After premature end to career, Chris Bryant finds peace off the field

Bryant, Michigan’s director of high school relations, has discovered his purpose after losing his dream.

Bryant, Michigan’s director of high school relations, has discovered his purpose after losing his dream. Buy this photo
Courtesy of the Bryant Family

 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017 - 3:00pm

Four pops.

Five years later, and Chris Bryant can still hear the sounds.

It was the week before Michigan’s season opener against Alabama in the 2012 season opener at AT&T Stadium. According to Bryant, a redshirt freshman at the time, he was on the verge of starting at left guard after a heated competition throughout fall camp. His parents had even booked flights to Dallas and couldn’t stop talking about how fired up they were to see him play.

“Three or four days” before kickoff, Bryant was participating in a routine offense-versus-defense drill. The running back made a cut. Someone fell on Bryant’s leg, and he heard the terrible noises — the sounds of a fractured tibia.

It was the first serious injury of Bryant’s career. Instead of flying to Texas, his parents went to Ann Arbor to talk to doctors about the medical procedures their son would have to undergo.

“It was very hurtful,” recalled Eric Bryant, Chris’s father. “You start focusing on how he’s feeling because I know it’s devastating for him more so than for myself or for my wife. But it’s a pain that you can’t really describe because you don’t want to show too much of that emotion to him because then that would only make him feel even worse.”

Over the course of the next year, Bryant underwent an arduous rehabilitation process. His leg never healed the way he wanted it to. Still, he was able to work himself back onto the field, drawing a spot in the lineup against Minnesota on Oct. 5. His return didn’t last long.

Just like the first catastrophic injury, Bryant can still describe the second in full detail. 

It was a routine double block. He had his own assignment and threw his arm out for an assist —  where it got “completely thrown back.”

“I just felt a bunch of tears,” Bryant said, “all through my shoulder.”

He gritted his teeth and finished the game. In the following days, he tried desperately to tough it out, hiding his full symptoms from doctors, hoping he could play the next week at Penn State.

“This was my opportunity,” Bryant said. “I sat out a whole year, not about to sit out another year.”

But by the time the Wolverines had lost in triple overtime to the Nittany Lions, Bryant knew he had to get his shoulder looked at.

The diagnosis? A torn rotator cuff, with damage to other ligaments and the rest of the shoulder. And at that point, Bryant had a big decision to make. Was continuing his playing career worth it?

“Just came to a point where (you look) 20 years down the road,” Bryant said. “Do you want to be able to go outside in the backyard to throw a football with your kids?”

One night, Bryant spoke to his mother, Joy, over the phone. His injuries had constantly bothered her and she told him as much. She also told him about an intuition that had come to her.

“It was like I was dreaming, it was like God was shaking me, and I understood now, it was like a puzzle being put together,” Joy said. “It came to me, and that morning when I got up — we talk every morning — I said, ‘Christian, God spoke to me and told me for you to stop playing football, because he has a better plan for you. He told me to tell you to just give it up.’

“I said, ‘When you go to bed, you talk to God like you talk to me, and he’ll give you the answer.’ That night he did, and he said, ‘Okay, mom, I’m going to the coach and I’m going to let him know I’m taking a medical.’ ”

Chris Bryant’s football career — what had led him to Ann Arbor in the first place — was over.

“That’s what I’d been known for my whole life — as a football player,” Bryant, now Michigan’s director of high school relations, said. “To actually have to close that chapter and open up another one, it was tough. Took a while to get over it.

“A lot of long nights just crying, man. It was just a hard feeling.”

Bryant fell victim to two serious injuries that ultimately ended his career before it truly began.

Bryant fell victim to two serious injuries that ultimately ended his career before it truly began. Buy this photo
Courtesy of the Bryant Family

 

It took Bryant a “couple months” to deal with the end of his career.

He met with famed sports psychologist Greg Harden. His parents reassured him that things would turn out okay and told him that he would find his true calling. Bryant’s relationship with Brady Hoke developed quickly as well, especially in the aftermath of his second injury. The head coach met with Bryant often, checking up on him regularly and prodding him to think about his options. Did he want to coach? Did he want to recruit?

“Coach Hoke supported me the whole way,” Bryant said, “and sat me down until I found out what I wanted to do.”

And it just so happened that one of Bryant’s best friends was in a “very, very similar situation.”

Antonio Poole, a linebacker signed in the same class as Bryant, never played a snap due to two injuries — a torn pectoral and a ruptured Achilles tendon.

The two were roommates freshman year. At the time, they couldn’t have known what they were in for. But their friendship only grew as the pair bonded over their shared misfortunes.

“I was just like, ‘Damn, one of us gotta stay healthy, man,’ ” Poole said. “It was just funny, every time one of us got hurt, the other got hurt, and after that, we just bonded. It was just trying to keep each other’s spirits up, because coming there to play football and then things didn’t go the way we thought they would. We pushed each other through our rehab and continued to push each other and keep our spirits up after our football careers were over.”

Poole was the first to hang up the cleats. After Bryant followed suit, Poole found himself giving advice. They talked about ways to cope. About life after football. About finding a new identity.

Poole realized he couldn’t leave the game completely behind and became a recruiting assistant. Bryant was his first recruit.

“Yeah, I remember I told (Bryant), that was one of the great ways to stay part of the team, just helping out,” Poole said. “He asked me, ‘How was it?’ I said, ‘At first, you’ll be outside, watching the guys play and you’ll feel like, ‘Oh man, I feel like I could play again,’ but your body just isn’t allowing you. So I told him he’d go through that process as well and I was just telling him it’s great to still be around the team.

“You’re still caught up in helping the guys out and you contribute to the win — just in other aspects. Not on the field, but helping with gameplan, helping the coaches when they need something and then bringing in the new talent that comes and being mentors to the new freshmen and guys as we recruit them.”

