Lawrence – Sitting inside the Kansas football facility on Wednesday, Kobe Bryant wore the smile that’s become so evident in recent weeks and months.
The Bryant and Jayhawks are trying to go 4-0 this weekend with a win over Duke, something the Kansas haven’t done since 2009. The second quarterback on Wednesday was just a week and a half away from an interception that came back for a touchdown win over West Virginia . About a week before that, he had collected a forbidden field target and returned that for a score.
But don’t mistake that smile as a sign of his satisfaction with the worthwhile plays he’s already made — like when he brought back a touchdown interception last season in the win over the Texans. When Bryant wears that helmet and takes to the field every day, he can flip that switch like no one else. Bryant is driven to achieve more.
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As Bryant grew up time and time again, he saw examples of the path his life could have taken had he not chosen to dedicate himself to becoming a Division I athlete. His priorities are set. They are by no means based on any selfish ambition.
It’s breeding, man,” said Clinton Smith Jr., head coach of Bryant high school in Hillcrest, Alabama. “…He’s hungry, man. He’s trying to get out of the situation he got into the house, man, and he’s just trying to make a better life for him and his family. So, his head is upright.”
Smith believes football saved Bryant, adding, “(Bryant’s) mindset is that he wants to go to school. He wants to get a degree. But he also wants to get to the next level. And I just said to him, man, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing.'” And you work with it. Make sure you do the right things on and off the field.”
In Smith’s mind, kids like Bryant in Evergreen, Alabama and Konicoh had to make a decision.
Smith doesn’t want to say the area was poor, but acknowledged that there wasn’t much for the kids to do. Either you get involved in sports or you get into trouble. People like Smith—now a college-wide reception coach at Division Two Tuskegee—tried to push kids toward the sport as an escape.
“I knew it was bad stuff back home, but I tried everything to get away from it,” Bryant said. “Like, be on the field 24/7. Like, I tried so hard to get away from him because it’s not good for bad things to be in my small town. So I stayed on the football field, and focused my mind on and off the field.”
Bryant had not yet made it to high school when Smith became the head coach of Hillcrest. Bryant said Smith must have recognized that he had a talent. Bryant would stay after practice and watch movies and study coverages and wide receivers the same way he does now in college. He was able to do things Smith said you couldn’t teach, but he agreed to train to develop what he could be.
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Smith said it also helped Bryant have a wonderful family and support system. Smith described Bryant’s mother as an angel and that his father is a good man who is on a better path now that he has gone through some tough times. Smith is a father figure to Bryant, but Bryant’s father will always be Bryant’s father, and Smith believes that father and son motivate each other.
“He’s just trying to make them a better living,” Smith said. “I think that’s his motivation, that’s his motivation – which is what a lot of kids do these days, especially for kids who don’t have a dad at home, they kind of try to move on and make sure their mom and things are okay. But the good thing about (Bryant) ) is that his mom and dad are home. And I think that’s kind of what made him the kid he is now, and like I said with a little help from athletics kind of shaped him a little bit.”
Bryant said it was his father who first taught him the game of soccer. Bryant can remember being outside in the cold and rain as a kid, hunting soccer balls from him.
Smith and Bryant said that early in Bryant’s high school career, there were people who didn’t think he would be able to fulfill his potential.
It wasn’t because Bryant had no talent or was doing anything seriously wrong off the field. But during the first two years of high school, Smith said there would be problems that continued to arise with Bryant. Smith said he had to stay on Bryant constantly because of it, to the point where he got really tired of doing it.
Then Bryant, who made it clear from his point of view that people thought he was joking a lot, started getting attention from colleges. Bryant remembers the first time his college coach came to talk to him at school. You have changed everything.
“All it took was one college coach to take care of him and his whole way of thinking changed,” Smith said. “I couldn’t believe it, man. And that was when I said, ‘Well, athletics can change a kid’s mindset.’ It really can, and it made me believe.”
Recruiting Bryant as the three-star 247Sports Composite landed him in Kansas. The prospect of flying scared him at first, but now he’s able to sleep on planes and is more used to it all. Right from the start, Kansas felt right at home.
Bryant making big plays in college in Kansas didn’t come as much of a surprise to someone like Smith, who watched him do the same over his four years at the high school level.
Bryant had a game at Hillcrest where he had four touchdowns – one on special teams, one in attack and two in defense.
“It will be a long time before anyone else is in there like[Bryant],” said Smith, who won the state title in 2017 with Bryant. “It’s almost impossible, man, just the plays he made.”
But Bryant, who credits his success with treating every practicing actor like a game actor, believes he really began to thrive in the talent he became after he got to college in Kansas. He noted how much Jayhawks coach Lance Leipold focuses on the little things, like body weight, punctuality and extra movie study. Everything adds up.
Leibold, defensive coordinator Brian Borland and others are the ones who are staying at Bryant now. Borland sees Bryant as someone who has always been a top player, just someone who needs to develop consistency to become special. According to Bryant, Leibold has become another father figure and the two talk every day.
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“I’m just locked into the season, to be honest,” Bryant said when asked what his efforts to reach the professional ranks might mean for this family. “Like, everything will come alone, together, until the end. So, I’ve just been working, just been working hard because I know everything is going to add value. And like God is by my side. So, I know it’s all going to add up, be good.”
It’s the Bryant family, in part, that always reminds him of humility. And he’s excited that about 40 people, including his parents, will be in town to see him play Saturday against the Duke.
Jordan Guskey covers the University of Kansas Athletics in The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.
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