Baker football player hopes to reach others like him

LAWRENCE — Looking at it on the surface, it's easy to dismiss Richie Bryant with a lot of cliches.

He grew up in a small town, he was the fastest kid on the block, his mother died when he was 4, he struggled academically, he found a counselor who prodded him to stay in school, he excelled in sports and now he wants to be a high school teacher and coach to help others like him.

He will graduate from Baker University with a teaching degree.

The story is almost too neat and tidy — he's the perfect summation of what a student-athlete should be, said Dan Harris, Baker's former athletic director.

Bryant was recruited to participate in track and became a star running back on the football team — a two-time All-American — but always worked to ensure he could continue toward his education degree, Harris said.

Harris would know — Bryant is the recipient of a scholarship that Harris and his wife, Baker's Education Dean Peggy Harris, founded for student-athletes in their fifth year who are pursuing a teaching degree.

Also, Bryant is living this semester in the Harris' basement.

"He's like one of the kids," Dan Harris said. "My wife's even got him playing the piano."

In talking with Bryant, he even uses that cliched coach-speak sometimes.

"I want to be the teacher who makes sure that my students are excelling in the classroom as well as on the field," he said.

But then he'll go a little further, and it's easy to understand why he means it maybe a little more than most.

A track and football star in his hometown of Louisiana, Mo., Bryant's high school coaches didn't really offer the kind of help he needed, he said.

"That's a huge reason why I wanted to be a part of this," he said.

It's been his quiet persistence, Peggy Harris said, and the help he's received that have helped him get where he's going.

One of the first in his family to attend college, he didn't really know much about the system.

When his coaches didn't offer any help, and he struggled academically, he nearly dropped out of school his sophomore year. It took the counselor — who had known his mother — to shake him out of it, Bryant said, telling him how disappointed she'd be with his decision.

Many others have helped, too, including his grandmother and Baker education professor Amy Wintermantel, who let Bryant live in an apartment in her house for a summer.

By the time Bryant ran out of football eligibility at Baker, Wintermantel said he had a new focus. School had become more than something he had to do to play sports to something he needed to do to be able to help others in his situation.

Wintermantel took a while before she was able to sum up what makes Bryant so different — what made him rise above all the cliches — especially among other student-athletes.

It finally hit her: He never seems to want to be first, she said.

"He could definitely be first, as good as he is, but that's not important to him," she said. "The good of the community, or of the team, that's what's important to him."

Today, Bryant said he's motivated by trying to reach people just like him — at the moment when they're thinking about dropping out of school.

And what advice would he give them?

"It might sound cliche," he said. "But you just never want to give up. Think about what you can do with that education. And then think about what you can't do without that education."