Even the things that are the most fun, that bring the most joy, can turn sour when they become work. Not only are sports not an exception, they’re practically the rule, and college football serves as a prime example. The amount of time required and the intensity of both the mental and physical effort required, along with the pressures, expectations and competitions, are tough enough to handle when someone is enjoying it.
But when love for the game fades, the activities become requirements and the practice becomes work. Even if the effort is the same, performance is sure to slip, only making things even less enjoyable and fueling a maddening circle of disappointment and frustration.
Mississippi State’s new safeties coach Ron English, a former head coach who has been in the game long enough to coach over 50 players who eventually made it to the NFL, recognized the symptoms quickly when he arrived in Starkville. Junior safety Brandon Bryant, who picked the No. 1 for his jersey to signify he’s the best player on the field, was clearly one of the unhappiest players on the field, too.
“He asked me,” Bryant recalled, “do I love football? And I told him how I really felt about it … He told me during the offseason he knows I work hard and do what I’m supposed to do, but he said, it just doesn’t look like you enjoy yourself.”
How he really felt is a complex and many-layered subject, but the short version of those feelings is that they were far from positive. On the field last year, Bryant’s production slipped, a fact which didn’t escape the notice of fans watching the games, as Bryant unfortunately discovered on social media week-after-week.
But behind the scenes, pressures and expectations were getting to Bryant, as well. Certainly, the stories being written about him following up on his impressive freshman season raised expectations, and to be fair, switching to the No. 1 jersey didn’t do anything to dissuade reporters from writing those stories. Even more pressure was coming from those whispering in his ear about the NFL, some telling him that as a draft-eligible sophomore he would be ready for the pros after this season.
All of these things were swirling around Bryant mere months after losing his father who was killed in a motorcycle accident in December of 2015, the end of Bryant’s freshman season. To compound the issues, Bryant’s position coach Tony Hughes left in that same December to become the head coach at Jackson State.
Bryant, the fastest player on MSU’s team, one of the most gifted athletes in the SEC and a presumptive rising star in college football, found himself unhappy and often alone in a football world that had once been his source of joy and meaning.
“I wasn’t enjoying it,” Bryant said. “Of course I’m going to work hard, because I’m a competitive person, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to love the game you play.”
After a year of frustration, Bryant is slowly working his way back to the football player he used to be – one that has fun when he plays. Changes on the field are coming as a result of changes away from the game, thanks largely in part to the unexpected arrival of English, a coach able to serve as a role model and even father figure to Bryant and his teammates.
After their first conversation, Bryant and English started talking nearly every day, sometimes about football, but more often about the rest of Bryant’s world.
“With him, I’m really trying to get him to enjoy playing football,” English said. “When I got here, I felt like it was a burden and everything I heard was there had been high expectations, and then obviously the death of a parent is heavy. Just this week I met with him and didn’t even want to talk about football. I said, how about we talk about life and how you’re dealing with these issues. Quite frankly, until he deals with that and enjoys playing football, he’s not going to be the player he can be.”
Bryant says now he tries to spend as much time around his new coach as he can, picking up on the way he lives his life, the way he approaches the game and the way he maintains his happiness. The young safety says he wants to be like his new coach, enjoying every day and every thing he does.
To be sure, there’s no magical switch Bryant can flip to change his outlook immediately. It’s a process, clichéd or not. Contentment and satisfaction don’t come just by smiling more and pretending to be happy. But as spring practices have begun, Bryant is beginning to re-discover the joy he used to get from playing football.
“If you look at him the past couple of days,” English said, “he’s had a smile on his face. He picks a couple of balls off and he celebrates. I thought that was huge. I asked him coming up here, how did you do today and did you have fun? He said he did, and hopefully we can keep him having fun.”
Part of the change for Bryant has involved tuning out the noise around him away from the field, choosing to set his own goals for himself. The only expectations he worries about meeting are his own. Certainly, the journey is far from over, but with English helping to guide him, Bryant’s outlook is more positive than it’s been a long time.
“I just have been around so many guys that I know it’s hard to be good when you don’t enjoy playing or if you are distracted by whatever reason it is,” English said. “I told him this, college is going to be over soon and it is the best time of your life. I’m not saying you’re not going to have other great times in your life, but there’s nothing like college. So I told him I want him to enjoy it and enjoy the last two years he has left here, and I am going to try to help you do that.”