The Man in the Middle
By Mandy Housenick
Brandon Bryant was an integral part of Lafayette College’s defense in 2015, registering the most tackles by a Leopard in a decade.
Midway through 2016, Bryant went from defensive anchor to a spectator. A standout with an endless motor - to someone who needed help walking thanks to a torn ACL in his right knee.
“I was in an immobilizer,” the Lafayette senior recalled. “Mentally, that was the hardest part. I needed help with everything. That was really tough. “... That was very humbling.”
In another lesson, however, of good things come to those who work and wait, Bryant’s story is having a happy ending on College Hill.
The linebacker is leading the Patriot League this season with 92 tackles and earned his third straight Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week honor in 2017 after recording a career-high 19 tackles in last Saturday’s game against Ivy League power Harvard.
“I had all the trainers reminding me that it’s not going to get better in one day,” Bryant said. “It’s a marathon, not a race.”
Bryant’s progress has been steady. His performance since returning to the football field has gotten increasingly better.
It started as a youngster dreaming of playing in the NFL, the highest level in the sport. The injury, suffered in a 2016 week 5 home game against Holy Cross, was merely the latest challenge as the now 5-foot-11, 220-pounder continues to hold onto that dream.
“In everything he’s ever done, that’s been his main desire,” said Cliff Kareem, Bryant’s father who has not missed any of his son’s athletic events since he was 5 years old.
Bryant was an impactful player as a freshman at Lafayette in 2014, picking up 55 tackles. He was an All-Patriot League Second-Team pick the following year after registering 114 stops in 11 games, all starts.
The Cherry Hill, N.J., resident had 41 tackles into his fifth game of 2016, before the ACL injury stopped all of his plans.
“It was extremely upsetting when it happened,” Bryant said. “Luckily, I had a great support system from my friends and family.
“And, I prayed a lot.”
Bryant also worked a lot during the rehabilitation process. He did everything the Lafayette training staff and doctors told him to do in an effort to speed up the recovery process which typically is 10 to 12 months.
It was hard to stay patient, though, because the Lafayette football program would have a new coaching staff for 2017.
In addition to his rehabilitation and studies — he’s on pace to graduate in the spring with a degree in anthropology and sociology —the 22-year-old was part of the hiring committee, one that ultimately decided to hire John Garrett as head coach.
What Bryant and others liked about Garrett during the hiring process held true during his first year in charge of the Leopards.
“Obviously, I couldn’t show him the player I was right away so I had to rely on what I did in the past,” Bryant said. “And, coming off an injury, he couldn’t know what I would be like immediately.
“(Garrett) was always very motivational. I wasn’t excluded from anything because of my injury. I wasn’t treated differently.”
Bryant couldn’t play in the spring, but because of his diligence and determination, he was able to be ready when the fall rolled around.
For him, like many others with a significant injury, the mental hurdle is the last one to clear upon returning to the field.
"Brandon is an intelligent football player. He helps everyone get lined up and makes the defensive calls. That’s the kind of stuff people don’t necessarily see. He’s very vocal on the field."
- Lafayette Defensive Coordinator Luke Thompson.
“At this point, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”
Bryant’s resume preceded him when it came time for the Leopards to select their 2017 captains. He was voted by his peers, even though it wasn’t clear what his role would be in Garrett’s debut season.
It’s proven to be a spot-on decision by the Lafayette players.
“He’s been able to influence a lot of his teammates in a positive way,” Garrett said, “and that’s why they voted for him.
“He has always had an upbeat personality from the chance I got to know him well since he was on the search committee. He loves football and has a great perspective. He quickly embraced the first message that I brought to the team, that it’s a privilege, not a right, to play and coach for the Leopards.
“He certainly wasn’t going to take this time in his life for granted.”
In addition to his work ethic, Bryant has the natural instincts and guts required to play linebacker. He studies a lot of film, works hard in the weight room and doesn’t take a practice rep off.
Lafayette defensive coordinator Luke Thompson had an idea about the kind of player he was getting in Bryant. When at Georgetown, Thompson coached one of Bryant’s friends, and then two teens then coached a camp at Georgetown.
When Georgetown came to Fisher Stadium on Oct. 29, 2016, Thompson made it a point to seek out Bryant to see how he was doing after the injury.
“It was kind of ironic the day I showed up here (at Lafayette) to work that one of the first people I saw was Brandon,” Thompson said. “He was doing rehab on his knee. He said that he heard I was coming. “I said, ‘We’re going to have some fun.’”
Lafayette entered the Bucknell game first in the Patriot League for interceptions and third in sacks while Bryant is leading the league and is second in the nation in tackles per game.
“Brandon is an intelligent football player,” Thompson added. “He helps everyone get lined up and makes the defensive calls. That’s the kind of stuff people don’t necessarily see. He’s very vocal on the field.
“Once the ball is snapped, he’s a very instinctive player. Linebackers coach Nick Lezynski has done a great job getting Brandon to work on the things he needed to improve on. And, Brandon is constantly asking what he can improve on. He’s a very fiery guy. He’s a leader. He’s a good tackler. “He’s a really good football player.”
When Bryant suits up for Lafayette, there is a strong family presence in the stands. In addition to his father, the senior’s mother, Liliana, younger sister Selena plus grandparents are there to show their support regardless of the weather.
It also appears that Bryant has weathered his biggest football challenge to date in his young life.