The historic 2021 Mountaineer Football season has officially come to a close, and Top o’ the World is running a short series of “senior spotlight” stories highlighting Western players who are either graduating, or have one year of eligibility remaining under Covid-19 eligibility rules. Our first story features redshirt senior wide receiver James Bryant.
In 2021, Mountaineers wide receiver James Bryant had another season to remember, recording 21 catches for 336 yards (a stellar 16 yards per catch) and three scores in Western’s run-dominant offense. Bryant has always been a standout all-around athlete, posting personal bests of 6’7” in the high jump and 46’ in the triple jump in his track days. In high school, Bryant won the Nevada state championship in high jump.
Bryant’s track days aren’t too far behind, even as a 27-year-old redshirt college senior. Bryant took a rather non-conventional path to Mountaineer Football and the Gunnison Valley. Coming out of Chaparral High School in Las Vegas, Bryant did not receive any track or football scholarships initially.
Coming from a single-parent home, Bryant could not financially swing making the leap to college without the security of a scholarship. He spent more than two years after his high school graduation continuing his training on his own and working multiple jobs, adding weight to his slender 6’1” frame (he was listed at 145 lbs. in high school, but at 205 lbs. in 2021) to make himself more durable and marketable as a collegiate receiver.
In 2016, his hard work began to pay off, as he earned his way onto the University of Charleston’s Track and Field team after sending out emails to a long list of schools around the country. He included information about his athletic measurables, high school accolades, and a personal introduction outlining his background, work ethic, and tenacity.
Charleston, a Division-II school in West Virginia, later offered him the chance to play football in addition to his track commitment the following year. Bryant spent more than two years pulling double duty, seeing action on the gridiron as a redshirt freshman for the Eagles in 2017, when he hauled in 14 catches for 190 yards and a touchdown.
“It was a big workload, a lot on the knees,” says Bryant of the two-sport experience, which had him training year-round on a relentless schedule. After his 2018 football season, when Bryant saw less usage on the field, he made the difficult decision to transfer to Western. “I was trying to get closer to home, and get into an offense where I could be used a little more,” notes Bryant of his motivations. At Western, he made the decision to give his knees, and the rest of his body, a bit of a break by just sticking to football.
Bryant notes that the transfer process was a stressful one, especially with the transfer portal, a mechanism which allows NCAA athletes to transfer more freely between schools (and without the loss of eligibility in many cases), being brand new in Oct. 2018.
But the move paid off, as Bryant made an immediate splash at Western in 2019, leading the Mountaineers with 48 catches for 485 total yards, and earning All-RMAC Honorable Mention honors. Bryant says that he could sense something special within Western’s program upon his arrival, portending the historic 2021 season.
“When I first got here, they had just come off of a [1-9 season], but there were a bunch of guys that you could tell, they wanted to win, they wanted to change this program. That senior class this year, they made it happen.”
When asked about his favorite memories of Western, Bryant mentions the 2019 season as a pivotal turning point for the program. In particular, the team’s experience beating conference rival Colorado Mesa in Grand Junction on a game-winning field goal instilled the team with a lot of confidence, and was a critical buy-in moment that enabled the success of 2021.
Because of the pandemic, the Mountaineers played just one game in 2020, a crushing 64-7 road loss to Division-I team Stephen F. Austin University which rattled the Mountaineers, but did not break their spirit. After the covid-marred season, Bryant took time to explore his NFL aspirations. He worked with a trainer in Gunnison, interviewed with a number of draft scouting and media outlets, and went to pre-draft training camps like College Gridiron in an effort to spark interest in NFL draft rooms.
“That process is not for the weak-minded, it is a stressful experience, and it really takes a toll… you’re in a constant state of not knowing, you have to stay ready, you have to stay in shape, [and] it’s all about numbers and times,” says Bryant, who ultimately went undrafted in the spring of 2021.
“I was fortunate enough to get a lot of recognition and a lot of love from the people that were doing interviews, so that was really great, just getting out there and being able to tell my story, you know, as a small [school] D-II athlete,” said Bryant.
Bryant readily offers that the draft process took a toll on him mentally, and led to a period of overthinking, and even a bout of depression, but it also shifted his perspective in productive ways. “I just learned to take everything day-by-day, just live in the present, and whatever does happen, or what will happen, is meant to be, and that’s how I’ve been living since then,” he says, adding, “I am looking towards pursuing it this year as well, but it would just be a lot different, because I won’t allow it to consume me as much as it did last year.”
That shift in mindset has a notable impact on how Bryant approaches football on a game-by-game basis. “This year, I really changed the way I viewed my participation in each game, from worrying about my stats and what I’m doing [to] this year, every week, every game I’m thinking about what I can do to help the team win…and it helped me become a better player on the field”, says Bryant, who believes the Mountaineers wide receivers corps was among the best in Division-II this year. Four Mountaineer receivers totalled more than 300 receiving yards, with six having more than 200 for the season.
Looking back on the year, Bryant is immensely proud of this team. “It didn’t really hit me until after the season ended, because during the season you’re just focused on that next week, you’re not really looking at all these accomplishments and achievements and history you’re making. I was really happy to see that happen for this team, and this coaching staff, because they deserve it, and it was great to be a part of it,” he said, before pausing and adding, “I got to shout out [quarterback] Connor Desch, he did his thing this year, he’s becoming better and better each year, each week,” says Bryant. Desch will have one final year of eligibility at the helm of the Mountaineer offense in 2022.
Bryant fully anticipates that the success of this Mountaineers squad will continue, with the underclassmen rising to the challenge posed by the historic season and buying into the culture that has transformed Western’s football program. Bryant credits the coaches for sparking that transformation by establishing a culture of hard work and selflessness that has permeated throughout the organization.
In addition to his NFL hopes, Bryant adds that he is open to other opportunities to play football professionally in America or Canada, with leagues a tier below the NFL like the Canadian Football League (CFL), United States Football League (USFL, kicking off in 2022), or XFL (returning in 2023), but his overall health is also in the back of his mind.
Like many football players, Bryant has battled numerous concussions, and says he is near his medical limit of allowable concussions before he would have to hang up his cleats. Just before the 2019 season, he tore his hip labrum, a ring of cartilage around the hip joint socket, but played through it all year. “And then, you know, just the little knicks and knacks, sprained ankles, wrists, stuff like that…it’s overwhelming a little bit,” he notes of the physical demands of the sport.
Off the field, Bryant finished his required academic credits to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a minor in Exercise Sports Science this fall, but he will return to Western in the spring to wrap up some leftover schoolwork and receive his degree in May 2021.
What’s next for Bryant? Right now, he is taking some time to give his body a much-needed break and to reflect on his time with Mountaineer football, as well as his future. “Whatever comes will come, and I’ll be happy with whatever it is, ” said Bryant.