visited Wells’s home for a weekend barbecue. Now he’s publicly calling Wells a thief.
Bryant lived with Wells for three years, including the first two seasons of his NFL career. On good days Wells taught Bryant about credit scores and the importance of keeping an insurance card in his vehicle; with enough care and lessons about basic skills, Wells believed he could reform anyone. On bad days, he says, he broke up fights in his living room between Bryant and the receiver’s mother. Wells saw Bryant as a rebellious son, and Bryant trusted Wells enough to hire him as his paid adviser and financial manager, granting him power of attorney.
They learned each other’s weak points and secrets, sometimes declaring bloody war one day and hugging it out the next.
Last year, Bryant cut Wells out of his business dealings, but they somehow remained friends. Now here comes Bryant’s countersuit, which referred to Wells as a “crony” who exploited his relationship with Bryant for money.
“We got to get ahead of this, though, man,” Wells tells West. “This can’t go like this.”
As it unfolds, Wells, so often the agent of bombast, gets quiet. With his mind on Bryant, he listens to questions but ignores them, not wanting to say something he cannot take back. Not yet, anyway.
“I’m going to say this: I’m not scared of a courtroom,” he says.
He thinks about it, stewing. The amusement is gone, buried under anger and defiance.
“I got where all the bodies are buried,” Wells says. “Do you really want to [expletive] with me? I mean, do you?”
The thing with Bryant is still on Wells’s mind when he takes the escalator to the second floor of a hotel in downtown Dallas.
A few hours ago, Josh Brent had no idea he would be doing this, but Wells said to trust him and so that’s what he did. They walk into a crowded ballroom, a leadership conference for young professionals, and Brent heads toward a microphone. On the drive here, Wells told Brent it would be good to speak occasionally about his experience. Now he stands near a wall as Brent begins.
“I fell,” he says, “from the top to the bottom.”
Brent hadn’t yet met Wells when they were introduced in the courthouse following that drunken-driving incident four years ago. Wells didn’t ask whether Brent was guilty or innocent. He didn’t care whether, as police alleged, Brent had gotten behind the wheel with his blood alcohol content at more than twice the legal limit and drove so fast the car touched a curb and flipped before sliding on its roof. Wells wasn’t interested in whether, when police arrived, Brent was attempting to pull Brown’s body from the burning car.
Wells was already in problem-solving mode. He told Brent to trust him: “If you do everything I tell you to do,” he recalls telling the young man, “I can keep you out of the penitentiary.”
As always, he instructed Brent to keep quiet; let Wells and his attorneys do the talking. He advised him to stop drinking. Wells invited him to move into one of his spare bedrooms, as Dez and Pacman had, and follow what Wells sees as a life rehabilitation program. Brent spent days taking out the trash, tidying his room and keeping the refrigerator in Wells’s garage stocked with water and Gatorade, no kid in the neighborhood allowed to go thirsty. At night they talked about turning the page.
“This wasn’t about the Cowboys,” Wells says now. “This was about Josh’s life.”
Wells told Brent his own secrets: In 2005, a federal grand jury had indicted him on three counts of tax evasion and accused him of filing false or fraudulent returns and using business accounts to pay for personal items.
In 2008 he pleaded guilty in exchange for three years’ probation. He avoided prison, but the conviction required him to forfeit his bondsman’s license and — though he’s still involved as a consultant — turn over control of his business to an associate.
It was a low point in Wells’s life, he told Brent, and now this was all he had left: the athletes and the broken lives he believed he could fix, which at that point included his own.
Thirteen months after the accident, Brent was convicted of intoxication manslaughter, sentenced to six months in jail and 10 years’ probation. He now says he hasn’t had a drink since that Friday night in December 2012 and that the older he gets, the more he thinks about his friend in that car and how at 24 he made a mistake that ended one life and nearly shattered his own. Brent, who now works for his former team as a part-time scout, will say later the Cowboys “don’t even know what they have” when it comes to Wells’s value to the organization.
Brent speaks to the group for three and a half minutes, discussing judgment and the value of mentors. Then he steps away from the microphone to applause and walks toward Wells, putting his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“How’d I do?” Brent mouths as a few audience members approach. He laughs at their jokes and asks where they’re from.
“A finished product,” Wells says, looking on.
Wells pulls into the driveway in DeSoto, and he and Brent walk through the garage, past a cardboard box of Spillman’s things. Brent listened to the Wolf; Spillman didn’t, declining a plea deal against Wells’s advice. Wells believes that’s why Brent is free and Spillman is not.
They walk inside, and Brent excuses himself. Wells decides it’s a good time for a shower, so he disappears into the back. Wells’s new wife, Jennifer, decides it’s a good time for a drink, so she pours two fingers of Johnnie Walker Blue, a gift from Jerry Jones.
A few minutes later Wells emerges, wearing a sleeveless shirt and standing in his kitchen. They hoped to be in bed an hour ago, but he’s waiting on one more call.
“Normal day?” Jennifer says, and Wells chuckles before muttering something about Bryant. In a matter of weeks, this latest disagreement will dissolve; West and Bryant will withdraw their lawsuits, and the Cowboys receiver will say “there ain’t no issue” between him and Wells.
But somewhere on this evening, another crisis is unfolding. Though Brent’s rehabilitation is complete, and another Bryant ordeal settled, in Wells’s universe the next problem is never more than a phone call away.
He leans against the refrigerator, a clock ticking above a doorway, holding his phone. When it rings, the voice on the other end speaks fast.
Wells listens, considering the angles one more time. “Okay,” he says, rubbing his eyes. “Here’s what we’re gonna do.”