College football's most enigmatic star stares with that curious, cockeyed glare of his for about 10 seconds, then throws a little grin before extending his hand. Standing among his Pittsburgh teammates, he's thicker than expected and appears much older than 20. Truth is, Antonio Bryant is not just an old 20. He's a tired 20. Even when he smiles, he looks like he's in pain.
Over the past 10 months, Bryant has been named the best receiver in college football, and branded as the sport's biggest headache -- a brooding, cocky, out-of-control prima donna. At 6'2", 195 pounds, he's got Randy Moss skills -- and scowls to match. And after an off-season marred by mishap, it seems everyone in the Steel City has been bracing for Bryant's big meltdown. That's why few people were surprised when, in the heat of late July, Bryant's life was flipped upside down and splashed across the front pages.
The trouble really began Dec. 7, the night Bryant won the Biletnikoff Award, becoming just the second sophomore -- after Moss -- to be honored as the country's top receiver. Bryant deserved it: He'd led the nation with 130 receiving yards per game while working against double and triple coverage. He was the main reason Pitt had made just its second bowl game appearance in a dozen years. The timing seemed perfect.
The Panthers had moved into a state-of-the-art, $40 million training complex they would share with the Steelers; and Bryant, the most intense Pitt competitor since Mike Ditka, seemed the ideal face for the revamped Panthers. Heisman whispers emanated from every corner. Antonio Bryant had emerged as a star. Too bad he knew nothing about how to handle it.
"Antonio just wasn't used to all the attention," says his mom, Irene Bryant. "All of a sudden, everybody wanted to be his friend. Girls kissing him that he didn't even know. He'd say, 'Mama, I don't want to be treated like a trophy.' He just wanted to be his old self."
Nearly every D1-A player was a BMOC in high school and knows a little about being The Man. Not AB. As a senior at Miami Northwestern High, he was the team's sixth-best prospect. "We only had to beat Louisville to get him," says Pitt coach Walt Harris. "And we even held off on him until the Monday before signing day."
If Bryant isn't accustomed to the spotlight, at least he's used to winning awards. Irene Bryant's place in the roughneck Liberty City section of Miami has a living room full of honors her little Antonio won -- for being a scholar. "That boy's got more trophies at home for academics than he does for athletics," says Florida A&M DB Levy Brown, a childhood buddy. Bryant was so advanced that he was placed into a magnet program for gifted students in the second grade. Every school day for the next 10 years, he'd get up at sunrise to take a bus and a train to ritzy, predominantly white Coral Gables. On game nights for Coral Gables High, he sometimes wouldn't get home until 1 a.m.
Bryant begged his mother to let him stay local with his Northwestern boys for his senior year. Irene wasn't sure. She gave birth to Antonio when she was 15 and says she broke ties with his father shortly after their son was born. She relented after talking to Northwestern's academic counselors, and her son enrolled in the school in time to join their 16-0 state championship season. Bryant maintained his grades, but, as he says, people don't start trippin' over someone getting a 4.0 -- unless, of course, that's your 40 time.
Two years later, all of Pittsburgh was trippin' over Bryant winning the Biletnikoff. Bryant hit the postseason awards banquets, which usually amount to nothing more than missed classes and extra pounds. In Bryant's case, though, his waistline didn't expand, his head did. As did his notoriety. Between January and April, Bryant was cited for disorderly conduct after arguing with a campus cop over a parking ticket; dismissed by Harris from two practices after missing a conditioning drill; and, finally, kicked off the team for jawing with a coach following a fight with a teammate in spring practice.
Harris says Bryant has always been combustible, and the head coach's reaction to the fracas was a case of strong-arming his star to keep the rest of the team in line. Whenever Bryant had showed out in the past, Harris would call Irene, who would then ask "Coach Carl" Johnson to intervene. Johnson first met Antonio in 1991, when the scrawny, intense 10-year-old was a linebacker for his Liberty City Warriors. Sensing Antonio's needs were different from those of his other players, Johnson told him to call anytime. Antonio has never stopped calling, and now calls Johnson his godfather.
When Harris called Irene to say her boy was off the squad, she snapped. "I was crying," she says. "I called Coach Carl and said, 'This is it. Enough is enough.' "
Coach Carl got Irene on a flight to Pittsburgh three days later. "I walked up on Antonio in the gym while he was playing basketball," she says. "The other guys just thought I was some girl. He didn't see me. Then the ball rolled out of bounds right to me, and he looked up and was like, 'Mom?!?' He was gasping for air."
Irene and Antonio met with Harris and offensive coordinator J.D. Brookhart. "Tony, I want you to sit down and keep your mouth shut and your ears and eyes open," she railed. "This is how it's gonna be: You are the TV and Walt and J.D. are the remote. And when they hit a button, you have to do what they want you to do. You are not on the payroll here." She also scolded Harris and Brookhart for giving AB flexibility on plays and permission to break routes: "It's like you were giving him the key to the city." All three men listened intently as Irene Bryant laid down the law for an hour. "I had to get drastic on him," she says. "He thought it was acceptable for him to cut up and have temper tantrums. I needed to remind him that it's not."
Some college coaches believe that to win these days, it helps to have a few cocky guys with what they call "Florida attitude," something that drips off Bryant like sweat. Harris doesn't buy it, though, and is trying to wean AB from his Miami vice. "We're working very hard with Antonio to think before he reacts," says Harris. "He grew up in an area where they're taught to react first, and it's not the same here. This isn't Miami. We believe the most disciplined team usually wins and the team with the greatest chemistry always wins."
