The question was asked more than once during spring practice.
Can Maleak Bryant be physically ready to help the UAB football team in the fall or any point in the future?
At the time, UAB interim head coach Bryant Vincent estimates, Bryant was about 50-60% healthy. He had trouble putting pressure on a leg that was broken in 2021 spring practice. Bryant said he was basically dragging his leg around.
Considering those things, honestly, the question didn’t seem difficult to answer.
“I couldn’t do anything. I was like, ‘Maybe football is over with,’” Bryant said.
If that happened, Bryant said, he was content. He was on the way to summer graduation with a major in communication and a minor in visual media. He loves football, but the sport doesn’t define him.
“It was difficult but, a lot of people forget, we’re students first, athletes second,” Bryant said. “I made sure I got a degree. Going to school is something I like to do. If God took football from me right now, I’d still be fine.”
A funny thing happened on his way to retirement. Bryant gave it one more shot. He worked with the UAB strength and conditioning staff in offseason workouts and supplemented that with local trainer Ken Sanders, who runs Route Running University. He trained in sand and on the field. He felt himself improving steadily.
Earlier this week, Bryant smiled when talking about how far he’s come.
“I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my college career,” Bryant said.
To truly understand that statement, you need to journey back to Bryant’s high school days at Mays High in Atlanta. He was a 6-foot-6 wide receiver, who weighed around 200 pounds and also played basketball. In the final regular season football game of his senior season, Bryant caught a pass, turned up field and ran over a defensive back. Somehow, though, one of his feet got caught in the fallen defender’s face mask. He heard a pop and was told he’d be out of sports for four months. One month later, he was back on the basketball court, but his ankle still pained him.
Bryant went to Miami University of Ohio as a freshman and was redshirted. It wasn’t a surprising move, considering he was a 210-pound freshman in a tight end room filled with players weighing 250 pounds or more. Bryant said they couldn’t figure how to fix his ankle before he moved on from Miami to Garden City Community College.
“I still had the same injury,” said Bryant, who signed with UAB following the 2018 season. “It just got worse over time.”
Bryant said it wasn’t until he was at UAB that doctors and trainers figured out how to heal his ankle. He still wasn’t ready to contribute in 2019 and played in just three games in 2020. That next spring, three days before the spring game, he caught a pass during teamwork, turned up the field and got hit low by a defensive back. Bryant said his tibia snapped.
He lost another season and weighed close to 270 pounds during spring practice earlier this year. Now, he’s in the neighborhood of 245 pounds and is fighting to be an important part of the solution to replace the lost production of departed standouts Hayden Pittman and Gerrit Prince.
“Maleak is probably one of the best stories of the first [part] of fall camp,” Vincent said. “It was a very frustrating spring for him, but he fought through it [with] his mentality and his toughness. If the word perseverance has ever come into play, it’s come into play with Maleak Bryant. He’s had a lot of tough days, tough weeks and tough months to get to where he’s at today. It speaks volumes for his character [to] just be able to persevere through all these tough times physically and mentally.”
Bryant said some tough times in his younger days, including living with 10 family members in a three-bedroom house, helped him keep his football journey in perspective. It certainly helps to keep him from be slowed down by complacency.
“Catching the ball, [I’m] very confident,” Bryant said. “I feel like I can catch anything over anybody. This year I’m in a role where I have to be a complete tight end. I just have to keep working on my technique. I’m doing pretty good, I just got to keep working. Whether it’s a good day or bad day, I just got to thank God. I’m blessed to be out here.”
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