By Jim Saranteas
You know you have to interview a player when someone else tells you, without any detail, that they have a story to tell that you will not believe. Indeed, Chicago-born and raised, Corbin Bryant is that person with an unbelievable story to tell. The son of a preacher, and the second youngest of five children, you would think Corbin’s story would have much to do about where he was raised and what he went through outside the lines. While it may very well be true that there were influences at work here — indeed, Corbin mentions his father as having a great impact on him, especially in his decision to attend the world renown Northwestern University — it’s not Corbin’s focus. Still, as one can tell, there is a good up-bringing as a back-drop.
When you first meet Corbin Bryant, he is an imposing figure at roughly six-foot four inches tall, three hundred pounds, with hands like catcher’s mitts. These are great qualities of a defensive linemen in the NFL, and especially a defensive tackle. If you only heard his voice, on the other hand, you might expect something different. Smooth in delivery, and easy in ordinary conversation, Corbin is exemplary of the modern day, educated young man.
Getting His Start In Football
Corbin Bryant attended Chicago’s Morgan Park High School, an institution close to one hundred years old, with its own deep history. The school was the birthplace of six other professional football players, a couple of professional baseball players, musicians, an economist, and the first African-American woman in space. What’s impressive is that within that pedigree, Corbin is listed as one of Morgan Park High School’s “Notable Alumni” on Wikipedia.
Corbin’s athletic career in high school was not as a football player, but as a basketball player. At six foot, four inches, Bryant made for a foreboding power forward, or smaller center. And while the football coach and friends of Corbin’s, who played football asked that he play, Corbin was just happy to play basketball. In his senior year of high school, however, that changed when the team needed his help.
Corbin joined the team and played offense as a tight-end, and defense, as a middle linebacker and defensive end. While Corbin may not have had the higher-end training that many of the other, better known power-house football schools have in Chicago, he did something all football coaches, scouts, and fans of football can appreciate — Corbin made plays! As a tight-end, Corbin caught twenty-eight passes for four hundred and fifty yards and seven touchdowns. That’s an average of sixteen yards per catch! But, it was on defense that Corbin impressed. Corbin’s stat line sounded much like a professional football player, and the very best at that: 105 tackles, 8 sacks, four pass deflections, and two forced fumbles. In one season, and with no previous football experience under his belt, Corbin made an immediate splash on the scene for Morgan Park, as the team finished 12-2 and won a Chicago city championship, as well as the coveted inter-league Prep Bowl. In the minds of recruiters was where Corbin may have made his biggest splash though.
As a top-ranked state recruit, Corbin caught the eye of Northern Illinois University as well as Central Michigan University. But, it was the Northwestern University Wildcats that caught his eye.
Going Wild For Northwestern
Like many top college recruits, Corbin received a visit from then head coach, Randy Walker. Accompanying Walker was Northwestern Alum, current Northwestern head coach, Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was the team’s linebacker coach, and recruiting coordinator before being named head coach just months later.
While one would think it was Coach Walker who swayed Corbin to strongly consider and ultimately decide to attend Northwestern, it was really Fitzgerald, who Corbin gushed about in praise. Corbin was amazed. “One of the greatest players in college history was there at my family’s home, recruiting me,” Corbin said. Indeed, Corbin’s emotions were so over whelming at the time, he could hardly say a word. “I let my mother do all the talking.”
Before Bryant could even play a single down of football for Northwestern, Coach Walker tragically passed of a heart attack the following summer. After Coach Walker passed, Pat Fitzgerald was named Northwestern’s head coach, the youngest in the Big Ten and in the NCAA, Division 1, at the time. But of course, with youth in Fitzgerald came some growing pains for the Northwestern Wildcats football team that went 4-8 in 2006. Corbin Bryant experienced some growing pains too, but of a different kind.
In 2006, his first season while starting at defensive end, Corbin broke his ankle early after just two games. Despite much promise, this was an early collegiate career setback, but one Corbin could recover from. Corbin received a medical hardship for his first season of play, a collegiate football mulligan so to speak. Yet, as a result of the injury, Corbin felt he slowed a bit. As he recouped from the injury, he began transitioning from playing the defensive end position to the defensive tackle position.
Unfortunately, ‘Lady Luck’ was not smiling on Corbin in 2008, his third season with the Wildcats. After eleven games, in almost a complete season, Corbin suffered a devastating knee injury, tearing his ACL. The injury of course required reconstructive knee surgery and six to seven months of rehab. While this was a short four seasons ago, back then, this was an injury that had sounded the death knell of many an athletic career. It wasn’t until just this past season that an athlete (Adrian Peterson) showed us that medicine has advanced to a degree that these types of injuries do not necessarily have to adversely affect a subsequent season, or end a career, for that matter.
