November 21, 2017

Long Read | Stanley Bryant

Stanley Bryant (66) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers warms up before the game against the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, AB, Friday Nov. 3, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

OTTAWA — He’s older and wiser now, and with the sense of perspective that comes with time, Stanley Bryant knows full well things might have turned out much differently.

Winnipeg Blue Bomber fans recognize Bryant as the dominant left tackle who has so ably defended the blind side of quarterbacks over the past three seasons, while not missing a single game. They know him as a 2017 West Division All-Star and the front-runner to be named the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman this Thursday at the annual player awards at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa.

This is a story of the Bryant we might not know, the quiet man with a self-deprecating sense of humour whose twitter handle – @MyHumble_Self – offers a hint of his personality. It is the tale of a man who has come to appreciate all those who pushed him along the way, from family to coaches and teammates, and how fate has landed him here as a finalist for an individual award in a team sport in a town far, far away from his hometown of North Carolina.

Bryant was born and raised in Goldsboro, a town of about 35,000 in Wayne County. He grew up in a little neighbourhood, on Elm Street – “but it wasn’t a Nightmare on Elm Street,” begins Bryant with a chuckle.

“My family was close. I was always with my cousins growing up and it was always football and basketball for me. That’s all I did, although I did play the trumpet in middle school.”

Bryant chuckles again here and it’s easy to see that when the 31-year-old giant lets his guard down and isn’t asked for his opinions on blitzing defensive ends or the ups and downs of a football season, there are many more layers to the man than most of us know.

He wants to learn to play the piano, for example. And more recently he’s begun to think about what he might like to do after football and has contemplated becoming an accountant.

He also has a weakness for Jordans, figuring he has about 40-50 pairs of the iconic sneakers.

“I have a lot, a lot that I haven’t even worn,” Bryant explained. “I just buy them and they’re sitting there. It’s a habit that came out of nowhere. I buy them, I look at them and then I put them in the closet and forget I have them. Then I’ll be out two weeks later and see them on somebody else’s feet and say, ‘Oh… I got those.’ I just recently bought a pair that I’ll probably never wear. Just a habit.

“I think it comes from not really having them growing up. It’s not that we didn’t have money, we were OK. Maybe now knowing I can have them is what feeds the habit. I’m wondering now if it’s a habit that needs to stop, but I would say it’s almost like an investment.”

Bryant’s father was a military man, and so he was essentially raised by his mother and sister. His mother, Bernita Hines, worked at the Standard Products factory in Goldsboro and now works in daycare. His sister, Vernita Hill – she’s married now – was also a gifted athlete.

He hopes to have both in Ottawa for Thursday’s awards ceremony.

“It was really my mother and my sister that raised me,” he said. “Those two have really been behind me my whole life and very supportive through everything. My sister played sports. I’ve got friends who were great athletes in high school and in college. And so winning an award like this… it would be for them, too. I’ve always felt like I’m playing for them in a way.”

It’s not difficult for a guy to stand out on the football field when he’s 6-5 and big enough to block out the sun. Bryant was a tight end and three-year letterman for the Goldsboro High School Mighty Cougars before landing with the Division II Elizabeth City State Vikings in 2005. After two years there, he was a walk-on at East Carolina when fate intervened.

Bryant was being used primarily as a blocking tight end when one of the team’s tackles had to step away from the game because of a heart condition. The coaches approached Bryant about moving from end to left tackle. And it’s a position he’s absolutely owned since.

“I made the move and it was like everything just happened for me,” he said. “It really gave me the chance to find out whether I was any good or not.”

His play got him noticed, and after passing through the 2009 National Football League Draft he was signed by the Denver Broncos as a free agent, He lasted with the Broncos until their final cuts that August. But upon his release, Bryant wondered what was ahead.

“I was stuck. I didn’t doubt that I would play again, but it meant I had to sit out for six to eight months,” said Bryant. “I was in Greenville and my roommate was a bouncer so he asked me to be a bouncer with him.”

It was the following spring, after a long stint bouncing at Club Phoenix on the East Carolina University campus, when fate intervened again. Bryant’s agent had suggested he consider the Canadian Football League.

“It’s funny,” said Bryant with a grin, “I never even knew they had a league in Canada, to be honest. My first time in Canada was in Saskatchewan in 2009… I was there for a weekend and then went home. The next June I was in Calgary.”

