October 1, 2001
A Player Not Just a Mother Can Love
by Keith Weiland
Memo to John Henderson, the Tennessee defensive tackle largely regarded as the top collegiate prospect in next April’s NFL draft: Wendell Bryant is in hot pursuit. That should come as no surprise to astute college football fans, as one of Bryant’s biggest strengths is his inside pursuit. He also possesses terrific strength and long arms, and he uses his hands well. What fans may not know is that Bryant brings so much more to the game.
I know because his mother told me so. But more on that in a minute.
Following Wisconsin’s second half collapse to the upstart Bulldogs of Fresno State, Bryant, at 6’4" and roughly 300 pounds, was looking for an outlet for his frustration. Unfortunately for Joe Paterno, on September 15, that outlet became Penn State quarterbacks. Bryant registered five sacks, four in the first half alone, and totaled six tackles for a loss, taking his outspoken team leadership off the field and turning it into results on it, including earning Big Ten Player of the Week honors.
After the game, Bryant said that he wanted to set an example for his teammates. "I just want every defender on this team to play hard," he said. That type of leadership, combined with his immense physical ability, should make General Manager Charley Casserly and Head Coach Dom Capers stand up and take notice.
Still not sold? He’s intelligent, too. After changing majors twice, Bryant settled into a Consumer Science major at Wisconsin. He also interned at Merrill Lynch last summer where he helped clients make informed investment decisions. Not bad on-the-job training considering what riches may await him next year.
Bryant also knows when to turn it up a notch. He’s delivered some of his best performances in big games, specifically two Rose Bowls and a Sun Bowl, recording a sack in each of those three games.
So why isn’t America hearing more about this Badger? Most draftniks advise that Bryant needs more consistency, but it can be difficult to gauge talent on players who do their work in the trenches. Statistics don’t say it all for defensive tackles like they might at other positions. Bryant has also had to routinely fend off double teams, but he still finds a way to make his presence known to the opposition. Bryant terrorizes opposing offensive units. He led the Badger defense in holding the Nittany Lions to just 131 yards of total offense. His future, however, may be as a defensive end. He gets pressure, disrupts passes, and generally puts the other team into negative situations.
Need even more proof? I spoke with the one person who may know Bryant the best — his mom. Karen Wells raised a well-rounded son, and she prepared him mentally for life as a football player. Coming out of high school in St. Louis, Bryant had twelve scholarship offers at various colleges. Wells helped put that into perspective for her son.
"(The sum of) the scholarship money was an amount that many people didn’t make in a lifetime. He needed to get something out of that money," she said.
And Bryant has. Of all that he has accomplished during his time at Wisconsin, Wells was most proud of Bryant when he made the Dean’s List as a freshman while balancing the new stresses of playing college football and adjusting to life as a student-athlete.
By emphasizing the importance of a higher education, Wells kept the big picture in focus for her son. She reminded him that he’s still young (he turned twenty-one earlier this month) and that he has a long way to go. She was a key reason why Bryant returned to Wisconsin for his senior season.
"I was the defensive tackle on that one," she laughed.
The image-conscious Texans should also be impressed with Bryant’s character. Badgers Defensive Line Coach John Palermo, according to Wells, referred to Bryant as "a good person, not just a good football player." Besides Palermo, Bryant has established good relationships with his other coaches including Head Coach Barry Alvarez (whom he calls "Alvie") and Defensive Coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.
"They just love him to death," she said.
With the end of Bryant’s collegiate career approaching, Wells sounds like both she and her son are ready to take the next step.
"I’ll be more happy when this is over than he will," she said.
As for making that jump to the NFL next season, Bryant’s biggest hurdle may be avoiding the distractions that are inherent in the lifestyle of professional athletes.
"Stay focused," she said. "Just act as though you don’t have any money. You’re in it for the long haul."
Another challenge NFL rookies face is the transition from a successful college program to a struggling NFL franchise. The expansion Texans can expect a steep uphill climb in 2002, though that shouldn’t be too much of a concern with Bryant. His high school team was "terrible", and Wells helped him to keep focused by saying, "You gotta be Wendell. Do what you do best."
And what of the possibility of her son becoming Houston’s first round pick?
"I can’t think that far! Anything can happen."
Keith Weiland and Wendell Bryant enjoy some of the same things. They love homemade pot pies, Krispy Kreme donuts, and White Castle burgers. Yet when they go back home to visit mom, each still takes out the trash. Wendell Bryant Home