As a player, Bryant had never realized just how much went into football. He was particularly unaware of the work that went into convincing high schoolers — like Bryant once was — to sign with Michigan in the first place.

That aspect appealed to him the most. Bryant liked being able to talk to kids who weren’t able to afford tuition. He liked being able to tell them that they could earn the right for Michigan to pay their way through hard work. He liked the “whole vision” of giving kids — that he felt, in some way, were like him — an opportunity of a lifetime.

It was all the more sweet that he got to do so alongside his best friend.

“We used to talk about it and (we) joke about it now — there’s no way in the world that another university in the country has two players that both ended up having to take medicals (who are) roommates in the same recruiting class,” Bryant said. “But at the same time, things happen, and I feel like that was God giving us each other to support each other and be there for each other. That was my boy, man. We’ve been through a lot together. I just can’t think of anybody else I would’ve rather went through everything we’ve been through together (with).”

Added Poole: “I think it worked perfectly. I really believe that — we were talking about that a lot — it was God’s will to bring us on this path and to show people that there is life after football, and that you can do it. Because a lot of people go into a very depressed mode, but you can make something out of it after you lose the game of football.”

Bryant leaned on the support of his parents both during and after his rehabilitation process.

Bryant leaned on the support of his parents both during and after his rehabilitation process. Buy this photo
Courtesy of the Bryant Family

 

Following a 5-7 season in 2014, Hoke was fired. As fate would have it, his replacement came in already knowing Bryant.

While at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh had recruited Bryant vigorously. He had hosted the Bryant family on an official visit and made Bryant feel comfortable.

When Harbaugh left for the NFL, Bryant didn’t anticipate crossing paths ever again.

In 2015, though, he found himself sitting in Harbaugh’s new office at Schembechler Hall.

“Coach Harbaugh came in, and he knew who I was from recruiting, he knew about my injuries and everything like that, and we just had a conversation when he first got here,” Bryant recalled. “He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wasn’t really sure. I didn’t know if I wanted to go into the real world yet, but I knew I loved football and I wasn’t ready to give it up.”

The two quickly reached an agreement: Bryant would stay on as an intern with the team while continuing his studies at Michigan’s graduate school for social work.

He had to work his way up from the bottom — this involved cutting a lot of film — but eventually he earned a paid internship, and most importantly for Bryant, he earned the responsibility to work with recruits.

“I felt comfortable sitting in front of recruits and different families,” Bryant said. “I felt like I had a unique story (in) that I was only here to start a couple games but I’m sitting here getting my master’s degree from the University of Michigan and not having to come out with any debt. … Coach Harbaugh felt like that was a unique story, and Coach Harbaugh is really huge on taking care of his guys.”

Harbaugh continued to give Bryant bigger assignments. He was tasked with bringing recruits on campus, where he’d host them on visits and give them tours around campus.

And then one day this past summer, director of player personnel Sean Magee grabbed Bryant and told him Harbaugh wanted to see him.

“(Harbaugh was) like, ‘We were thinking about making you our director of high school relations,’ ” Bryant said. “And I didn’t really know — who was the director of high school relations, and what happened to him? And he’s like, ‘We never had it, and I feel like you’d be perfect for it. I feel like you have the character.’ ”

The promotion was a big step up in responsibility. Bryant describes the role as being Harbaugh’s “right-hand man” when it comes to maintaining relationships in high schools and communities across the country. His importance only increases during the season when Harbaugh is busier.

He enjoys the role. But last summer, he had a chance to work in the area he eventually hopes to transition into.

In July, Bryant served as the director of football operations for Michigan’s annual Youth Impact summer camp. The program brings in kids from inner-city Detroit, where they work with Marines, football players and teachers from Ann Arbor public schools for two weeks before the experience culminates in a game of football at Michigan Stadium.

“It’s tough because I don’t want to leave Michigan,” Bryant said. “But I’m going to find a way to get my own nonprofit up and running. Just helping out inner-city kids, teaching them the path to get out of their situation and get to the next level.

“I feel like I could be a prime example. I found a way, and I don’t know all the answers, but I know a way that I got here. … That’s my whole goal, to be doing that within the next year or two.”

Bryant’s role within the program was designed just for him by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

Bryant’s role within the program was designed just for him by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Buy this photo
Courtesy of the Bryant Family

  

When Joy Bryant was pregnant, her doctor correctly predicted that her unborn child would play football.

“He said,” Joy recalled, “‘The way he’s kicking, the way he wants to come out, you’re going to have a little football player.’ ”

That eager baby never had the 10-15 year professional career he dreamed of. But he was still, as his doctor anticipated, a football player. And however short his career may have been, however brutal the injuries he suffered were, Bryant knows he wouldn’t be where he is now without going through all of it.

“I feel like I’m a walking action of what Michigan stands for — our values as far as taking care of our own,” Bryant said. “I’ve been through a lot, but everything I’ve been through, I just kept fighting, kept going through it … I had a goal in mind.”

He’s in a position now where he can use his story to help others — and he’ll continue to do so, even if that isn’t at Michigan.

Of course, the game still calls to him. Just a few weeks ago, Bryant was watching practice with graphic designer Aaron Bills when he told Bills he’d do “anything” to get on the field. Bills turned to him and told him that’s how he knew Bryant really missed football — he didn’t want to just play the game, he even wanted to practice.

“I tell you,” Bryant said, “to this day, I still go out there and I want to play football.”

Bryant doesn’t think that urge will ever subside. Yet he has no regrets about how his career panned out at Michigan.

It may seem paradoxical. But Chris Bryant found peace in football. He just needed to step off the field to get there.