Nothing has come easy for Martavis Bryant.
Growing up without a father in Calhoun Falls, S.C., was hard for Bryant and his mother, Roberta. So was discovering that he was going to be a father as an 18-year-old senior at T.L. Hanna High School.
It wasn’t easy for him to accept that a missing math credit, from his freshman year of high school, caused him to miss the birth of his first daughter, Brooke. When she was born Sept. 9, 2010, Bryant was making up that credit — which he thought would transfer from Calhoun Falls High School to T.L. Hanna upon the former’s closure — at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., in hopes of becoming academically eligible to play at Clemson.
Steelers' Mitchell preparing for season
Steelers' Mike Mitchell talks about the upcoming season during OTAs at Heinz Field. (Video by Matt Freed; 6/10/2014
Even adapting to Clemson wasn’t easy, even if it was because of his self-described hardheadedness. He was academically suspended for the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl as a sophomore; that December he fathered his second daughter, London.
“It was a lot of downs, a lot of ups, but more downs than ups,” Bryant said. “Just staying faithful and knowing that the man upstairs has the greater power to lead you to anything. I just had faith in God and never really gave up on myself.”
Bryant persevered through potential roadblocks, self-inflicted or not. He was taken by the Steelers in the fourth round of NFL draft and signed his rookie contract Monday. He does not expect his next challenge — becoming an integral part of the Steelers offense — to be any easier.
“I worked hard to get here,” Bryant said. “I’m just working, trying to learn everything, trying to be the best possible pro I can be, for my kids and for my sake.”
His mother certainly worked hard for his sake. Roberta Bryant used sports as a means to keep her only child off the streets and made sure to attend as many of his games as possible; when she had to miss games because of work, her mother, Irene — who she calls her “backbone” — would fill in.
Roberta moved nearly an hour away from her home to Anderson, S.C., when Calhoun Falls High School closed after his sophomore year so Bryant could play football at T.L. Hanna. And when he became a father, Roberta’s commitment still did not waver. Just as Irene was her backbone, she would be that to her son.
“I didn’t want him to think he had to quit college, and as long as he was in school I was going to help,” she said.
Roberta would make arrangements with the mothers of Bryant’s children to take Brooke and London on weekends so they could see their father while he was in college. She calls her grandchildren the daughters she never had.
Bryant is trying to be the father that he never had. While his fatherless past isn’t the primary motivating factor for being in his daughters’ lives, he wants to make every effort to allow them to avoid some of the challenges he faced growing up.
“I don’t want them to go through the same things I went through,” he said. “I want them to have a better life, I want to see them graduate, I want to go to all their games — something my dad didn’t do for me, just show them that I care and I love them.”
One man who did try to motivate Bryant was his high school football coach at T.L. Hanna, Kenya Fouch. When Fouch first saw Bryant on the football field, he knew he had the tools to be an NFL wide receiver. His body control, paired with his speed-height combination, made him an easy Division I prospect.
What hindered Bryant was his immaturity, which he carried with him to Clemson. The attention going from high school to college especially had an effect on Bryant.
But by at the end of his sophomore year, those around Bryant began to see a change. There were no more problems on the field or in the classroom. Bryant had his best season at Clemson as a junior, totaling 827 yards and seven touchdowns.
“I was certainly proud of the way he was ready to bounce back,” Fouch said. “I think when they suspended him for that bowl game it was an eye-opening experience for him, having to sit home and watch his teammates win that game.
“His junior year numbers showed [that] it is a process with him, and honestly if those issues weren’t there he would’ve been a first-round pick.”
It remains to be seen how Bryant’s maturity will hold up in his next challenge. He’s still only 22; naturally, there might be a curve. But those close to Bryant agree there are two things in the world that bring out the best in him and show what he’s capable of: his daughters.
“I’m proud that he made the decision to be present and take responsibility, and he does a great job with them so that they don’t have the same experience that he has,” Fouch said. “That’s one of the areas where he has showed a great deal of maturity, seeing him with his group of girls; you see that it’s in there.”
Bryant is going to work for his girls, but he finally is able to take care of his mother, too. Roberta insists that his focus should be on his children — “I can take care of myself,” she said — but he knows he now has the ability to support the woman who sacrificed so much for him growing up.
“It’s a blessing for me to be able to take care of her, because she took care of me all by herself and it takes a strong woman to do that. I saw her struggle; now it’s just good for me to take care of her and provide for her because her legs are going bad. I can’t let her work, man,” he said of his mother, who has leg and thyroid problems.
“She doesn’t really want anything and she made that clear to him, his priority is the kids,” Fouch said. “She’s been there every step of the way, she’s handled business and she’s made a lot of sacrifices. … She’s been amazing through that process and I can see why he feels indebted.”
Bryant’s children have not been to Pittsburgh to visit him; he visited home two weekends ago but is waiting until after OTAs for them to make their first trip up. After all, if he’s to provide for them, he has a playbook to learn.
But unlike his early days in college, he’s embracing the chance to study. The NFL, he said, is a different ballgame — everyone is on point, and he needs to be, too. It might not be easy, but then again, nothing has been.
“It’s going to help me push through a lot of things,” Bryant said of his past experiences. “As long as I keep faith in God, and know that all my hard work will pay off, I’ve got no regrets.”
Jourdon LaBarber: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @jourdonlabarber.