CLEMSON — He curses himself for dropping a pass, for mistiming his route, for doing anything that could possibly hinder his future.
Martavis Bryant possesses a freakish marriage of size (77 inches from dreads to toes) and speed, making the junior wide receiver a prototypical 6-5 deep threat to stretch the field in Clemson’s favor.
Bryant’s made mistakes, in football and in school. The worst of which disqualified him academically last December, booting him from Clemson’s Chick-fil-A Bowl trip, the catalyst for change in Bryant’s lifestyle.
Ultimately more life-changing are Bryant’s decisions off the field. He fathered two daughters, with two women, before he could legally drink alcohol.
Instead of running full-stride from his responsibilities, Bryant leans on his mother, his roommate, his mentor, and most of all his inner drive to provide for Brooke and London Bryant.
“My kids. My family. Just gotta take care of them. Can’t let them down,” Bryant says. “That’s the only thing that makes me happy, and keeps me going, really.”
He became a man because of his children. He saw no other choice.
Brooke Bryant celebrated her third birthday Sept. 9, during the Tigers’ bye week. There was a party. She happily dribbled a basketball. She’s super-smart, says receiver Sammy Watkins, who was Bryant’s roommate when they were freshmen.
“She’s a real active little girl,” says Bryant’s best friend, junior defensive end Corey Crawford. “Knows everything about us, can use the iPhone, texts, calls, she can do it all. And she’s as nice as she can be.”
Brooke lives with her mother in Anderson, but Roberta Bryant, Martavis’ mother, arranges to take care of her in Calhoun Falls every other weekend.
“Really, I see my oldest daughter any time I want to,” Martavis Bryant says. “When I’m at home, Mom will go pick her up and bring her down to spend time with me.”
London Bryant’s been a little further away, in Clemmons, N.C., outside Winston-Salem. Her godfather is Crawford, who lives with Martavis, and her middle name is Alisia, an homage to Crawford’s mom, who died last year of breast cancer.
“I’m always with ‘Tay,’ so I get to see her, get to hold her, get to play with her,” Crawford said. “She’ll never cry when I hold her. It’s pretty cool.”
London was born nine months ago Tuesday, and she’s already showing personality.
“She’s actually a really good kid,” says London’s mother, Jasmin Keesley, who’s moving with London this weekend to Clemson. “She’s really goofy, and outgoing. She likes to be out. She doesn’t like to be sitting in the house all day.”
Keesley pauses, and thinks of Martavis, whom she met through a mutual friend two and a half years ago.
“She reminds me a lot of him. She likes meeting new people. She’s a social butterfly.”
Brooke and London are half-sisters, and have met a few times, starting with Christmas last year when London was a newborn.
It was a bittersweet time for Martavis, who was “defiant about going to study hall,” as head coach Dabo Swinney remembers. Deciding enough was enough, Clemson officially suspended Bryant on Dec. 11 for the bowl game, a black mark on his career.
“It was hard, because I had to see my mom crying about it,” Martavis says. “I can’t accept going through that again.”
Then came the tough love. First, Roberta demanded to know whether Martavis still wanted to be at Clemson, where he’d dreamed of playing since he was a freshman in high school. Roberta’s only son insisted he did.
“I said, well, you’ve got to show them that you want to be there,” Roberta said. “You’ve got two kids you’ve got to take care of. I said, right now, I’m the one that’s supporting you and your two kids, and somewhere down the line, you’ve got to take responsibility.”
Roberta gave Martavis some money to make the trip to North Carolina and be present for the birth of his child (he was in school at Hargrave Military Academy when Brooke was born.) London was welcomed Dec. 17.
Three days later, Bryant was a student, an athlete and a father of two on his 21st birthday.
Bryant was 18, but still in high school, when Brooke was conceived. He’s the first to admit he has struggled with fatherhood.
“Martavis is not a bad young man,” says Clemson director of player relations Jeff Davis. “I’m saying all young men have growing to do and challenges to overcome.”
Without naming names, Davis knows of three other Clemson football players who are fathers — a typical number from year to year. And Bryant is not the only starter.
“Sex is something that we talk about, because it’s a reality on this campus, and how you deal with it,” Davis says. “If you’re not ready to be a father, then you don’t need to be having sex. I have to go there, because most men aren’t having that conversation.”
Bryant isn’t shy about his daughters. Davis, a father of six and member of Clemson’s Ring of Honor, respects that.
“Because you know how hard it is,” Davis reasons, “to be something that you’re not prepared to be? And still work at it?
“As long as he’s honest with the fact that, ‘you know what, I wasn’t prepared for children; however, I’ve learned from this. Because of that, I have become better, not bitter. I’m trying to figure this thing out, transitioning from boyhood to manhood.’ That’s what he’s learning from all of this. That’s good.”
Bryant also falls into another much more prominent category: college football players who didn’t grow up in two-parent homes.
“That,” Davis says, “a much higher number. We’re dealing today with young men who don’t know their fathers.”
As a child, ‘Tay’ lived with his mom Roberta, his grandmother, and Roberta’s uncle R.C., who was the most influential man in young Martavis’ life. R.C. passed away last year.
Martavis says he wasn’t close to his father growing up. He wants to be an active dad who grows in his involvement with his own two children.
His younger daughter’s mother notices and appreciates that.
“He always comes to me and says, ‘I want to do this for them.’ And I want him to be happy; I want him to be able to do that for his children,” Keesley says. “He knows how important it is for his little girl to have her dad in her life.”
When Bryant reached his low point — suspended last December — he wouldn’t be the first prominent player to transfer or give up football. Instead, he came back mentally stronger.
“Y’all know he’s been a guy that has been in the doghouse a lot,” Swinney says. “But since January ‑ and I was the biggest skeptic of all ‑ I’m a believer, because he’s been completely consistent in everything.”
Says Davis, “The one thing I love about Martavis: he hasn’t quit. He’s been able to make atonement and apologize and address his shortcomings.”
Bryant wakes up earlier, doesn’t sleep in as often. He shows up on time, not late, to team meetings. He keeps pictures of Brooke and London in different spots around his locker and apartment to keep him motivated.
“Tay has matured a lot to me,” Crawford says. “He’s become more focused on his business, trying to get to that NFL career, or make anything of himself, so he can provide for his kids. I see that every day.”
During the Tigers’ scrimmage in the heat of fall camp, Bryant saw his little girl in the stands. Brooke was in her grandma’s arms.
Martavis’ face lit up. He went over, gave Brooke a hug, told her, ‘I love you.’ Then he let go of his daughter, turned around and strapped on his helmet — a man on a mission returning to the field.
“I think about them 24/7, really, to be honest to you,” he says. “That’s who I do it for. They’re always on my mind.”