The ultimate X factor: Martavis Bryant on the brink

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Editor’s note: Bryant on Friday was cleared by the NFL to play in Week 1.

HENDERSON, Nev. — You can’t see the Las Vegas strip from the sweltering Green Valley High School football field on which Martavis Bryant spent his summer mornings. It’s 13 miles away but might as well be a thousand. Bryant and his girlfriend popped over for a Jabbawockeez show one night in early July, but then it was straight home to their 3-month-old son. The lights and the noise and all the neon temptation aren’t interesting to the Pittsburgh Steelers wideout these days, no matter how close to them he lives.

“No, it’s been a year now,” Bryant said in July at the Henderson gym run by trainer Brian Van Hook, who has been working out Bryant and a handful of other NFL players at Green Valley all summer. “No more temptations. It’s been a whole year now, so I don’t even think about it anymore. I mean, honestly, I was young. Immature. I didn’t want to listen to anybody. But, you grow older. I got older. I just had a son. I just wanted things to be different, so I changed it around.”

That simple? Well, we’ll see. Bryant was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2016 season for violating the league’s drug policy, and he still hasn’t been fully reinstated. The league is allowing him to participate in preseason games and activities. Based on the way that goes, the NFL says it will soon make a decision on his reinstatement for Week 1 and beyond. To hear Bryant and those around him tell it, this won’t be an issue, since his issue was marijuana and he’s not smoking it anymore. They’re all just waiting for the official word.

Assuming that word comes, Bryant becomes one of the more intriguing players in the league this season — a rare combination of intimidating size and breathtaking speed who could elevate the already-potent Steelers offense into another gear. He’s the ultimate X factor from a football standpoint, which is fitting, because his life off the field comes with its own X factor. Bryant, 25, could be one healthy, sober season away from being in line for a contract that could come with as much as $30 million in guaranteed money. But one more slip-up with drugs likely would mean the end of his career.

“Just don’t think about it,” Bryant said. “Even though I know it could happen, I just go on with my everyday life. But me knowing that in the back of my head keeps me on point, so I know what I need to get done. I’ve got everything set up, so I’m not worried about ‘It’s my last chance.’ I’ve got stuff set up to prevent me from going back.”

Oh, man, do the Steelers hope so.

“He means a lot to me and to us and to the offense,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “I think the guy, in a very short window, has shown himself to be a very explosive player. You don’t see many guys his size [6-foot-4, 211 pounds] who have that kind of speed. He’s a legit 4.3-4.4 [40-yard dash] guy, but he’s running 4.3 after two steps.”

The first play that jumps to Haley’s mind happened on Oct. 18, 2015, in a home game against Arizona. Up five points at the two-minute warning, the Steelers ran a slant for Bryant on second-and-8 from their 12-yard line. He caught the pass from backup quarterback Landry Jones near the line of scrimmage and raced the full 88 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.

“That explosive ability he has after the catch,” Haley said. “He was running away from some fast, fast players.”

It was Bryant’s second touchdown of the game. Because of the first drug suspension of his career, it was his first game of the season. And that’s his career so far in a nutshell. He played just 11 of the Steelers’ 16 regular-season games that season, catching 50 passes for 765 yards and six touchdowns. Do the math, and you get 72 catches for 1,113 yards and nine touchdowns over a full season on a team loaded with other passing-game options. Those are star-caliber numbers for a second-year receiver, but Bryant couldn’t get to them because he couldn’t stop smoking marijuana.

That potential is why the Steelers are so excited about the changes Bryant seems to have made in his life.

“Not that there was anything you didn’t like about him, but I just think he’s really blossomed as a human being,” Haley said. “He’s a much more open guy, and the way he’s working — even when he wasn’t on the field early in camp [while awaiting reinstatement], you could tell his level of concentration and focus in the meeting room was very high. Those things are great signs for a young player.”

Still young, yes, but spend a day with Bryant and it’s easy to see the ways in which the past year has changed him. An interviewer he has never met can ask him literally anything, and as Haley mentioned, he’s as open as it gets. To wit:

Do you miss smoking weed?

“No, because at the end of the day it’s not going anywhere,” Bryant said. “Right now, I have a career to worry about, and a family. So, no, there’s times and places for other stuff, and down the line, that could come. But right now, I’m not focused on that. All I’m focused on is football, family and doing what I’ve got to do for myself.”

Why weren’t you able to stop smoking before, like after the 2015 suspension?

“I didn’t want to listen,” he said. “Now, I listen to my trainers, I listen to my agent, I listen to my girl, I listen to my mom, I listen to anyone I feel can benefit me. They’ve got my best interest, so I’m not guarded like I used to be against people. I’m more open to people.”

How did you figure that out about yourself — that you were the type who didn’t want to listen?

