Clemson’s quarterback competition isn’t keeping the senior from enjoying life
It is lunch time inside the Allen Reeves Football Complex and it does not take long to spot Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant.
In the middle of the room there is a table where about 10 or so players are huddled together and there is nothing but laughter coming from it. Sitting down squarely in the middle, where all can see, is Bryant.
“He is funny. He is very, very funny,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “He is saying something that is kind off the wall and weird, but it is Kelly. You are like, ‘okay, that is Kelly.’”
Elliott has a nickname for Bryant he chose to keep behind closed doors because he does not want to make the quarterback mad at him. The nickname is that of a famous comedian, who Elliott says Bryant is exactly alike.
“It is just kind of the way he carries himself and because of that he is able to have relationships with everybody because they just value his personality,” Elliott said smiling.
It’s Bryant’s personality that has allowed him to hold off the negative attention he received in Clemson’s quarterback battle. Despite leading the Tigers to a third straight ACC Championship last year and a third straight trip to the College Football Playoff, fans and media question Bryant’s ability to lead Clemson back to the promise land and win another national championship.
It did not help that notion when Bryant struggled in the spring game this past April, while freshman Trevor Lawrence—the nation’s No. 1 player from the class of 2018—shined in front of 55,000 fans at Death Valley, the media and a national televised audience on ESPN.
But none of the pressure has affected Bryant’s joyful attitude about life and playing the game he loves.
“He smiles. He is a kid that you just can’t help but love,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He knows that he has to compete every single day. He is in a tough battle right now with some other very talented players, but he just embraces it. He is very confident in who he is and his abilities.
“He is just one of those kids that kind of perseveres. That is ingrained in him through his life experiences.”
There was a point in Bryant’s life when he did not know if he would ever play football again.
After suffering from what his parents first thought was a stomach bug for several weeks, Bryant finally went to the hospital after his high school coach found him throwing up blood in the bathroom when he did not return for the second half of a high school basketball game.
Bryant was eventually taken to the Children’s Hospital of Georgia in Augusta where an MRI of his abdomen revealed there was a large abscess that was blocking his lower intestine. Bryant had emergency surgery to remove the blockage.
Bryant was lucky they discovered the abscess early or things could have gotten much worse. But he was not out of the woods. He still had a lot to do before he would fully recover.
Already battling from the effects of Crohn’s Disease, which he was diagnosed with two years prior to the blockage, and which led to his ailment being more severe than they thought, Bryant spent nearly a month in the hospital where he lost 50 pounds and was not allowed to eat solid foods.
“It was a tough situation. There was nothing I could really do but have a good attitude about it and trust my doctors,” Bryant said.
Football was the last thing on Bryant’s mind. Once a promising prospect who had offers from Clemson, NC State, Ole Miss, Duke and Florida, he was just a shell of his former self. He was using a walker to get around after being hospitalized for so long and his muscles where whittling away more and more each day.
“I tried not to think about it,” he said. “Football was not really on my mind at the time. I did not know what was going to happen. I just wanted to get healthy, again. I was not thinking about playing football.”
Nearly a month after having emergency surgery, Bryant was eventually released from the hospital, but his ordeal was far from over. He left the hospital that day with a colostomy bag, which allowed the inflamed and irritated portion of his lower intestine to recover.
The colostomy bag collected waste that Bryant normally would have passed while using the bathroom.
When Bryant went back to school, he wrapped the bag with bandages, so no one could see it when he left home. He wore it to school, to football practice, later that spring, and even to his high school prom.
Though Bryant had not regained all his weight, no one outside of his high school really knew what he had been through. So, it was no surprise when he led Wren to an undefeated regular season and to a Western AAA Region title, while earning All-State honors his senior year.
The one thing that was constant through his entire illness was Bryant’s attitude. Like everything he does, he smiled thought it all.
That was his same approach in the spring of 2017 when people questioned if he could lead Clemson back to the College Football Playoff.
“Anytime you have an experience that puts life really into perspective, it changes from a priority to a privilege,” Elliott said. “We all say that our priorities are the most important things, but what happens with our priorities? A lot of times they get out of order. Our privileges are different.”
In the spring of 2017, everyone wondered who was going to replace Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Bryant seemed to be the guy, but no one knew what to expect. The previous two years, Bryant played only in mop up duty as Clemson played for one national championship and won another.
He showed flashes of greatness, like his long run at Miami in 2015, but there was doubt on whether he was the guy who could get the job done.
Bryant proved all the doubters wrong. Many figured Hunter Johnson, who enrolled in school in January of 2017, would take over as Clemson’s quarterback by at least the third game of the season at Louisville.
However, that did not happen.
