Niyo: Lions’ Austin Bryant turns to Kobe to get healthy; now hopes to turn heads

Detroit News

Allen Park — The tattoos spread across Austin Bryant’s 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame all carry their own meanings, but one of the more recent additions — an homage to Kobe Bryant on his lower left leg — is hard to miss.

“That’s also my uncle if y’all didn’t know,” he said, pausing for effect before letting everyone in on the joke Wednesday after practice at Lions training camp.

But all kidding aside, Bryant — no relation to the NBA legend, by the way — says that ink does carry some personal significance. And he credits the late basketball icon, who died 18 months ago in a helicopter crash, for helping him through some tough times early in his NFL career here in Detroit.

Bryant, a 24-year-old edge rusher who was a fourth-round draft pick by the Lions in 2019, is entering his third season as a pro. But he’s a full participant in training camp for the first time this summer, and Friday night’s exhibition game against the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field will mark his preseason debut as well.

In his first two NFL seasons, Bryant, who was hampered by pectoral, hip and thigh injuries, only managed to play in 10 games and about 15% of the Lions’ defensive snaps. His career highlight to date is a blocked punt in a loss to the Vikings last November.

But it’s not until you listen to Bryant speak — and listen closely — that you begin to understand the mental and emotional toll all that can take on a young player trying to establish himself in this here-today, gone-tomorrow league.

Same goes for understanding that tattoo, really.

“The Mamba Mentality, a lot of athletes know about that,” Bryant said. “But especially during my rehab process, I leaned on Kobe’s motivational videos and just knowing what type of person he was to keep pushing every day. … Just having that mentality really helped me come back stronger than I was before.”

Going it alone 

Ask Bryant about all those daily rehab sessions in Allen Park at 6 a.m., or some of those solitary sprint workouts on the sidelines while teammates practiced during the regular season, and he’ll talk about the pain and the monotony almost as if they were the same feeling. But he’ll also tell you how he got through it: He’d watch Kobe’s videos, he’d listen to Kobe on podcasts, he read Kobe’s autobiography.

It was more than just a way to pass the hours, too, all that time spent delving into the Mamba mindset and its tenets: honesty, detachment, optimism, passion, fearlessness.

“It stuck with me,” said Bryant, who won a pair of national championships in 2016 and ’18 as part of a dominant defensive line at Clemson. “That’s on my mind every day.”

What’s not anymore is his injury history, it seems. And that has been easy to see, watching Bryan dancing between drills as the music blares in Allen Park or cutting it up with some of his fellow pass rushers as they get some extra work in on the heavy bag after practice.

The Lions actually slow-played Bryant’s return to the field this month, waiting until the start of padded practices last week to activate him off the physically unable to perform list and easing him back into the work.

“We know he’s ready, but we’ll be smart with him,” head coach Dan Campbell promised, adding that he certainly could empathize with Bryant’s situation.

“I mean, I had 13 surgeries when I played,” said Campbell, who spent most of his final three NFL seasons on injured reserve more than a decade ago. “So I know what enters the brain. It’s hard to tell yourself you’re OK, because when it happens so much … ”

Well, it sort of becomes who you are, while the weight of what you aren’t grows harder to bear with each passing week or month. Or year, in Bryant’s case.

“It’s tough mentally, especially when you have a lot of expectations as a young player and don’t live up to those (because of) factors that you can’t control,” Bryant said. “But I’m grateful that those things happened because it made me a better person, stronger mentally. It took a lot of mental toughness, a lot of times (where) I had to figure out who I was as a man and as a player. And if I wanted to achieve something, I had to put the work in and do it.”

A healthy offseason allowed Bryant to put in the kind of work he’d missed the last couple of offseasons, and time spent with pass-rush guru Nate O’Neal in south Florida is showing up now, perhaps.

‘He’s catching my eye’

We’ve certainly seen flashes of what the Lions drafted this last week in camp. Bryant was one of the standouts in Tuesday’s padded practice with a few pass-rush wins in team drills — one of them against rookie first-round pick Penei Sewell — that would’ve been sacks in live game action. Known more for his length and strength, he’s showing off a new-and-improved spin move, too.

“Oh, yeah, he’s catching my eye as well,” said Kelvin Sheppard, the Lions’ outside linebackers coach. “Just with him, like I said, you can flash, but this isn’t a flash business. You better have a level of consistency that’s continuing to ascend as the year goes on. But I’m thoroughly impressed by (Bryant) right now.”

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to make a strong impression in preseason game action as Bryant tries to solidify a spot on the 53-man roster next month. The Lions’ starters are set on the edge with Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers, but there’s competition behind them with Bryant competing for second-unit reps with Julian Okwara, Charles Harris and Robert McCray in camp. Those four likely are competing for two or three spots.

“Well, the opportunity is definitely there,” Sheppard said. “I mean, it’s glaring right now.”

So is the players’ enthusiasm for a new defensive scheme, one that Bryant, among others, feels is a better fit for his skills.

“This defense is attacking, it’s aggressive, and we get to be who we are as players, and that’s what I’m most excited about,” he said.

Well, that and the fact he gets to be a player at all, really.

“Now I finally get to showcase it,” he said, “and show people what I already know about myself. That’s been the most fulfilling thing this camp.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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