Greg Bryant’s grandfather bought him a plane ticket to come home.
The freshman running back was barely playing at Notre Dame, overwhelmed by the playbook, knee tendonitis and culture shock. So when the University went on break, Bryant had a chance to return to South Florida.
Then Greg Bryant Sr. called Irish running backs coach Tony Alford. He was livid.
During Bryant’s high-drama recruitment that included a late commitment, a near flip to Auburn and a four-year decision as much as a 40-year one, the running back’s father made Alford promise that his son would not return to Delray Beach during breaks.
Bryant Sr. knew the crowd. He knew the people. He knew their effect on his son.
So Alford had promised. There would be no shuttle service to the airport that fall weekend. Bryant would spend that break at Notre Dame.
It took a community to get Bryant out of South Florida. It took a university to keep him in South Bend before two suspensions led to his departure. Almost every step of the way Notre Dame – not just the football program – watched Bryant. They made sure he went to class. They made sure he attended workouts. How much or how little he played didn’t matter.
The University invested in Bryant and the running back seemed to buy in too. He recruited for Notre Dame when South Florida prospects visited. He was still enrolled for classes last fall even after he’d left campus. It’s why his death hurts for reasons beyond the fact a 21-year old running back with NFL potential will never realize it.
Bryant tried to get away from South Florida – often pushed that direction – but never ultimately could. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds early Saturday morning in West Palm Beach and was found by police at 4:45 a.m. Doctors declared him brain dead on Sunday, aborting a comeback that didn’t need Notre Dame anymore to be considered a success.
When Bryant snuck out of South Bend last August and got sucked into third world football at ASA junior college, his athletic career seemed certain to fade away.
The ASA experience tore at Bryant’s relationship with his father, who helped deliver him to Notre Dame in the first place. Bryant Sr. learned about ASA after seeing the school’s paperwork stuffed into the trunk of his car. Bryant would sign there on his own. His father wondered if the NCAA could void the letter of intent.
Bryant played just one game at ASA, living in an old hotel converted into a dorm. That was rock bottom. It also meant Bryant was about to start climbing.
Bryant seemed back on track at the University of Alabama Birmingham this spring, even if the program wouldn’t play until 2017. He got his academics in order. He got out of ASA and South Florida. The Blazers would be Bryant’s final year of eligibility, his last chance to make good on his NFL potential.
“This guy did a complete 180,” Timothy Alexander, UAB football’s life coach, told Alabama television station WBRC. “People counted Greg out. Greg counted himself in. It shows what one man can do when you believe in yourself.”
Bryant always did, which made him a five-star personality in Notre Dame’s program whether he started or sat. The outpouring of emotion for Bryant and his family via social media speaks to a player who connected with Notre Dame beyond Saturday afternoons.
Players who never played with Bryant offered prayers. A vigil was lit at the grotto with Bryant’s picture. It included a candelabra of his No. 1 jersey.
Whether you had anything in common with Bryant or not, the running back was easy to relate to. When the school finally made him available to reporters after a freshman season of frustration and transfer rumors, Bryant owned the experience. It wasn’t hard to find stories of Bryant signing autographs for suburban kids or posing for pictures with fans. It didn’t matter the only real connection was Notre Dame.
It’s brutal that bond didn’t run through the finish line of Bryant’s college career. It’s hard not to think about what he could have done last season if eligible. What if he makes grades? What if his mentor and position coach doesn’t leave for another job? What if he has time to bond with a new one?
There’s not a simple answer. Bryant was a complicated kid.
Notre Dame enriched Bryant’s life, even in two short years. And based on the reaction from the Notre Dame community following Bryant’s death, the reverse was true too.
Those are sure things about the relationship between the late running back and his former program. There should have been more. It’s a damned shame there won’t be.