Catawba Football: Playful Bryant a serious player
By Mike London
As Catawba Indians were walking away from practice two weeks ago, head football coach Chip Hester watched wideout Gerron Bryant stealthily sprint up behind a teammate.
Hester expected Bryant to place his hands on his teammate’s shoulders and playfully leap-frog over his back, the sort of thing Hester did when he was a kid.
Instead, the 6-foot-3 junior arced his body into the air, performed a flawless backflip, vaulted over his teammate’s head and landed gracefully on his feet.
“Nice move, Gerron,” Hester said with a sigh. “But don’t do that again until after the season.”
The gifted, playful Bryant is like an overgrown 12-year-old at times, but he provides big receptions as well as comic relief. His unusual athleticism is a serious weapon for Catawba’s offense, and he’s progressed from role player to All-SAC candidate the first three weeks of this season.
Bryant’s already produced two 100-yard games and leads the team with 11 catches and 254 receiving yards. His two third-quarter TDs against Livingstone on Saturday were eye-popping.
“I’ve got a lot of friends over at Livingstone,” said a grinning Bryant, who probably has a lot of friends everywhere. “It was almost like backyard ball, talking a little trash, having a little fun. I felt like when that ball was in the air it was mine every time. My eyes got big and my hands got sticky.”
Bryant is a product of Boynton Beach High in Palm Beach County, Fla.
He was never one of those kids that sat around. He recalls he was probably even better at basketball than football and probably better at track (high jump, 100 meters) than hoops. What he was probably best of all at was cheerleading, gymnastics and acrobatics.
“I ranked a lot of things ahead of football then,” Bryant said.
He says he was a quarterback in high school ó “a Michael Vick-type.” He also admits to occasionally doing zany things his coaches didn’t anticipate or appreciate.
“Like handing the ball off to an offensive lineman,” Bryant said cheerfully. “The coaches would yell, ‘Gerron, what in the world are you doing!’ I’d tell them we were up 60 and wanted to have a little fun.”
While his coaches added to their collection of gray hairs, the free spirit took his act to Palm Beach Community College. He lasted one semester.
His father, Gary, had spent time in North Carolina, was familiar with Catawba and hoped the coaches could channel Bryant’s considerable talent into a team framework.
Catawba was willing to take a chance, and Bryant has latched onto the opportunity to be part of something bigger than himself. As much as he likes to joke around, his accountability to his teammates, coaches and school now rank higher on his priority list than having fun.
There have been tough times, however.
After transferring, he redshirted in 2007. His reward was a torn ACL while working in a one-on-one drill in spring ball with teammate Jaspen Gray.
The Bryant Catawba fans saw last year was pretty good, but he wasn’t the real Bryant. They saw a Bryant six months removed from ACL surgery. He still made 14 catches in a fairly limited role and caught TD passes against Elizabeth City State, Livingstone, Carson-Newman and Lenoir-Rhyne.
“I was not experienced and others were playing better than me,” Bryant said. “But I also know what I can do athletically. I just waited for my time.”
The scoring catches he made last year against Elizabeth City State and Carson-Newman were amazing feats, combining great leaping ability with exceptional concentration.
The catch against Elizabeth City was for his mother, Brenda, who passed away shortly before the 2008 season started. He drew a 15-yard flag for celebrating when he pointed skyward in her honor.
Bryant also lost his favorite uncle in 2008 while his sister struggled with a heart condition.
It was a tough year.
“I felt like everything was falling on me,” Bryant said.
He made it through 2008, with the help of his teammates, especially Brandon Sutton, Brian Terwilliger and Casey Hall.
“For Gerron to rehab, to mourn and to still keep coming with all that positive energy, he was an inspiration to all of us,” Hester said. “He’s got that great positive outlook, and it’s contagious.”
Bryant now has had an additional year to get over the knee and his mother.
The knee he’s all but forgotten. His mother he remembers every play.
“She used to sing certain songs, and when I run out there thinking about the alignment, I’m humming those same songs,” Bryant said. “Her death hit me hard. I was a mama’s boy. Those songs keep me focused.”
Almost up until opening day, there was doubt Bryant would be eligible this season, but he says he did everything academically he needed to do over the summer.
“I tried to do exactly what I was told to do and I never let doubt get me down,” Bryant said. “I kept the pain behind a smile.”
The outgoing Bryant rooms with Brandon Sutton, a lineman who leads the nation in words per minute and is the loudest voice on Catawba’s fierce defense. Hester shakes his head thinking about the noise volume in that room.
Bryant maintains his over-the-top vitality right up to gametime, but he’s learned when to put a lid on the nonsense.
“I’ll play around before a game because I like to laugh and I like to make other people laugh and I enjoy football,” he said. “I’ve never played good when I was serious before a game.”
Catawba coaches understand everyone prepares to play differently. They understand Bryant has worked hard in practice to master the system. They understand he has the physical stuff you can’t teach.
“Now that Gerron knows what to do, his athletic ability is taking over,” Hester said. “With his skill set, he’s a security blanket for our quarterbacks. If all else fails, throw it up there.”
The reason is clear.
Bryant might come down with it.