Why Greg Bryant's connection to his ND family never faded

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The what-ifs are perhaps what connect so many in the Notre Dame community still to former Irish running back Greg Bryant, whose life ended tragically on Sunday afternoon, a day after he was shot in a car on a south Florida interstate.

That he was 8½ months and two schools removed from his Irish roster spot doesn’t mitigate the profound grief so many current and former ND players and coaches are inundated with as they grope for answer to questions that may not have any.

“This is just such a sad and tragic situation,” a vacationing Irish head coach Brian Kelly said via statement on Sunday afternoon from Italy. “My thoughts and prayers, as well as everyone associated with Notre Dame and its football program, are with Greg’s family at this incredibly difficult time.”

“Pray you look over me and give me the strength to finish what we started,” Irish quarterback Malik Zaire tweeted on his Twitter account.”

Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry of Alabama was among those who comprised first the deluge of support and prayer on social media and then was part of another wave, this of shock and heartache.

“Beautiful thing to see how many hearts GB touched,” tight end Alizé Jones tweeted. “He's with God now, away from this filthy world we live in. Rest easy brotha.”

“My heartfelt prayers to Greg Bryant's family on his passing,” tweeted former Irish All-America running back and current ND administrator Reggie Brooks. “Although he transferred he was still a part of the ND Football family #RIP”

What they’ll likely miss most was the potential for goodness in the 21-year-old Bryant, and the desire to take the hard road to get there, that shined through the rough edges.

That’s not to be confused with his vast football talent, punctuated by his five-star recruiting rating coming out of American Heritage High School in Delray Beach, Fla., and muffled by some immature decisions at times.

At some point you figured the 5-foot-10, 205-pound running back would figure it all out. And maybe he finally did at his new home at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

UAB disbanded its football program after the 2014 season, then six months later did a 180, with the target season for re-entry into the FBS and Conference USA being 2017. That would have aligned with Bryant’s final season of college eligibility.

Bryant enrolled there in January, humbled by a junior college season last fall at first-year program ASA Miami that resulted in just one game played and seemingly endless hours or regret for walking away from Notre Dame in late August.

“I haven't had a conversation with him," Kelly said two weeks earlier, in mid August of 2014, when a U-turn was still possible for Bryant. "I'd love to have one. But he seems to be a bit elusive right now in terms of trying to get a hold of him."

Bryant battled injuries, homesickness and stiff competition in his two years at Notre Dame before getting suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season in late June, then losing the entire season to academics after receiving his summer school grades.

The door was open to continue as a student at ND and get himself eligible for 2016. He chose a parachute instead.

What if he Kelly had reached Bryant? What if he had stayed at Notre Dame?

His departure from the school and fellow Floridian Tarean Folston’s knee injury roughly a week later, lit the fuse on two unlikely running back success stories — converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise recording the 18th 1,000-yard rushing season in school history and three-star prospect Josh Adams bolting to the most prolific rushing total ever by an Irish freshman.

Even with Prosise leaving a year ahead of his expired eligibility for the NFL, the Irish seemingly have an embarrassment of riches at the running back position for 2016, with even more help on the way in June.

Bryant was expected to make an immediate and Adams-like impact in the fall of 2013. Instead he found himself running back No. 5 on a six-man depth chart. His first collegiate carries, a 10-yarder and a two-yarder, came in ND’s 2013 season-opening quashing of Temple.

Two weeks later, in a 31-24 escape at Purdue, Bryant received his third and final carry of the season. It went for two yards. It was in the days that followed when he felt pain in his right knee. Eventually there would be surgery and a medical redshirt season.

Loud in the background were persistent internet rumors that Bryant was pondering a transfer, rumors the running back said were never close to reality. And in the ensuing spring, they drove him back into the mix of top options.

“When I’m on the field, it’s like all the aggression I had last year not playing and stuff,” he said at the time. “And just when I get the ball now and I’m in the hole, it’s like I don’t want to go back to not playing anymore.

“So that power, I guess, it shows when I’m practicing now. ... I’m just so hungry right now, it’s crazy.”

Bryant went on to be ND’s second-leading rusher in 2014, with 289 yards on 54 carries with three touchdowns. But just 10 of those carries came over the final seven games of that season, and seven of those 10 came in a mop-up situation in a blowout loss at USC in late November.

Why there wasn’t a robust comeback at ND in the months that followed, those close to Bryant will chalk to flawed maturity and not flawed character.

West Palm Beach police will try to unravel, in what now has been reclassified as a homicide, just what happened in the southbound lanes of I-95 Saturday morning at 4:45. And why someone would want to shoot at Bryant and the 25-year-old passenger in the car, 25-year-old Maurice Grover, who escaped with minor injuries.

Untangling what Bryant’s mark was at Notre Dame, and why he still means so much to so many there, is far less complicated. And it has nothing to do with his 303 career rushing yards any everything to do with who he hoped to become, not just in football, but in life.

He was the unwavering and unfiltered voice who told recruits, especially those from south Florida, just what they were getting into at ND and his vision for why he thought it would be worth it. Sophomore linebacker Te’von Coney is among those who bought in and believed.

"I tell them it's not going to be easy," Bryant said in the fall of 2014. "It's going to be a tough transition. It's going to be hard.

"The weather and everything is going to be tough. Coming from where you come from and just being around the people here at Notre Dame, it'll just make you a better person and just make you a man, make you want to be successful."

What if Greg Bryant had stuck to his own advice when it mattered most?

What if?


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Greg Bryant, who died Sunday of a gunshot wound, here celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Rice in Notre Dame's 2014 season opener. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)