Kelvin Bryant and the curse of Badlanta
Posted September 18, 2013
Long before the town of Tarboro produced Todd Gurley, it gave us Kelvin Bryant. What a burst of brilliance Kelvin Bryant was.
While Gurley left the state to play college football, Bryant stayed home. He joined the backfield at UNC, toiling somewhat in the shadow of All-American Amos Lawrence for two years. But in September 1981, Bryant took center stage. For an entire month, #44 was not just the talk of the ACC, but the entire nation.
Bryant possessed a unique skill set, so special in fact, that he was one of those rare athletes known by his first name. Long and sleek at 6’2 and 195 pounds, Kelvin had been a high school sprint champion. Like Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who later became Bryant’s rival in the old USFL, Kelvin could run over tacklers and run past them. Unlike Walker, he could also make defenders miss.
Kelvin Bryant’s September to remember began with a 211 yard, six touchdown effort against East Carolina. The only thing that slowed Bryant that day was the end zone, where he twice decelerated enough to hand game balls to his former teammate, the late Steve Streater, whom after a tragic auto accident could only cheer Kelvin from a wheel chair. Bryant rushed for 136 yards and five touchdowns the next week against Miami, Ohio, led by future NC State Coach Tom Reed. And improbably, he followed that with a 173 yard, four touchdown effort against a solid Boston College squad that had beaten Texas A&M the week before. The BC game appeared on regional television, a real rarity in those days. I can still hear the voice of analyst Ara Parseghian marveling at Bryant’s 39 yard touchdown masterpiece, saying “Kelvin Bryant has just done something I’ve never seen on a football field before.” The longtime coach of Notre Dame, Parseghian had seen a few running backs.
Three games, fifteen touchdowns. No one else has ever done that. IN THE HISTORY OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL.
Sports Illustrated sent reporter Douglas Looney to do a cover story on Kelvin in his bid for another record setting day October 3 at Georgia Tech. Gleaming in the early afternoon sun, Bryant ripped off a 13 yard gain on one play. A 27 yard gain on another. “Whoosh, glide, see ya later,” was how Looney described it in the magazine. Bryant’s style, Looney suggested, invited comparisons to the great Gayle Sayers. But after rushing five times for 46 yards, Bryant limped off the field and did not return. The cover story became a small column.
I’ll always remember looking at the game highlights in the WRAL sports office that Saturday night (this game was not on television), and seeing the bright green of the playing surface at Grant Field. I remember thinking this had to be Astroturf, because natural grass didn’t look that green in October. Then UNC Coach Dick Crum once told me that playing on some of those early Astroturf fields was a lot like playing in a parking lot. And while players could get excellent traction on the hard carpet, that was not necessarily a good thing. If a player got hit while making a cut, the resulting force and torque on the knee generally spelled injury. I will always believe the playing surface played a part in Kelvin Bryant tearing up his knee.
In that era, a combination of cartilage and ligament damage often meant a player was lost for the season. Bryant returned for the November showdown with Clemson, but was hardly himself, rushing 13 times for 31 yards. Clemson won that game 10-8 over the one loss Tar Heels, and later claimed the national championship. And while Bryant would later rush for 171 yards against Virginia, 247 yards against Duke, and 148 yards in the foggy Gator Bowl against Arkansas, he was not the same back.
Behind UNC’s strong offensive line, Bryant could still hit the hole quickly and run through tacklers, but he could no longer juke defenders or reverse his field and cut back past the flow of tacklers. For the remainder of his days in Chapel Hill Bryant was simply a very good straight ahead runner.
Very little positive has happened for Carolina football in Atlanta since that day when Kelvin Bryant got hurt. In fact, I could go back to the Tar Heels’ last visit to Grant Field before Georgia Tech joined the ACC. Bill Dooley’s 1974 squad appeared to have the Yellowjackets beat, until punting to All-American Randy Rhino in the closing minutes. The resulting 29-28 defeat served as a pretext for the Bryant injury, and a rash of other ”insults in Old Gold. “
In 1985, the Tar Heels were thrashed 31-0, by a Georgia Tech defensive unit known as the Black Watch, captained by Ted Roof. In 1989, the versatile Jerry Mays and his mates sent the Tar Heels home with a 17-14 loss, all but insuring that Mack Brown’s team would wind up in the ACC cellar. The explosive Shawn Jones led the Yellow Jackets to a 35-14 shellacking of the Light Blue in 1991. And North Carolina native Donnie Davis, another of the good ones that got away, rallied Tech past the Tar Heels 27-25 for one more home victory in 1995. BADLANTA.
Oh, there have been a few victories in the place now known as Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field, but for those who bleed blue, the bad far outweighs the good. North Carolina has not won a single game in BADLANTA since the days of Mack Brown in 1997, when a talented Tar Heel team that would later rout Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl, barely escaped the clutches of Grant Field 16-13.
Fast forward to 2013. North Carolina Saturday makes another visit to this house of horrors. While Tar Heel coaches and players will have a singular focus on Paul Johnson’s offense, others will think about Carolina’s bad karma at Georgia Tech. Happily Bobby Dodd Stadium now has natural grass. But it’s hard not think about the old days in Atlanta, when a player and a team having a special season, saw their dreams dashed on an Astroturf field.