Lions rookie fullback James Bryant was sitting in front of his locker, peeling off his socks when he looked me in the eye and said, “I’d run into a truck. You know me.”
In fact, I do know Bryant. I first met James when he was a 14 year-old freshman at Reading High School in Pennsylvania. Over the course of the next four years, I watched him mature into an affable and intelligent young man off the football field and an absolute beast between the stripes.
Bryant was to Reading as Ray Lewis is to Baltimore – not only the soul of the team but in many ways the soul of the city. He would deliver classic quotes in the days leading up to a game and back up his boisterous rhetoric by laying down the hammer with hits that echoed in the bleachers on game night.
He left Reading a USA Today All-American linebacker, vowing to make it big.
Eight years later, much has changed, including a position switch to fullback, but the fire that defines him hasn’t. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when Bryant, signed by the Lions this March, left such a lasting impression on those watching Tuesday’s practice in Allen Park.
As the team worked out in full pads for the first time this season, Bryant was powerful, he was loud and he let it all hang out, delivering some of the most vicious shots of the morning while pounding his chest, hooting and hollering.
“It’s what I’ve been missing most,” said Bryant when talking about wearing his emotion on his sleeve. “Coaches have been trying to control my rage and my chaos, keep it to a minimum. But here, (running backs coach) Sam Gash and Jim Schwartz have allowed me to be me. It’s crazy for me to sit there and not be me. It has to be at a professional level, but I have to play with the energy, emotion and passion I’ve always played with.”
In high school, Bryant played four grudge matches against Reading’s archrival, Wilson High School. Wilson's quarterback, Chad Henne, would later star at the University of Michigan and currently plays with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Over four years, with Bryant and Henne playing in each of the rivalry matchups, Reading won twice and Wilson won twice. The games were fierce battles staged in front of more than 10,000 fans.
When Bryant arrived in Detroit, I dug up some old video of a hit he delivered against Henne during one of those games. Shivers go up your spine when you watch it. I forwarded the video to Bryant via twitter.WATCH THE VIDEO IN PLAYER ABOVE
“I watched that video and said, ‘I need to get back to that,’” said Bryant. “I need a little of that again.”
If it weren’t for a twist of fate, Bryant may not be in Detroit with the opportunity to recapture that rage.
He most recently played in the Canadian Football League for the British Columbia Lions, as a defensive tackle. He weighed 275 pounds and on a play-to-play basis, the contact was different.
“You’re only a yard away from the guy you’re hitting,” said Bryant. “When you play fullback or linebacker, you’re working up a head of steam before you slam into somebody.”
So Bryant, eager to finally catch on with an NFL team, slimmed down to 252 pounds and approached the University of Miami coaching staff about working out for pro scouts and coaches during Miami’s pro day in March.
Bryant began his college career at Miami in 2004, but ultimately transferred to Louisville, where he played through the 2008 season.
The Miami coaching staff allowed Bryant to be a part of the pro day, and Sam Gash attended the workout.
Presumably, Gash was on hand to scout Lamar Miller, Miami’s running back who was ultimately drafted in the fourth round by the Dolphins this April.
“He found me,” said Bryant. “If I hadn’t hooked up with the new coaching staff at Miami and Coach Gash hadn’t been at that workout, I’d still be in Miami trying to figure it out. Nobody else called.”
The Lions offered Bryant a deal and he signed with Detroit on March 16. The man who had played with the Reading Express in the Indoor Football League, the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League and the BC Lions in the Canadian Football League finally was given a chance to prove himself in the NFL at a position where he can do what he does best – hit people.
“It made me a believer,” said Bryant. “I believe in myself. I believe in my faith. I believe in the football gods, because this is a crazy opportunity. Four leagues in three years.”
The boisterous sparkplug who was once the soul of Reading still understands how important his journey is to those in his hometown.
“There are young men who have watched me grow up from that fall in 2000,” said Bryant. “They’ve read the things I’ve said, watched my ups and downs. I’d be a hypocrite to throw this opportunity away. I’m a visual ambassador of Reading. We’re just on the surface. That dream is getting closer as the days and weeks go on.”