In a sport where it’s easy for coaches and fans alike to push players to the side who are injured or who are slowed by injury (especially multiple times), Corbin fought to get back on the gridiron. Of course, with determination and grit, Corbin succeeded. In 2009, and in 2010, Corbin played in all thirteen regular season games. His toughness and determination were recognized when in 2008, Corbin received the Randy Walker Wildcat Award, which is given to a player who ‘demonstrates the work ethic, toughness and attitude of a warrior.’ In 2009, Corbin received the Bryan Paynter “Ultimate Wildcat” Award, which is given to a player who ‘serves as an example by confronting adversity with courage and deciation and always putting the needs of the team first.’ (You can read more about Corbin’s statistics and accomplishments on the Northwestern athletic website.)
In 2009 and 2010, Corbin started all twenty-six regular season games at defensive tackle. He was chosen co-captain and captain of the team, and finished as Academic All-Big Ten. In his final season as a collegiate player, Corbin tallied 25 tackles including 8.5 tackles for loss. As can be expected, the accolades were many and too many to mention here.
When asked about whether there was any one thing that stood out about his career at Northwestern, Corbin couldn’t point to any one thing. Corbin was very proud to start and finish the program under Coach Fitzgerald, who he gave kudos to for turning the program around, a program Corbin feels very much a part of today. Corbin credited Coach Fitz with helping the team “believe they could win” when others didn’t. For example, in his redshirt freshman year (2007), the Wildcats finished 6-6, and in his redshirt sophomore season (2008), the Wildcats finished 9-3. Suddenly, “No one could look at the Wildcats as a team to mop the floor with anymore,” as Corbin felt others perceived. Corbin feels he was part of the process that changed the Wildcats from one of the worst teams in college football, to a team that won its first bowl game in 63 years this past season. Corbin predicts Northwestern will be one of the best team’s next season, 2013. According to Corbin, “complacency” is not a word in the vocabulary of Northwestern. Nor does it seem to be a word in Corbin’s vocabulary either. Not only did Corbin finish with a successful college football career at Northwestern, Corbin graduated, and received a Master’s degree in Sports Management after turning professional.
In preparation for playing professional football, Corbin played in the Texas versus the Nation bowl game, where he recorded a sack and two tackles. While he wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, Corbin put up some respectable numbers at Northwestern University’s Pro Day.
Like many promising college football players expected to turn pro, Corbin was projected to be picked in the spring 2011 NFL Draft between rounds four through seven. As the draft is televised nationally over three days, Corbin didn’t watch the draft until day three, when rounds four through seven are televised. Corbin thought there were teams like the Redskins, Cardinals, and Seahawks that were interested in his talents. However, with every passing pick, and every passing round, the one thing Corbin didn’t hear was his name being called by then commissioner Roger Goodell. While Corbin was of course disappointed not to be selected, he knew it wasn’t over as far as being signed by a team or being invited to the camp of one of the thirty-two professional teams that makes up the National Football League.
Unfortunately, like many undrafted players in the 2011 season, the league locked out the players until a new collective bargaining agreement was agreed to by the league and the players union. During this time, Corbin was disciplined and continued to work out on his own to stay in shape, until the strike ended, and Corbin got his chance to catch on with a team.
Once the lockout ended, Corbin worked out for the hometown Bears. Unfortunately, the Bears had no interest, citing the condition of his previously injured knee. Unlike the Bears, the Pittsburgh Steelers had no concerns over Corbin’s knee and he was signed as an undrafted free agent. Besides finally getting a chance to play, Corbin would be playing for a top-ranked defense, ranked second in total yards allowed in 2010. Corbin would also be playing for the legendary Dick LeBeau, defensive coordinator for the Steelers, who is considered to be one of the greatest of all time at his craft. LeBeau is the designer of the zone-blitz-scheme, a defensive scheme thirty-years old and still in use today. What’s more, LeBeau was seventy-two years of age back in 2011. And yet, when Corbin spoke of LeBeau, Corbin spoke of him like a person who served under a great general, with a gleam in the eye, a slight smile on the face. Corbin would be cut from the Steelers roster by LeBeau before the 2011 season began. He remembers the conversation like it happened yesterday. LeBeau apologized to Corbin that he would be cut from the roster. It was an apology that Corbin described as heart-felt and sincere. “I felt like he meant it. Like the team wanted me there.” Luckily, after Corbin’s release, the Steelers signed Corbin to the practice squad and Corbin was able to play in a game, when roster needs allowed. Corbin loved his time with the Steelers so much so, that when completing his master degree in sports management at Northwestern, Corbin did his thesis on the success of the Steelers organization and its culture.
While on the Steelers practice squad in November, 2012, Corbin was signed to the Buffalo Bills. The Bills didn’t have a very good 2012 season, finishing 6-10. Indeed, a new coaching staff has been brought in to lead the team in 2013.
When the time comes to be out of football, Corbin likes the idea of coaching or scouting, and some day being an athletic director, or even a general manager. In the meantime though, those things seem far away to Corbin. Corbin is presently third on the Bills depth chart at the right defensive tackle position. For him, it matters not. Corbin is just excited for the challenge and the opportunity to make the team and has been working hard this off-season every day, with the thought of taking the field in 2013 a member of the Buffalo Bills. While there are no guarantees in life, one thing is true: life is what we make of it. Corbin is making the most of it, with quite a ways to go. Along that journey, he continues to build quite a story to tell, one step at a time.