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FROM SURFER TO CYCLONE

Sept. 03, 1990
Sept. 03, 1990

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Sept. 3, 1990

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Point After

FROM SURFER TO CYCLONE

Southern California native Blaise Bryant is now, improbably, tearing up corn country for Iowa State

He won't call it an identity crisis, but Blaise Bryant wonders if he hasn't left parts of his real self behind. Everywhere he goes, people give him quizzical looks. They size up his high-rise, flattop lobster-tail haircut and they ask, "How did you wind up here?"

This is an article from the Sept. 3, 1990 issue Original Layout

And "here" can be Iowa corn country, the surfing beaches of Southern California, the end zones of the Big Eight Conference—even his own living room, where he sits like a stranger among contemporary furniture and abstract art.

"Gypsies," he says with a grin. "My parents are gypsies."

They aren't, of course. They are more like an idealized TV family. The Bryants have lived for the last 2½ years in an elaborately landscaped, shake-shingled house on a cul-de-sac in an expensive subdivision of Huntington Beach, south of Los Angeles. The sleek table sculptures and abstract paintings were created by Blaise's father, John, a data processing director with two master's degrees, in business administration and art. The house and its tasteful decor are otherwise the province of Blaise's mother, Frances, a former teacher who now divides her time between housekeeping and volunteer work.

Bryant, who would sooner shave his head than be mistaken for what he calls a "fake yuppie type," tries to distance himself from his parents' success. "Personally, I'm broke," he says with a shrug. "My dad has money, but I'm as poor as the next guy."

John Bryant chuckles over his son's who-am-I dilemma. "I grew up in Detroit, and I saw life as a question of survival," he says. "Blaise was raised around whites because I always wanted the best for my family—the best houses, the best schools, the best neighborhoods. Blaise didn't always understand why we had to keep moving up. Even now, he calls home and says, 'You guys haven't moved again, have you?' I say, 'Blaise, that's what you call the American Dream.' "

The American dream, of course, is often distinct from the Football Coach's Dream. The football coach dreams of finding a speedy junior college tailback who can step in without a single down of major college game experience, gain 213 yards in his first game, and go on to rush for 1,516 yards and 19 touchdowns. If the coach dreams in color and Vista Vision, he will throw in conference Newcomer-of-the-Year honors and a passel of school records.

Blaise Bryant accomplished all of that last year for Iowa State coach Jim Walden, who thinks that Bryant's name should be on the short list of Heisman Trophy candidates this fall.

"Just because you're at Oklahoma or Notre Dame, that shouldn't automatically make you a better Heisman Trophy candidate," says Walden. "Blaise should get credit for doing what he does against great competition. Those other guys are playing for the best against teams that are not as good."

The point is well-taken, but history does not favor the Cyclone senior: The only Iowa collegian to win the Heisman Trophy was Nile Kinnick of the University of Iowa, way back in 1939. The best Iowa State vote-getter of all time was George Amundson, a quarterback who finished eighth in 1972.

On the other hand, the 6'1", 200-pound Bryant is the nation's leading returning rusher, and before transferring to Iowa State he was the nation's leading junior college rusher for Golden West College in Huntington Beach. It's hard, too, to discount the best runner in a run-happy conference like the Big Eight that—in addition to Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders in 1988—has produced three other Heisman-winning rushers since 1970. Walden's run-and-shoot offense suits Bryant's slashing, zigzag style, and the Cyclone blockers are experienced and aggressive. Last season, running out of one-back and I formations, Bryant set six Iowa State season rushing and scoring records, including most 100-yard games (seven) and most points scored (120). Defending against him, says Kansas coach Glen Mason, is "like hunting a fly with a sledgehammer."

"I like him," Walden says with a refreshing absence of flackery. "We don't like everybody we coach, you know, but Blaise is so unselfish, he responds to coaching so well, he gives of himself so much. He stops after ball games and signs autographs for an hour. He's just a gorgeous person."

Frances Bryant, who is only slightly biased, agrees. "What I love most about my son is his really big heart. He has such great concern and compassion for everyone." Adds John Bryant, "At games we try to be very humble, but our chests are popping we're so proud."