“I’m an only child,” he said. “I had my first daughter in high school. I was a father in high school. I never grew up with a father, and I feel like that was part of my downfall, not having that father figure in my life to help teach me that discipline. I always got to do what I wanted to do, because it was just my mom and my grandma.”

How did the league-mandated drug rehab you did this time around affect you?

“It was different,” he said. “It was like a real, live rehab. I mean, I was actually in there with people like … I’m a normal person, but people from, like, outside… I had, like, two people in my group die from drug overdose. So it was really serious.”

More serious situations than Bryant’s own, by all accounts. Bryant insists he was never addicted to marijuana — that he smoked it for fun and recreation and that he was already two months clean on his own prior to starting in the Desert Hope Treatment Center. This characterization — of Bryant as a casual weed smoker who could have stopped but simply failed to listen to anyone who told him he should — is what makes those who know him confident that he’s on the right track.

“Nobody’s perfect, but when he gets on the field, what he does shows,” said Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who grew up in the same hometown as Bryant, played with him at Clemson, and has been in regular touch with him during his suspension. “He’s not a meth head. He’s not a crackhead. You know, the guy smoked a little bit of herb. But that’s never going to stop his performance on the field.

“He’s a big help for the Steelers. He takes a lot of pressure off Antonio Brown. He’s a true No. 2 receiver. I heard [Steelers running back] Le’Veon Bell saying he’s the No. 2 receiver for the team, but Martavis didn’t play last year, and Le’Veon Bell doesn’t go up against top cornerbacks in the league. He’s on linebackers. So for yourself to say you’re a true No. 2 receiver, me being a receiver, we take that as an insult, because you’re not on that island every down against top corners.”

When Bryant is on that island, at 6-4, with that 4.42 40-yard dash time he ran at the 2014 scouting combine, the corners should be able to tell the difference. He says he’s training more than he ever did before his suspension. He also says that’s not saying much.

“The first two years, to be honest, I didn’t work out,” Bryant said. “I wasn’t a big fan of working out.”

His agent, Tom Santanello, put Bryant in touch with Brian Van Hook, who runs Van Hook Sports Performance in Henderson and who put Bryant on a program that has him taking better care of his body, training better and paying more attention to recovery techniques. He’s lifting weights, which he never did before, and he’s undergoing regular physical therapy under the direction of Van Hook and his staff. On the day we went to see Bryant, he cut his workout short because his toe was bothering him and spent extra time with the physical therapist at Van Hook’s gym.

“As far as the smoking part, yeah, it clicked in me that I can’t do it anymore,” Bryant said. “But as far as the training stuff, I could’ve still done what I used to do and not train and go perform. But I wanted to be better than what I was before, so I had to put more into it. Now, it ain’t about just showing up in training camp and playing myself into shape. That’s what I used to do. Now, I’m taking a different approach and expecting different accomplishments from it.”

Assuming full reinstatement, Bryant joins a Steelers offense — which already features Bell, Brown and veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — that finished seventh in the league without him in 2016.

“With a guy like AB who gets so much attention, any additional weapon for us is huge,” Haley said. “With [Bryant], I’ve seen more growth as a route runner, some development in terms of being able to use him on certain routes we might not have in the past. He’s catching the ball better in front of him now. And he gives us some size in the red zone, which we really didn’t have a lot of last year. You have a guy, 6-4-plus, when you get down there where the field gets small, it makes defenses have to make some tough choices.”

For his part, Bryant isn’t that interested in talking about how much better he can help make the Steelers’ offense. In July, as he readied for a return to football and training camp and a season with girlfriend and baby boy in tow, he was thinking about relationships. Like the one he has with Roethlisberger, who said some critical things about Bryant when his suspension was announced last year. Bryant said he wanted to talk some things out with Big Ben, and since then both have said they’ve done that and moved on.

Bryant is also at work on his relationship with his father, who left when he was a baby and only recently came back into his life. That’s a tough one, and he’s not sure it can be fixed. But he’s in a place now where he wants to try.

“It’s not easy,” Bryant said. “I’m always going to think about what he did. I’m not going to hold it against him, but it’s always going to be stuck in my mind. I just feel like, maybe one day, I’ll sit down and ask him. Right now, I haven’t asked him, and right now I don’t really want to know why he did that. It’s just going to take time, to be honest with you.”

In the meantime, Bryant’s career stands at a vital crossroads. His personal mission is to transfer the peace, tranquility and sobriety he has attained in the Nevada desert over to Pittsburgh, where marijuana and his old lifestyle cost him so much of the early part of his career. Slip back into old habits, and this is all over way too early. Stay on track, and the sky is the limit — for what he and the Steelers can do together.

“How I feel about myself and my confidence in what I do, I pretty much feel I can do anything I put my mind to,” Bryant said. “I’ve been playing football since I was 6 years old, and some of the things I do on the field even surprise me sometimes. But you know, God gave me the ability to do it. You put talent with work and great things happen. So I’m just expecting great things when I get back.”



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