On the night that changed Brandon Bryant’s life forever — and threatened to derail his NFL dream — the clock read 1:14 a.m. when he felt his phone buzz.
This was early December of 2015, and Bryant was lying in bed, resting up before one of his finals following a killer redshirt freshman season at safety for Mississippi State. He turned over, saw it was his brother, and ignored it.
He’ll understand, Bryant thought to himself. It’s late and I need my rest. Big day tomorrow.
But when Bryant heard his phone buzz again — his brother dialed him right back — he felt a pit well up in his stomach. If his brother was calling him back that quickly, he knew it was bad.
He sleepily answered the phone and hoped against hope.
“They just identified Pops’ body,” his brother said. “He passed away in a motorcycle accident.”
Bryant was crushed, so much so that he hung up the phone and dropped it on the floor in shock. He didn’t know what to do, and he couldn’t believe it. Harold Bryant was dead? How?
His entire life, Brandon considered his father invincible. A 6-foot-7, 280-pound mountain of a man, Harold had been in the Army for years as a sniper in special ops, Brandon says, someone who was gone on duty for stretches of his son’s life but always returned home.
Brandon’s mother, Katrina, always told him he acted just like his dad, and given how much he respected Harold’s aura, he was just fine with that.
“He was a nice-looking guy — all the ladies thought he was handsome I guess,” Bryant recalled with a chuckle to Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. “My swagger came from my pops, and my confidence did, too. He spoke so highly of himself at all times. He wasn’t cocky, but he just knew he’d be the best at whatever he did.”
What’s more, Harold, who was only 44 years old, had just retired from the Army, meaning the two would soon have more time to spend with each other. Hell, Brandon saw Harold two weeks before that fateful evening, and with Christmas and his birthday coming up, Brandon was already looking forward to the good times.
But now what?
“To lose a guy like that, who is so important to you, in the middle of when everything’s going good for you, that’s very traumatic,” Bryant now admits.
That night, he says, started a downward spiral that lasted nearly a year. He began seriously pondering how tenuous life can be, and the motivation to keep pursuing his goals — like making the NFL, for instance — started to elude him.
“I was traumatized for a while,” Bryant said. “I just had negative energy, negative vibes. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, I was very introverted. I just felt like I was out the loop and didn’t want to play football anymore.”
Though he was coming off a strong freshman campaign in which he recorded 63 tackles, six passes defensed, three pass breakups and three interceptions, when the 2016 season rolled around, he no longer practiced as hard and didn’t hold himself to the same on-field standard. He strongly considered quitting the game he once loved as he lost his starting job late in the season.
“Football takes you away from everything you need to take care of because it’s so time-consuming,” Bryant said. “I was going through a lot and I was at a point where I felt like I needed to step away for a bit.”
The nadir came on New Year’s Day, when he was arrested in Georgia and charged with driving under the influence.
“I was making a lot of crazy decisions, doing some butthead things,” Bryant said. “The DUI was something that could have been avoided. I could have killed somebody or somebody could have killed me.”
But in retrospect, the moment would serve as the opening salvo of a two-part eye-opener for Bryant, who found out days later that his girlfriend was unexpectedly pregnant with his child.
And at that moment Bryant, who had always wanted to be a father as good as his dad was, realized he was very, very close to screwing everything up. He had to change.
“I knew what type of father my dad was and I knew what type of father I wanted to be in the future, and my future was coming early,” Bryant said. “So I just snapped out of it — I became a man because raising a child is a great responsibility.
“I changed my life from that day forward.”
For starters, Bryant decided he would never drink and drive again. But he needed help to revive his NFL dream, and he’d receive it from Mississippi State’s new safeties coach Ron English, who was hired in February 2017 and immediately went to work on getting Bryant’s mind right.
“We had a talk one day, and he told me I had to learn how to live with the past,” Bryant said. “He was telling me, for me to be who I want to be, I had to put the past behind me and look forward.”
Part of that, Bryant realized, was getting out of his own head and focusing more on the positive side of life. Positive people and positive thoughts beget positive outcomes, and with a daughter on the way, he didn’t want to entertain a future with negative possibilities.
“I love being positive now — it’s all I do these days,” Bryant said.
English also harped on Bryant — who has always leaned heavily on his hitting ability and athleticism (he was timed at 4.24 in the past) — constantly about technique and the necessity of playing with anticipation.
And while his tackles dropped by half in 2017 — he recorded 32 tackles, two pass breakups and one interception last season as a part of a three-safety rotation — he believes he became a harder worker and a better player, overall.
“My film got better throughout the year and I practiced hard every day because I had something to work for, and I had someone looking up to me,” Bryant said, referring to his 9-month-old daughter, Kynslei. “Even though my daughter didn’t know anything going on at the moment, she still depends on me right now to be a man that she needs in her life.”
Bryant was still imperfect, he admits. A new coaching staff arrived in Starkville this offseason, as both head coach Dan Mullen and English moved on, and academic issues kept Bryant from practicing at Mississippi State all spring before he eventually left the team.
After exploring transfer options, Bryant opted to declare for the NFL’s supplemental draft. And though his name was bandied about as a possible late-round option, he went undrafted Wednesday.
Maybe the old Brandon would have let the disappointing turn of events over the past few months bother him, but not anymore. He decided long before the draft that if he wasn’t selected, he’d have a good attitude about it as long as he got an opportunity to show what he can do with an NFL team somehow, somewhere.
“You live in the moment — what happens, happens,” Bryant said. “Whatever happens in this draft, I just want to be able to tell my mom I went for my dream and I tried to do it. At the end of the day, it’s not about me or what I can do; it’s about who I can help and the lives I can impact. I feel like I’m a born leader who was born to make an impact.”
Bryant will get that opportunity with the New York Jets, it turns out, as he is expected to sign a free-agent deal with them, a source tells Yahoo Sports.
In Bryant, the Jets are taking a reasonable chance on a good straight-line athlete with big-hit ability who needs to refine his instincts at safety. The fit might be curious on the surface for some, since Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye represent one of the league’s best young safety tandems, but Bryant would likely be a special teamer in the short term for any team he signs with. And with general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles facing pressure to win, why wouldn’t they make a low-risk signing on a player with long-term potential who could help on special teams immediately?
Regardless, Bryant can’t wait to show everyone what he’s capable of over the coming months and years, as he continues to live his best life for his beloved daughter and a father whose memory he’ll try to preserve with his actions, even in the face of setbacks.
“I’m sure my pops wanted to see me graduate college and continue my career at Mississippi State, but after his death, I learned everything happens in life for a reason,” Bryant said.
“Life is about how you respond to adversity, and I just want everybody to know that throughout everything that went on, I still stand today, stronger than ever.”
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Bucks rookie is down to his last $3.71 as he awaits NBA paycheck
• Ex-UCLA star found dead after posting cryptic YouTube message
• How one LeBron tweet led to a sad day in the sun for LA fans
• Rescued Thai soccer players forced to decline World Cup invite