Replacing Deshaun Watson is nothing compared to what Clemson QB Kelly Bryant endured

Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY Sports

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Jeff Tate became concerned while watching Kelly Bryant during a Wren High School basketball game in February 2014. Bryant did not play in the first half, so Tate, Bryant's head coach on the football team, went to check on him at halftime. He found Bryant in the locker room vomiting blood.

"It was frightening because you don't know what's going on," Tate said. "You have all these thoughts: Is it an aneurysm? Is something going on with his stomach? Why is he throwing up blood? I knew we had to get him to a doctor and figure out what was going on."

Bryant hadn't felt well for some time prior to the game. His mother, Deborah, a surgical technician, thought he might have been suffering from a virus because a stomach bug had infected many of his classmates.

"He was getting sick every three days," said his father, Russ Bryant. "He'd get well, and then three days later he was sick again."

Bryant's parents took him to Children's Hospital of Georgia in Augusta and soon learned that his condition was much more serious. Doctors ordered an MRI of his abdomen and found a softball-sized abscess, which was blocking his lower intestine. Bryant had emergency surgery to remove the blockage, which might have infected his entire body if the pocket had burst.

"It's just a blessing that he's alive," Deborah Bryant said. "They might have not caught it in time."

Bryant, then a junior at Wren High in Piedmont, South Carolina, had been diagnosed with Crohn's disease a couple of years earlier. A chronic inflammatory bowel disease that affects about 700,000 people in the U.S., according to crohnsandcolitis.com, Crohn's disease can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss and anemia.

Diet restrictions and medication had largely managed Bryant's condition. He had to give up spicy foods such as Buffalo wings and Mexican dishes that he loved, and he still stays away from most dairy products. Even with the changes, he suffered occasional symptoms. Crohn's disease can cause intestinal swelling, which can lead to a blockage such as Bryant's, but his family had no idea how severe his condition had become.

After Bryant's surgery, doctors told his parents that his fight was far from over. He spent nearly a month in the hospital trying to get well. He couldn't eat solid foods and lost more than 50 pounds while he was hospitalized. He even had to use a walker after being bedridden for so long.

"It just really puts in perspective that no matter what I go through moving forward, I can get through anything," Bryant said.

Bryant's grandmothers, the late Esther Bell and Maggie Bryant, spent nearly every day with him at the hospital while his parents worked. His parents were at his bedside each night, and his father prayed with him and sang gospel hymns to him before leaving for work.

"We were really worried," Russ Bryant said. "It was very difficult knowing our son was as sick as he was. It was something that was life-changing for both of us. It's still difficult to talk about."

Bryant, who was 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds before he was hospitalized, was regarded as one of the best quarterback prospects in the southeast going into his senior season at Wren High in 2014. Coaches from Clemson, Duke, Florida, NC State, Ole Miss and other schools were recruiting him.

"It just really puts in perspective that no matter what I go through moving forward, I can get through anything." Clemson QB Kelly Bryant

But as Bryant's muscles withered away while he lay in a hospital bed, he wondered if he'd ever be able to play football again.

"I was just trying to get healthy," Bryant said. "It was hard to look ahead when I looked in the mirror and saw a skinny kid who couldn't walk."

Tate said that when he and his wife went to visit Bryant in the hospital, he hardly recognized him.

"He was just so weak. He was eating only ice and water," Tate said. "If you looked at him before he was sick, he was the epitome of a perfect physical specimen. He didn't look like Kelly Bryant when he was ill. His face did, but that was it."

Although doctors assured Bryant and his parents that he would soon return to a normal life, his football career was the furthest thing from his parents' minds.

"Football was never a concern for me," Russ Bryant said. "I was more worried about him living and having a normal life. That was all we were worried about."

When Bryant was finally able to go home in March 2014, he left the hospital with a colostomy bag. When surgeons removed the blockage from his lower intestine, they also performed a colostomy, in which they diverted his large intestine to a stoma, a visible opening on his abdomen. A colostomy bag was placed over the stoma to collect waste that Bryant normally would have passed while using the restroom. The colostomy bag allowed the inflamed and irritated portion of his lower intestine to heal.

Bryant wrapped the colostomy bag with bandages so it wasn't as noticeable when he left home, and he wore it to school and under a tuxedo at his prom that spring.

