MURFREESBORO – The coach in Fernando Bryant is a product of playing for some of the best coaches in the business throughout a star-studded high school, college and professional career.
While helping Riverdale High go 15-0 and win the Class AAA state championship in 1994, the defensive back played for Gary Rankin, the winner of multiple state titles while with the Warriors and now at Alcoa.
By the time he finished an Alabama career that culminated with being named All-Southeastern Conference, Bryant had played for legendary coach Gene Stallings and one of the best defensive coordinators ever in Bill “Brother” Oliver.
Then there’s 10 years of playing in the NFL and soaking in the teachings of a variety of coaches who’d risen to the highest ranks. Indeed, Bryant was unwittingly learning how to be a coach while playing the game, especially defensive football from Oliver.
“Coach Oliver was one of the best defensive minds I have ever seen,” Bryant said. “Just the way that he looked at the game, he had a way of breaking down the game and making young players understand and getting the most out of them.”
All that is why the players this season at Creekside Christian Academy in McDonough, Geogira, listen with particular interest to Bryant, their defensive coordinator.
“The kids, they tend to listen to me just a little bit more because they know I have been there,” Bryant said of coaching high school players. “I enjoy it just because, the things I now know, I wish I really knew when I was playing. It would have made it a lot easier.”
It’s the attention to basics Bryant first learned at Riverdale and later honed at Alabama made him the 1999 first-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I try not to complicate the game,” Bryant said. “The game in its purest form is simple. You run, you hit and you give effort. And if you do those three things, most of the time you get a good result.
“I try to get kids to understand that. That’s exactly what it is. It’s a game. While you do have the opportunity to play it, enjoy it.”
Coaching is a large part of the enjoyment Bryant, 37, now gets from retirement along with wife Amber and three children – 13-year-old son Fernando II and daughters Nala, 10, and Griffin, 3. Bryant’s parents, Karen Bryant and James Griffin, still reside in Murfreesboro, as does brother Gerald Griffin.
Several weeks ago, the Riverdale championship team of 1994 held a reunion in Murfreesboro. Bryant says he still keeps up with many of his former prep teammates, especially running back Alvin Duke, who played at Vanderbilt.
“It was a special group at that particular point in time,” Bryant said of the team that also produced tight end Antron Peebles (Tennessee), offensive lineman David Coppeans (Vanderbilt) and quarterback Corey Carney (Samford), to name a few standouts.
“Anytime you put four or five guys into the SEC 20 years ago, that was an accomplishment,” Bryant said. “We all try to stay in touch and try to get together and see each other at least every couple of years. … I stay in touch with coach Rankin. I’ve been to (Alcoa) a few times to see his players.”
In the meantime, Bryant is busy raising a family and helping Creekside Christian win a Division I-A football championship in Georgia.
“I’m enjoying my retirement,” Bryant said. “I am enjoying the fact that I can spend time around my family. I’m doing what I love. I enjoy being around kids.
“I love coaching the game of football. And I’ve been given the opportunity to do that, so I am enjoying it.”
Greg Pogue, former executive sports editor at The DNJ, is host of the morning sports talk show on 94.9 FM Game 2. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ThePoguester.