Harris reinstated Bryant when he apologized to the coaching staff after returning from a two-week trip home in May. In his days at Tennessee and Ohio State, the 54-year-old Pitt coach worked with six wideouts -- from Anthony Miller to David Boston -- who became NFL first-rounders. Harris says that coaching Bryant is a new experience. "He's different from anyone I've ever coached before," says Harris. "His passion for the game is too strong, and he struggles with that. With some special people, their greatest strength can also be their greatest weakness. And that's Antonio."
Blame his face. Antonio Bryant always looks angry. With heavy-lidded, cobalt eyes set close against his nose, and pouty cheeks that constantly pinch down on his chin, his face is forever smirking. And everything about AB is dramatic. His arms, so willowy long they appear to be dripping into his cleats, fly as he rides Brookhart for not calling his number. They flail as he rails against a teammate for dropping a pass, or running the wrong route, or making a bad read, or missing a tackle. "Antonio has such high expectations for everybody," says Harris. "Whatever he's into, it's 110%. Nothing is halfway."
Bryant has always been that way. Young Antonio would get so frustrated with his geometry homework, he'd bawl. "He just wouldn't give in," says Irene. "I'd have to stop him. 'Antonio, stop and come eat your dinner. Antonio, stop and go take a bath.' Everything had to be just right."
Bryant holds his three younger brothers and baby sister to the same line. "Antonio's like their daddy," says Irene. "He's always telling them not to cut corners and about how the only things that will fall out of the sky on them are rain, snow and hail."
Awards aside, Bryant shed even more sweat this summer, still driven to improve. "I think he tries too hard and feels he has to be perfect," says QB Rod Rutherford. "He wants to be this macho guy, but that really isn't him." To a man, the Panthers have stood by Bryant, even if he still gets under some people's skin.
Roger Kingdom, a two-time Olympic gold medal hurdler and ex-Pitt DB, trained the Panthers this summer and initially clashed with Bryant. Then Kingdom recognized that same diva quality that all great sprinters have. "He has that persona, and people label him right away," says Kingdom. "They think he is a hotdog, but he really is misunderstood. He just needs people to trust." After six weeks of drills, Bryant clocked a 4.3 40 -- a huge leap from the 4.49 he ran in 2000. "This is a gold mine that Pitt has," says Kingdom. "If he worked solely on track, he could be a world-class sprinter."
Don't expect Bryant to give up on football, though. This season he wants to win a bowl game, not just get to one. He doesn't plan on leaving early for the NFL, either. He wants to get his degree in criminal justice and someday go to law school. Lord knows he got a crash course on the justice system this summer.
On July 23, US Airways flight 478 landed in Pittsburgh at 10:56 a.m. Bryant, who had been back home working at a youth football camp run by his buddy, Santana Moss, sat in coach waiting for the pilot to allow the passengers to deplane. He was wondering why he wasn't getting credit anymore for the good things he did -- making good grades, helping other people's children. He'd spoken to, what, 20 groups of kids in the past year? Half asleep, he noticed two cops board the plane. "I was thinking, 'Somebody must've really done something wrong up in here.' "
Then his worst nightmare played out. The officers approached Bryant, double-checked his seat number and escorted him off the plane, cuffing him when they reached the tarmac. Staring at the metal clamps on his wrists, Bryant's mind hit warp speed. He was flying from Miami, right? And Mama, who had worked at Miami International, always used to tell him crazy stories. A skycap must have tucked drugs in his bag.
The police told him to settle down; this was no drug charge. He was charged with using a ticket purchased with a stolen bank-card number. AB says he spent the next five hours bewildered, waiting in a holding cell to be arraigned. "I was like, 'Man, I don't have credit cards, I don't know nothing about credit cards,' " says Bryant. "It just snowballed."
Bryant's arrest was the top story in Pittsburgh that night. And all the national sports shows led with the tale of the Heisman hopeful's new legal tangle. Talk radio and Internet geeks roared about AB's latest mess, calling for his immediate dismissal from the team. Bryant lay low, clicked off his cell and seethed, just waiting to see who believed in him and who didn't. "It got crazy," he says. "With me, it was like guilty until proven innocent. My friends kept saying how the media's doggin' me. I was like, 'whatevah.' That's just the devil's way of trying to make me lose my faith."
Harris was in New Jersey attending the Big East media day, where Bryant-bashing was the story du jour. The coach and three players -- LB Gerald Hayes, DE Bryan Knight, C Chad Reed -- staunchly defended him. "I trust what he's told me," said Harris. "And he is innocent."
The next day, the investigation's focus shifted to the camp's organizers, who had provided Bryant's e-ticket. Twelve days after he'd been handcuffed, Antonio was cleared of the charge. Down in Liberty City, Irene dropped to her knees to thank God, while up in Pittsburgh, her boy just sat in his apartment shaking his head. At least, he says, he found out who had his back. With his name cleared, Bryant is now back in the running for another Biletnikoff and maybe the Heisman. But AB says the trophies don't matter anymore.
If you still don't believe him, that Biletnikoff can be found in an unopened box at Irene's place, a few feet away from the worn set of encyclopedias he won in the third grade.
This article appears in the September 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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