"No one knew except us," Tate said. "I knew, and his parents knew, but we didn't tell anyone else. We didn't want to make a big deal about it. We knew he was going to go back and have it reversed."

Bryant even persuaded his parents to allow him to go through spring football practice while wearing the colostomy bag. He was kept out of contact drills, but he was able to throw the ball and participate in some conditioning.

"I was nervous and terrified," Deborah Bryant said. "He didn't stop doing anything that he normally did. The doctors really talked to him about not letting what he was going through define what he was going to do later in life. They were really an inspiration to him. When he was in the hospital, they came and talked to him every day to keep him motivated and encouraged."

In April 2014, only weeks after Bryant was released from the hospital, he verbally committed to play football at Clemson. His cousin, current Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant, had played for the Tigers, and then-offensive coordinator Chad Morris never wavered in his interest, even when Bryant was ill.

"We kept up with what was going on with him and knew that he'd lost a lot of weight," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We hadn't even officially offered him yet when all of that was going on. There was definitely some concern, but everyone thought they were going to get it under control."

When the school year ended in June 2014, Bryant had a second surgery to reverse the colostomy. He has two visible scars from the stoma. Bryant spent the summer before his senior season at Wren High catching up on his academics, regaining the weight he'd lost and working to improve as a passer.

"He put in so much extra work that summer," Tate said. "He was determined and motivated to prove that he could throw the football. By his senior year, he proved that he could make any throw he'd be asked to make."

As a senior, Bryant was named a finalist for the Mr. Football award in South Carolina. He was also named all-state after throwing for 3,579 yards with 41 touchdowns and rushing for 720 yards with 14 more scores.

Few players entered the 2017 season with as much intrigue -- and pressure -- as Bryant. Having served as Deshaun Watson's backup for two seasons, Bryant was considered a talented, but unproven, prospect with impossible shoes to fill.

Bryant battled redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and true freshman Hunter Johnson for the starting job this past spring and was named the starter by Swinney during preseason camp. He had to shoulder the burden of replacing perhaps the greatest player in Tigers history, as well as leading Clemson back to the national championship game.

Swinney said Bryant shared his story with his teammates during a team-building exercise in preseason camp.

"He's a neat kid, and he's been through a lot," Swinney said. "A lot of his teammates didn't even know his story and how it's a great motivation for him and made him strong. He's quite a story."

Tigers co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott didn't learn about Bryant's past medical problems until after Bryant arrived at Clemson. Elliott says that adversity is one of the reasons Bryant was prepared for the unenviable task of replacing Watson.

"I think it's why he's so humble and why he has the approach that he has," Elliott said. "He's just so grateful because you go from being a highly recruited athlete to potentially losing your entire football career because of something you really can't control.

"I think it's what gives him the confidence and composure to do what he does because he knows this is just football. He's dealt with something that's life and death."

Bryant has played well in his first season as a starter, throwing for 1,582 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions while rushing for 460 yards with seven scores, despite battling injuries. Nearly three weeks ago, Bryant, already playing with a sprained ankle, suffered a concussion in a 27-24 loss at Syracuse, which at the time seemed to put a dent in the Tigers' hopes of repeating as national champions.

Bryant spent the next two weeks recovering, and he was healthy enough to start in last week's 24-10 victory over Georgia Tech. He is expected to be under center again when the Tigers play at No. 20 NC State on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC and ESPN App), a game that might decide which team wins the ACC's Atlantic Division.

Bryant has been criticized for not throwing the ball as well as Watson did, but he has the Tigers in the same position they were in each of the past two seasons. The Tigers are ranked No. 4 after the first College Football Playoff rankings, and if they rebound and win their next four games and claim another ACC title, they'll have a chance to return to the playoff for the third straight season.

"There's nothing anybody can say about him to get me upset," Russ Bryant said. "They don't know what he's been through. He's a testimony. His story is something you'd see in a movie, but it's real life."

Bryant is ready for whatever life throws at him next.

"I think it keeps me grounded," Bryant said. "A lot of people wanted to put a lot of pressure on me and question how I was going to fill [Watson's] shoes. There are moments when I think back to being in the hospital. I just try to refer to back then and use it as motivation."