The Stampeders instantly saw something in Bryant they liked. He was starting by October of his rookie year and by 2013, was one of the dominant tackles in the CFL, twice named the Stampeders’ top lineman in 2011 and 2013 and selected to the league all-star team in 2013 and 2014.

The Bombers, desperate to fix the holes in their O-line, came courting in the winter of 2015 – just months after Bryant and the Stamps had captured the Grey Cup. Money was a factor in luring him away from Alberta, but Bryant also wanted a change.

“Calgary was great to me,” said Bryant. “They gave me my first opportunity to play professional football and I thank Huf (former Stamps GM and head coach John Hufnagel, now Calgary’s President and GM) and (former Stamps Director of Player Personnel) John Murphy (now the Saskatchewan Roughriders GM) for allowing me to come up.

“But I figured it was time for me to try to do some things on my own. We went to the cup in 2012 and 2014 and won and it was always the goal to bring a championship in Calgary. Every year we had the mindset that we were going to win the Grey Cup and then once we did that I felt like I accomplished everything I could there… I was an all-star, we won a cup and it was just time for me to move on.

“When the opportunity came to go to Winnipeg, I knew things were bad here, but that it was going to be a process. I feel like I’ve grown each and every year I’ve been here. That first year, 2015, was a rough one not just for me but for the team in general. Things improved last year and then again this year, but it was the same result.

“It’s tough. I want to leave a legacy here. We all do.”

Ask any of the men who worked with the Bombers offence in 2017 and they’ll say the difference between the Bryant of 2017 and the two seasons previous in blue and gold is simply about his focus and as evidence, point to the decline in his penalties – both the procedure and holding infractions.

Bryant explains that it’s more than just that. It’s about a mental focus he tried to bring to his already impressive skillset.

“It was mindset,” said Bryant. “I was telling (offensive line coach) Marty (Costello) the same thing. Before every play I remind myself, ‘I’m the best… I can do whatever’ and then with that mindset and doing it over and over again, it makes you stronger. Everything just fell into place. I was also more spiritual this year, too. All of that helped.”

“I had a friend tell me you have to do the right things to expect things to go the right way for you. For me, that was praying and going back to the mindset where I believe I can do anything.

“I’ve never been a guy that worried about a lot of things. Some people might see that as me being nonchalant, but that’s not it. It’s me believing that some things are not going to bother me. I believe that good things and bad things are going to happen, but there’s a reason they happen and you’ve just got to learn to move on and not worry about it.

“That’s translated for me on the field. I can have a bad block or a bad play, but I’ve learned to flush it and move on. It’s about having a positive mindset. As offensive linemen, you have to have that mindset, otherwise you’re going to get flustered and things will get worse and worse.”

Bryant also praised the men on the Bombers O-line that he is around constantly during the football season, naming every one of them at least once in his chat with and the role they played in helping him.

“Our group is special, one of the best I’ve been part of,” Bryant explained. “We’ve all got different personalities, which makes it better. You’ve got a guy like Jermarcus (Hardrick)… he’s been around for a while and is starting to do great things. You’ve got Sukh (Chungh), Goose (Matthias Goossen)… those guys have been playing well and haven’t gotten the recognition they should, but their time is coming. Travis (Bond) is who he is. Paddy (Neufeld) is a great guy to have in the room because he’s seen a lot of things and he’s just a great guy to have. Mike Couture and Spoon (Qadr Spooner) are still young… we’re trying to bring them along and have them improve. The bond is key for the offensive line and it was good this year.”

That, in a nutshell, is Bryant – reluctant to thump his own chest, he prefers to mention those who helped him along the way to get here this week. This is a team sport, after all, even if Thursday night he is up for the highest individual honour a man at his position can earn.

And so, asked who he might thank if he is fortunate enough to make an acceptance speech, Bryant – a religious man – said he will mention God and family first. He hopes to be able to thank his mother and sister, of course, along with his nephews and his friends in Goldsboro. He brings up the faith Bombers President & CEO Wade Miller and GM Kyle Walters have shown in him, and his coaches – particularly head coach Mike O’Shea and Costello.

And of course, his compadres along the line. Every one of them had a role.

“We all work together. We’re one heartbeat,” said Bryant. “Without those guys I wouldn’t even have the opportunity to be mentioned for something like this. We all go as one goes. That’s what important to remember when you get nominated for something like this. So many people played a part.

“You know, I set some goals at the beginning of the year and getting to this point was one of them. And to think that it might actually come true… it’s pretty amazing.

“But, you have to chase something to at least have the chance for it to happen.”