Starkey: Bryant could transform Steelers offense
Tattoos are spreading like wildfire on Martavis Bryant’s upper torso. One stands out: the NFL logo, just above his belly button.
Bryant had the shield inked about a month ago. It serves two purposes: It reminds him he was not drafted until the fourth round and represents the realization of a dream.
“When he was little, I asked him what he wanted to do,” Roberta Bryant recalled of her only child. “And he would say, ‘I want to play in the NFL.’ ”
Bryant also wanted to play at nearby Clemson. He did. He wanted to play for the Steelers, too, returning home one day during predraft workouts wearing a Steelers hat and proclaiming to his mom, “This is where I want to go.”
“Everything he said he wanted to do,” Roberta said, “it happened.”
Not that it was easy.
Not that it will be, moving ahead.
The Martavis Bryant story is full of twists and turns. I don’t pretend to know them all. Three interviews — with Bryant, his mother and the man who coached his position at Clemson (Jeff Scott) — hardly suffice.
But I’ll tell you what I know, and I’ll tell you why I went looking: Bryant has become a subject of curiosity after scoring three touchdowns in his first two games. He is the kind of receiver (large, long and fast) the fan base and quarterback have been craving.
Simply put, he is the man who potentially changes everything for the Steelers offense.
Suddenly, they have a jump-ball winner in the red zone.
Suddenly, they have a potentially elite No. 2 receiver to complement the fabulous Antonio Brown.
Suddenly, they appear to have the most diversified offense of the Ben Roethlisberger era — one that can exploit weaknesses like the Indianapolis Colts losing their best cornerback last weekend and the Baltimore Ravens playing without a top corner (Jimmy Smith) Sunday at Heinz Field.
So let’s try to piece together parts of this tapestry, starting with the fact Roberta Bryant, 43, worked long hours in a textile company in order to raise Martavis by herself, with help from her mother.
Clemson began recruiting Bryant in ninth grade. Scott and his father, Brad, then Clemson’s offensive line coach, saw in him the rare combination of great size and speed. Bryant verbally committed in 10th grade, though he says, “I could have gone to any college I wanted.”
He was forced to take a detour at Hargrave Military Academy, where he played for Doug Williams Jr., son of the famous quarterback. Bryant already had fathered one child (he has two, by two mothers). Now he had to leave home. It proved to be a blessing.
“It made him a better man,” his mother said.
Bryant agreed: “It helped me mature, being away from my family. I got up at 6, raised the flags, ate breakfast, went to class, had practice. My first three weeks, I wanted to quit. But after that I was cool.”
Once at Clemson, Bryant found himself behind future first-round draft picks DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. He seized his limited opportunities. As a sophomore in 2012, he led the nation in yards per catch (30.5).
He also hit another detour.
Clemson suspended Bryant from the Chick-fil-A Bowl that season because, as coach Dabo Swinney told The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier, he was “defiant about going to study hall.” As one might expect, the suspension drew plenty of negative attention. The worst of it at home.
“I was so hurt,” Roberta recalled. “I said, ‘You have to decide what you want to do. Either get a job or go back to school. You have two girls to take care of.’ ”
By all accounts, Bryant buckled down.
“Seeing my mom sad, that was a wake-up call,” he said.
Starting opposite Watkins last season, Bryant caught 42 passes for 828 yards and seven touchdowns, including two touchdown catches in Clemson’s 40-35 victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. The Steelers tracked him for two years. They were delighted he was available at pick No. 118, with 18 receivers already gone.
Scott was delighted, too. He said he believes Bryant, 22, has every bit the ceiling of Watkins.
Clearly, Bryant has an attraction to the end zone. Combined college and pro, he has 16 touchdowns on just 68 catches.
“I’ve seen receivers who reach their potential in high school, others in college,” Scott said. “Martavis is a guy who just now is getting into his groove. I really think Pittsburgh got a first-round pick. My experience is when Martavis has a little bit of success, the light really goes on.”
Roberta has come to Pittsburgh to live with her son for the season. She enjoys cooking for him (lasagna’s his favorite). She also watches the girls when they come in — Brooke, 4, and London, 1, both of whom live with their mothers.
Brooke was at Heinz Field for Bryant’s spectacular debut, which included a touch-and-drag, 35-yard touchdown on his first NFL catch.
“She was saying, ‘That’s my daddy!’ ” Roberta said.
Alas, Brooke fell asleep in the second half. I’m guessing her daddy’s rookie season won’t follow suit. The second half begins Sunday, and it appears Bryant and the Steelers offense are just beginning to wake up.
It kinda feels like everything has changed.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at [email protected].