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On Top of His Game

Whether he's on the football field, behind a camera or talking to kids about drugs, Henry Bryant always puts his best foot forward.

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Fans who don't recognize New Orleans Voodoo defensive lineman Henry Bryant from his work on the field may know him from another spotlight. Bryant had a speaking part in a couple of episodes of the popular NBC series Friday Night Lights, which was filmed in the offseason while he was playing with the Austin Rattlers.

Bryant has been interested in acting since he performed on stage as a child. He took acting classes while he was in high school, but didn't talk about it much with friends. As a top college recruit in the state, his football career easily overshadowed other parts of his life. He was a National Junior College Athletic Association All-American at Garden City (Kan.) Community College and later a starter at Kansas State.

But there were many things that Bryant hid about his life. His mother died of diabetes when he was 4 years old, and he and his sister were put in separate foster care homes. He was a victim of child abuse, and his father has been addicted to drugs for most of his life and is HIV positive.

"If he was walking down the street and my friends asked if I knew him, I'd say, 'No,'" Bryant says of his father.

It took Bryant a long time to reach a point where he would even consider reconciling with his father. He's still working on it. "I used to be afraid to even touch my dad because I didn't know anything about his disease," he says.

Since he started playing in the Arena Football League four years ago, Bryant has worked with police and civic groups and talked to school children and youth in rehabilitation clinics and juvenile detention centers about the dangers of drugs and HIV. Currently in his second year with the Voodoo, Bryant is speaking to New Orleans children and making a film about his experiences growing up with his father. It's a side of his life that previously was hidden from view.

"He's quiet when he first meets you," says Michael Spicer, Bryant's roommate and closest friend on the team. "One day he just started talking to me during drills."

The two realized they had connections through teammates Bryant played with in junior college. Spicer says the two decided to room together in the off-season, and he's learned much about his roommate. Bryant's position coach, Junior Ili, says that he got to know Bryant as a player first, and as a person a distant second.

"When I first met him we had him out here to visit," Ili says. "I thought he was a good football player. He was quiet and (kept) to himself. He's not the type of guy you would think he had to go through the things like he did."

Bryant's young life was anything but easy. When his mother died, he and his sister Shelnora were put in foster care and separated. They bounced through the foster-care system until they landed with an aunt three years later. By the time they were reunited, Henry didn't even recognize his sister, but they bonded immediately.

His father, Tyrone Bryant, became a presence in their lives. Because of his father's addiction to crack cocaine and his HIV-positive status, the younger Bryant decided to make sure his own life would be different. Henry distanced himself from his father, partly to separate himself from the world of drugs and disease and partly out of fear of his father's illness.

Shelnora's struggle with diabetes helped bridge the gap. Henry Bryant says that it was only because of his sister that he even considered talking to his dad. She loved both her brother and her father enough that it convinced her brother to make an effort to try and connect with their father. But it wasn't until his sister's death two years ago that Bryant felt a sense of urgency about the matter. He realized that, with a crack-addicted father with HIV, he had to do something before it was too late.

"I can tell you the first time I told my dad I love him," Bryant says. "It was my senior year in college. That's a long time to not tell your parents that."

Bryant has filmed interviews with his father and is submitting a rough cut of his work to the Sundance Film Festival in hopes of winning funding for his project. The documentary is titled The Destructive Nature of Drug Addiction: Coping with a Drug Addictive Parent. It opens with grainy footage of an older man wearing a ratty, paint-stained baseball cap and a dark shirt. He's slightly cross-eyed and has pronounced cheekbones. His head tilts to his left, held up by his arm that's propped on the roof of a car. Henry Bryant asks a question from off camera: "Do you smoke still?"

"Yeah, I smoke and everything else," he says as the name Tyrone Bryant comes up on the screen. It's clear they've had this conversation before.

A quick cut, and there's the man again. He's upright now but his right eye wanders as he looks into the camera. He's still standing next to the car, but is unsteady on his feet and gulps before speaking:

"When I tried it, that was the best-worst time-mistake I could've did." The words come out slightly slurred. "It was nobody's fault but mine," Tyrone says of his first encounter with crack.

He is drunk and wistful. He says that nobody should do what he has done and he shares some advice: "Don't mess with it. Say no to drugs. — Between the drugs, AIDS, yeah, I shoulda been gone. But thank God I'm still here."

Another cut, and now he is assertive. "I might be a junkie or whatever you wanna call it. But, No. 1, this junkie did for his kids. And I don't care if none of my kids don't respect me at all."

Henry takes exception to the statement. He asks Tyrone how many football games he's seen his son play. Then Henry bluntly states, "I'll tell you why I don't respect you." The exchange becomes heated as Henry repeats the question, ever more desperate for an answer. Tyrone starts talking over Henry, incoherently trying to argue that his child should have done more to lure him to games. Henry was an All-American and played in a stadium within walking distance from their home.

As Tyrone's argument becomes increasingly heated, Henry makes a final statement: "You're my dad, and you don't even know my birthday."

"Your birthday is September the third," Tyrone says defiantly.

"It's April the third," Henry responds.

After the emotional exchange between father and son, the documentary features eight interviews with men and women addicted to crack cocaine. The film is short and far from complete, but it is raw and unforgiving. Men and women talk about their crack addiction and smoke the drug on camera. Henry says he is never surprised when going into drug users' homes — it was all "normal" to him.

Henry has done much of the work on the film with a hand-held camcorder. After games in other cities, he sometimes went out with his camera and looked for people he believed were crack cocaine users.

Claudia Arambula, his girlfriend, did some shooting and most of the editing; she had won national and Texas state awards for PSAs she filmed in high school. She got a chance to go with Henry on some of the interviews, including the one with Tyrone.

"His father's interview is really the first one we ever did," she says. "There was a lot of heat going on, a lot of feelings coming out, and I was right there in the middle of it and didn't know how to react."

After the first encounter, however, she wanted to work with Henry on the film. She says that he has a gift for being able to get complete strangers to open up and talk about their lives. Arambula says that she also sees that gift in Henry when he interacts with kids.

Arambula finds some of the work challenging, particularly going into rougher neighborhoods. "When he first started going out by himself, I said, 'You're crazy. You don't know these people. You don't know what they can do to you,'" she says. "It's taking a risk for his life to get a message across to help kids."

A month ago, Henry was robbed at gunpoint by a group of kids. He lost his wallet, cell phone and everything of value he had with him. Bryant says that for a moment, he thought he was going to die. But the experience hasn't deterred him. If anything, it's made him more determined to get his message out there.

"It shows a lot about Henry," Arambula says. "Ever since that incident it's made him even more hungry. It really opened his eyes on life and how short life is."

He hardly needed a reminder. It's for that reason that Henry Bryant has decided to open himself up to the world.

"He's just trying to let people realize that it's OK to talk about these things," Spicer says. "Other people hide those parts of their lives and use it as fuel and anger. Henry is trying to be open."

"I've got nothing left to hide," Henry Bryant says.

Henry Bryant is dedicated to telling children about the dangers of drugs and HIV as he did during a recent visit to Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Henry Bryant is dedicated to telling children about the dangers of drugs and HIV as he did during a recent visit to Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology.
Henry Bryant talks with Jabbar Singleton during a visit to a local school. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Henry Bryant talks with Jabbar Singleton during a visit to a local school.

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