November 23, 2018

Stanley Bryant | The big man with the bigger heart

Stanley Bryant (66) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the CFL Players Award at the Winspear Centre in Edmonton, AB on Thursday, November 22, 2018. (Photo: Johany Jutras / CFL)

EDMONTON – The best offensive lineman in the Canadian Football League takes a deep breath, exhales, and leans up against a wall in the basement of the Winspear Centre.

Not 15 minutes earlier, Stanley Bryant of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had been up on stage in front of large crowd at the CFL Awards gala, giving his acceptance speech after being named the Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman for a second straight year.

He’s part of history now, as just the sixth Blue Bomber to be named the CFL’s best hog and only the second (after hall of famer Chris Walby) to win it more than once. We should point out he’s also the first O-lineman in the CFL to win back-to-back since Scott Flory of the Montreal Alouettes in 2008-2009.

But now, just moments after a group of Winnipeg reporters have finished interviewing him, Bryant tries to take a minute to soak some of this in and understand the magnitude of it all.

The Winspear Centre, after all, is 3,414 kilometres from his hometown – Goldsboro, North Carolina. And the road here – to stardom in the Canadian Football League – was anything but a straight line.

“You know, I think back to when I first got out of college and went to the Denver Broncos and then got released, I was out of football for seven or eight months,” began Bryant in a chat with late Thursday night. “My agent at the time had a couple of guys in the CFL… I had never even heard of it at that time, to be honest. A few months later I’m signing with the Stampeders and from there things just took off.”

Bryant skips over a few pertinent details here, mostly because the man with the @MyHumble_Self Twitter handle loathes talking about himself – at least not in a boastful manner. An example: his self-deprecating sense of humour was evident Thursday as he rose from his seat to accept his award. Ambling up on stage, he glanced at a camera shot of himself on the big screen. Then rubbing the hair on the back of his head, he cracked “Looks like I’m thinning up top a little bit.”

Not surprisingly, Bryant went out of his way to thank God, his mother Bernita, who was in attendance, all his family and friends in his ‘big-small town’ (Goldsboro population: 36,000).

He also, of course, had to thank his brothers on the offensive line mentioning “‘Yosh’ (Jermarcus Hardrick), Sukh (Chungh), Goose (Matthias Goossen), Paddy (Neufeld), Mikey C (Couture), (Manase) Foketi and our offensive line coach Marty Costello… none of this would be possible without you guys and the special bond we have with that group.”

There was more… he thanked the Bombers organization and the ‘Canadian Mafia’ of President and CEO Wade Miller, GM Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea, and he gave a shout out to Athletic Therapist Al Couture, equipment man Brad Fotty and all his other teammates. Given more time, Bryant might have rattled off everyone he’s come across during his days with the Bombers, including the security guards, ticket takers and concession workers.

All of this hints at how the 32-year-old has truly come to not just appreciate moments like this, but all the days in between, both good and bad. That’s his experience talking, of course, but also simply the tone that comes from perspective.

Raised by Bernita, a single mom, and with the support of his sister, aunts and grandparents, Bryant first played his college ball at Division II Elizabeth State before making the East Carolina Pirates squad as a walk-on.

After standing out with the Pirates Bryant was signed to a free-agent contract by the Broncos in 2009, before being one of their final cuts.

He returned to North Carolina and was working as a bouncer when his agent suggested Canada. He had a brief look-see from the Saskatchewan Roughriders and then signed with the Calgary Stampeders in 2010. After helping the Stamps win the 2014 Grey Cup Bryant hit the free-agent market and the Bombers, desperately working to fix their O-line, came courting.

It wasn’t easy at first, but by 2016 the Bombers O-line had developed some chemistry through their continuity and then morphed into arguably the best group in the CFL.

Bryant, as the left tackle who protects the quarterback’s blind side, knows he doesn’t have moments like Thursday without all those brothers beside him.

He knows none of this notoriety comes without a lot of help and, undoubtedly, a guiding hand from above. And that’s what he was reflecting on late Thursday, even for just a few minutes, as he was away from the crowd, the bright lights and the attention.

“Someone told me it’s sometimes better to be a big fish in a small pond,” he said. “And so you can think about the NFL or whatever, but I’m so glad I came up here. It’s just funny how life works sometimes. Canada has shown nothing but love to me. I’m grateful for what this country has given to me and my family. I honestly call Canada my second home now because I’ve been up here for so long.

“But,” he added with his trademark grin, “I’m only a ‘celebrity’ in Canada, not back home.”