Bryant led the Tigers to an impressive, hard-fought victory over Auburn in Week 2 when he came back from an injury earlier in the game and led Clemson on back-to-back 88- and 79-yard touchdown drives in a 14-6 victory. The following week at Louisville, he threw for a career-high 316 yards on 22-of-32 passing, including a 79-yard touchdown pass to Ray-Ray McCloud as the Tigers routed the Cardinals and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
“All the things that were said about him, that he could not do it. He did not let that impact him,” Elliott said. “He went out there and he did it. It is nothing new to him. I think it is just his character and the person that he is. The adversity he has overcome, he just has the right demeanor.”
The job was now Kelly Bryant’s. There was no doubt about it.
“I didn’t listen to what anyone was saying. I was not trying to be Deshaun or anybody else. I was just being me. I was being Kelly B,” Bryant said.
Bryant ultimately led Clemson to its third straight ACC Championship and to the College Football Playoff again. In the ACC Championship Game against Miami, he threw for 254 yards while completing 23-of-29 passes. He also threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Deon Cain and ran 11 yards for another score. He opened the game by completing 15 straight passes, an ACC Championship Game record. He was later voted as the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“He has a deep appreciation for just being able to play and compete,” Swinney said. “I think it is one of the ironies of life. I think you have to be in danger of losing something to have a true appreciation for it. I think we all deal with that. We take things for granted or whatever.
“I don’t think he takes a day for granted. I don’t think he takes a practice for granted. I think he just works to be the best that he can be. He just appreciates the opportunity to go play and to go run.”
Alabama was not so kind to Kelly Bryant in the Sugar Bowl last January. The Crimson Tide defense was all over him all night. They intercepted him two times, returning one to set up a touchdown and a second one they returned for another score.
Bryant had his worse game as a starter, completing just 18 of 36 passes for 124 yards. Alabama exposed Clemson’s inability to consistently make big-plays down field, something that crept up on the Tigers from time to time throughout the season.
With Lawrence on campus fans and media started questioning Bryant’s ability to lead the program once again, using the Alabama game as an example of his ineffectiveness.
“All of us are challenged with that. It is not just the quarterback at Clemson,” Elliott said. “I am the same way. I have naysayers. Coach Swinney has naysayers. Everyone has naysayers. There is always going to be competition, so you cannot let that impact how you prepare so you can go forward.”
Elliott and Swinney both said Bryant had a good spring and an even better fall camp. However, Lawrence showed in the last half of the spring just how special he is, and he carried that momentum into the fall camp, where the coaches said he was even better.
It seems as if all the naysayers have forgotten where Bryant has come from and what he has overcome to be in the position he is in today. He isn’t going to turn over his job to Lawrence because everyone thinks Lawrence is better.
“Everybody wants to write me off,” the rising senior said. “But I’m still here, and I ain’t going nowhere.”
Instead, Bryant has embraced the competition. He does not get mad when he reads or hears what people are saying about him or how the other guys are coming on. Instead, it motivates him. It fires him up. It pushes him to be better.
“Everybody wants to talk about everything else that’s coming in,” Bryant said. “But me, I just go back to work. I just let everybody do the talking.”
Elliott believes Bryant’s positive attitude, willingness to never give up and bracing competition comes from what he had to deal with when he was a junior in high school.
“I think when you have a situation where it puts football truly in perspective that ‘this is what I do, it is not who I am. This is not my entire life.’ I think that gives you peace to be able to go treat it like a privilege. You just put everything you have into it and then you do not expect anything in return.
“I think that is what really gives him his strength. He does not really expect anything in return. He is just happy he got another opportunity to play the game.”
In return, it makes Bryant appreciate not just the ability to play football but everything in life. Even when he was being asked the hard questions from the media following the spring game, he smiled the entire time. He never lost his jovial attitude and perspective. It’s the one thing that truly gives Bryant a leg up in the competition.
“The thing about Kelly is that he can communicate with everybody,” Elliott said. “You have to think about it. The locker room is a diverse place. There are a lot of guys from a lot of backgrounds and with a lot of different up bringing’s. To have the ability to communicate with every single person on the team, that is a special quality.
“He treats life as a privilege. He does not think too highly of himself. He never thinks that he is better than anybody and because of that he can relate, and he can communicate with everyone on the team and the guys just rally behind him.”
Swinney believes it is easy for Bryant to take himself back to those times when he was sick, to those moments when he probably had a lot of doubt and a lot of fear if he ever would play football again.
“I just think he has a very healthy perspective that sometimes young people don’t have. A lot of times, a lot of young people don’t have to quite face the adversity like he has faced already. I think he is very mature and has a good healthy perspective. I think he has joy in competing and playing.”
That is why it is easy to find Kelly Bryant smiling and laughing inside the Allen Reeves football Complex. He just loves being around his teammates and loves the fact he has an opportunity to compete for one of the best jobs in the country.