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U. of Pittsburgh
Panthers' Bryant learning to cope with the demands of football stardom

Friday, June 01, 2001

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Slowly, and with some difficulty, the game is revealing itself to 20-year-old Antonio Bryant.

No, not football. He already knows what it takes to be the best wide receiver and one of the top players in college.

Pitt receiver Antonio Bryant averaged 19.1 yards per catch and had 11 touchdowns last season. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Bryant, who is preparing for a junior season that could be his final one at Pitt, is learning all about the game behind the game -- the things everyone needs to figure out to get along and get ahead.

"I just want to play football, that's all I wanted to do, but I had to find out the hard way that you can't just go out there and play football. You've got to politic," Bryant said after a workout at the Panthers' South Side practice facility. Until yesterday, he had not spoken with local reporters since his second suspension of spring drills in early April.

"You've got to be a certain way for certain people," he said. "That's not who I am, but I learned that you've got to compromise in certain circumstances to keep everybody happy."

That can be a difficult lesson for anyone, and Bryant has had to learn it in the public eye after a blockbuster sophomore season.

He won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver and was a consensus All-American after leading the country with an average of 130.2 receiving yards a game. He averaged 19.1 yards a catch and had 11 touchdowns as Pitt was 7-5 and went to the Insight.com Bowl.

So it was news when he was arrested in January for arguing with a university police officer about a parking ticket, then suspended for the first two and last three spring practices -- first for missing a team conditioning workout and arguing with Coach Walt Harris about it, then for fighting with teammates and losing his temper during a scrimmage.

"You can't do anything without someone out there saying, 'Oh, my God, not the All-American!' " Bryant said. "The funny thing about it, it wasn't the fight that people care about; it was the suspension. I'm going to get the attention because of the things I've done. People expect you to be perfect. I'm a human being, too."

That said, Bryant is grateful Harris suspended him.

"That's just a stumbling stone that God put in my path," he said. "He wanted me to stumble so I could see certain things and know how to approach them in the future."

Bryant might tone down his act, but some things won't change.

"You've got to remember -- we're not out there performing ballet," he said. "We're not out there performing a fine art. This is head-banging, head-bashing. It's supposed to be intense."

He won't lose himself completely in any newfound political correctness -- "I don't smile; I smirk," he told a photographer yesterday -- and he promises never to approach football differently.

He will still be eight shades of intense. He will still spend a lot of time watching game tapes. He will still follow his grandmother's advice and rub refrigerator-cold witch hazel on his sore muscles, shunning the ice his teammates use.

And he will still be fearless. At 6 feet 2, 185 pounds, Bryant is not the biggest receiver, but he is dogged.

"If they throw it in my radius, whether it's double coverage or whatever, that's my ball," he said.

Pitt is promoting Bryant as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He has been named to four preseason All-American teams so far -- Preview Sports and Football Action yesterday, plus Lindy's and Playboy, which earned him a trip to Las Vegas last month.

The last time Pitt had a major award winner and a Heisman Trophy candidate was 1980. That year, Hugh Green won the Lombardi Award as the top lineman/linebacker and the Walter Camp Award as player of the year and finished second in the Heisman voting, and Mark May won the Outland Trophy as the top interior lineman.

A season approximating his success in 2000 could very well prompt Bryant to leave Pitt a year early for the NFL.

Based on advice his mother received, Bryant has taken out a substantial insurance policy to guard against lost pro wages in case he is badly injured. He has already been listed in some early NFL draft rankings.

He said those things should not be construed as indications he has decided this will be his final college season. The insurance policy is simply prudent, he said.

In fact, Bryant said this summer is like any other in his career.

He spent several days at home in Miami after the spring term. He is taking summer classes, scrutinizing game tape and, in the mornings, lifting weights and practicing the passing game with his teammates in informal workouts.

Beyond that, he's laying low.

"I'm just staying in my Bat Cave," Bryant said, stifling a smile. "I've got to. There's trouble out there, and it's too easy. I just fall into the traps."

NOTES - Junior free safety Ramon Walker also was named a first-team All-American by Football Action. ... Preview Sports listed Pitt 24th in its preseason team rankings.

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