Cameron Bryan: Difference Maker

Special teams contributor Cameron Bryan had a purpose in his speedy coverage moves for the Arkansas football team. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of others.

There is an old saying that good things happen to good people.

Perhaps that's the only way to describe Cameron Bryan's senior season at Arkansas. After spending two years as a back-up following a 2009 season in which he handled kickoff duties the majority of the season, the walk-on relocated to a starting role on the Razorbacks' special teams in 2012.

But instead of specializing with his foot, he specialized with his legs. A 4.4-second runner in the 40-yard dash, Bryan became Arkansas' go-to man on kickoffs and punts, drawing praise from coaches, teammates and fans, and leading opposing coaching staffs to ask, "Just who is that guy?"

"When we went down to Texas A&M, I was talking to their special teams coordinator and he asked who Cam was," said Arkansas special teams coordinator Steve Caldwell. "He said when they were looking at film his graduate assistant came to him and said it was a walk-on kicker. He didn't believe it.

"He said if Cam was at A&M, he would be the 12th man and everyone in the stands would know him and be excited about him. I'm not sure our people even realize just who he is and what's going on with him. When you look at our kickoff coverage team now, you'll notice a lot of people double-team him because he's the first person down there. They look for him. Our guys love watching him and are excited for him making the plays he has made."

As a high school senior at Oklahoma City's Bishop McGuinness High School in 2007, Bryan was recruited to Arkansas by Houston Nutt's staff.

But the calls stopped when Bobby Petrino took over the team later that year. With the Razorbacks no longer interested, he was about to leave for the University of Nebraska when Dean Campbell, the former director of high school relations at Arkansas, called him in the summer of 2008 with an offer he couldn't refuse.

"He called me up the weekend of two-a-days," Bryan said. "I was packing for Nebraska and was getting ready to head there, and figure out what I needed to do to be a walk-on there. It was a total shock. This was closer, it was warmer and it was in the SEC."

With all-SEC candidate Zach Hocker handling field goals, extra points and kickoff duties, Bryan — who graduated two weeks ago — found himself in line to watch from the sidelines again his final year. That's when he approached coaches about not letting his athleticism go to waste.

"My option to kick for this team was very limited and I knew that," Bryan said. "I told Coach (John L.) Smith, 'If there is anything I can do at all to get my on the field and not put me in the stands my senior year, I will do anything. I just want that opportunity to fail.'

"I count each play like my last one, so I play it like my last one. If I get knocked down, I can't lay there and feel sorry for myself because chances are if that happens again and I'm taken out of the game, it could be my last time."

Bryan had four tackles through the first 10 games of the season, but disrupted multiple more kickoff returns. On a tackling scale of Ryan Mallett to Jerry Franklin, Bryan guesses he's somewhere in the middle. "I'm no Jerry Franklin, that's for sure," he said. "I'm learning to put myself in the right position and make a play.

"I'd call it average right now, but if I can get someone else open to make a tackle, then that's a plus."

What the 5-foot-10, 176-pounder lacks in form, he makes up for in hustle. Against Rutgers, he batted a ball out of the end zone and into the arms of Ross Rasner at the 1-yard line. That's the highlight, but there have been other plays similar.

He credits some of his gritty mentality to his days as a soccer player in high school. He used his speed and leg to score 20 goals as a senior.

He said he might have had chances to play that sport collegiately, but asked his coach to not take any recruiting calls so that he could focus on walking on as a kicker.

"No one really saw this coming and I didn't either; it's been real interesting, to say the least," Bryan said. "I didn't play any other positions in high school, so for me to be doing this, my friends back in Oklahoma are still trying to wrap their heads around that little scrawny kicker from Bishop McGuinness is making tackles and covering kicks in the SEC.

"The only real word I can attribute to this season is 'blessing.' I just have a unique opportunity to come out every day and try as hard as I can on every single play I've got. The coaches have allowed me a chance to contribute to this team on Saturdays. It's awesome to walk out on the field each Saturday. It's an amazing to be thought of as nothing as a back-up kicker to be able to make plays and contribute to the team."

Because of his efforts, Bryan has become a fan-favorite, even drawing comparisons to Daniel Ruettiger, the famous walk-on star at Notre Dame in the movie Rudy.

Tyler McMahan believes his success is a derivative of the way he lives his life off the field. A born-again Christian his freshman year, Bryan spends the time he gets away from the football field and classroom witnessing to others about his faith.

"He's gone with me to high schools and junior highs, churches and things like that," said McMahan, the former director of Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the University of Arkansas and now the leader of an organization called Athletes In Action that is based out of the Campus Crusade Christ group.

"Cameron is very humble, but he understands he has a platform. He came to me and said, 'I realize I'm going to be getting a lot more publicity and I want to maximize it for the sake of Christ, and he's been doing it. The most exciting for me is to see his maturity in that."

Bryan leads devotionals — or D-groups — within the football team. Along with punter Dylan Breeding, he went on a mission trip to Guatemala with FCA in 2011 organized by McMahan. There he helped rebuild homes, took necessities to homeless living in a city dump and worked with HIV homes for children.

"In Guatemala, he met a Mayan man who spoke some broken English," McMahan said. "Cameron was able to share the Gospel with him and he ran all over this Mayan village, through hotels trying to find a Bible. I've been impressed with the way he builds relationships.

"Cameron will go after guys he sees potential in." One example of that was when Bryan and Breeding helped lead teammate John Henson, a fellow kicker, to Christ his freshman year.

"Being a leader in FCA is something I just absolutely love," Bryan said. "I came to know the Lord through FCA and other people pouring into me that way."

Instead of using his kinesiology degree, Bryan said he plans on going into the ministry upon graduation. He has an internship lined up with McMahan with AIA and hopes to continue ministering to football players in the years to come.

"I want to stay here the next couple of years around these guys," Bryan said. "Then I'll go wherever God leads me."

Any help is appreciated, McMahan said, but football players have an opportunity to connect in a unique way others might not. In addition to Bryan and Breeding, McMahan said several other players — such as Jonathan Williams, Ray Buchanan Jr., Zach Hocker, Brad Shearin, Taylor Reed, Morgan Linton and Cordale Boyd — are leaders who are "walking the walk."

"We feel that if we can change their heart and teach them leadership, they're going to go change the world," McMahan said. "The fact they have a Razorback jersey on is life-changing stuff. They are put on a pedestal a lot of 18- and 19-year-old kids shouldn't be on, but when they deflect that glory to Christ like Cameron does is pretty amazing. When they walk around they are like the kings of that campus and can pretty much have or do anything they want. For them to walk around humbled and with a servant's attitude is pretty impressive.

"What they are doing is more impactful than you or I could ever hope for."

Cameron Bryan had to trade kicking for tackling to get on the field at Arkansas.

Cameron Bryan crawls to the ball -- with Ross Rasner close by -- to down a punt near the goal line.

Cameron Bryan finishes a tackle against LSU.

Photos by Marc F. Henning, Hawgs Illustrated

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