Bryant is also living proof that a Southern California surfer doesn't have to be a sun-bleached blond with a minor in volleyball and a vocabulary built around the words tubular and dude. In the summer, when he isn't installing air conditioners to earn money for school, Bryant virtually lives on a surfboard or boogie board. If he is in a contemplative mood, he hangs out at secluded Seal Beach. If he wants to surf, he often drives down to glamorous Newport Beach. Sometimes he surfs after dark, working the waves dangerously close to the pilings of the Huntington Beach pier. "There's enough light from the pier that I feel safe," he says. "It's a great way to chill out."

The beaches were not always so hospitable. Blaise was in third grade when the Bryants moved from multiracial Culver City, Calif., where he was happy, to predominantly white Redondo Beach, a few miles south of Los Angeles International Airport. He and his older brother, Tony, were often unwelcome there, and the Bryants had to endure ugly epithets from the surfers.

"I don't hear that anymore," Bryant says. "Either the people have gotten a lot more liberal or they're afraid to say it now."

He quickly adds, "I don't care. If you take the skin off us, we're all the same."

If he tends to discount the effect of racism on his life, he does not minimize the jarring impact the move from L.A. had on him at the time. "It was hard at first," he says. "Culver City was a great place for people of every shade of color, but down here my brother and I were the only 'brothers' around. We stood out."

Frances, who grew up in mostly white Marysville in Northern California, confirms her son's negative first impressions of suburbia. "He kept saying, 'Mom, this sucks.' It was too rural for him. It wasn't sophisticated enough for him."

Another move two years later, to nearby Cypress, went down a little better. With his parents' encouragement, he got involved in Pop Warner football and later blossomed at Cypress High School. His senior year, Bryant rushed for 1,305 yards and 20 touchdowns and was a first-team all-state selection despite his team's 5-5 record. Two years at his hometown juco, Golden West, produced more sparkling numbers and first-team All-America honors.

And then—keep in mind his mom's remark that Blaise found Redondo Beach "too rural"—he accepted a scholarship from...Iowa State?

"To be honest, no one else really wanted me," he says with a laugh.

That isn't precisely true, but the two schools he wanted, UCLA and USC, didn't recruit him. "I could have picked some other local school, but I wanted to play against the best, and it was Coach Walden who gave me that opportunity."

When he saw Ames, Iowa, Bryant almost changed his mind. "There was never a problem with football," he recalls. "It was everything else. The humidity was killing me, there was nothing but corn everywhere, bugs everywhere. I hate bugs! It would have been different if I'd had a friend, but there was no one. I called my mom and said, 'I'm out of here.' I was ready to go."

Fortunately for Cyclone fans, Bryant stuck it out, and when he went home for Thanksgiving he made a surprising discovery: "What I was homesick for was gone." The people he had hung out with had drifted away and found new friends. And frigid, snowbound Iowa no longer seemed distant and unwelcome.

No kidding, he even missed his coaches. "Norm Andersen is a great running backs coach," Bryant says, "and Walden is an awesome guy, an innovator. I'm taking credit for a lot of stuff, but Walden's the one doing it."

So Bryant has gotten comfy in Ames, and alums aren't the only ones to cheer that development. "When he leaves for school, it's total devastation for me," says his mother. "But I'm thrilled he's in Iowa. He sees how other people live, and he gets away from all the plastic people who live in Southern California."

Bryant's immediate goal is to get into a bowl game—a seemingly Herculean task, given Iowa State's perennial middle-of-the-Big Eight status, but one he says he and his teammates are up to. He also seeks personal improvement as a pass receiver (he made 20 catches last year for 202 yards, no touchdowns) and as a ball hugger (he lost five fumbles). "There's a fine line between being good and being great," he says. "I don't think I'm a better athlete than anybody else, but I do think I have more heart."

Bryant's career ambitions—he's a telecommunications major—are a little less focused but fully in line with his dad's dreams for him.

"I got a little plan worked up," Bryant says with a sly grin. "I want to be an entrepreneur. I want a beach house. Those goals have nothing to do with football, but football looks like the quickest and easiest way to do that. And if everything goes as planned, I'll buy a house in Iowa, too. Just to hang out."

He explains: "I'm an Iowan."

Corn's up, dude.

PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEBRYANT CAUGHT A FEW LATE-SUMMER WAVES BEFORE RETURNING TO THE HEARTLANDPHOTOTOM WALLACEIN A TEST AGAINST THE BEST, BRYANT RIPPED INTO OKLAHOMA FOR 151 YARDS IN '89