JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville University's second all-time leading rusher began his prodigious football career as … an offensive lineman?
Yep, Ulysses Bryant sure did.
He's one of two from his grade-school weight group in Pine Forest Park that is playing collegiately, but at his start, he couldn't even crack the first-string with his cousin as the coach.
"To this day, every time he sees me he apologizes," joked Bryant.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and in his case, the River City transformed a second-string offensive lineman into a JU rushing legend through a neighborhood of sport-frenzied friends and competition.
Now a senior, Bryant has gashed Pioneer Football League defenses since his freshman year, thanks to explosiveness and lateral quickness. He's amassed 2,747 rushing yards and 3,651 total yards -- both second all-time at JU -- and ranks seventh amongst active career FCS rushers. He credits his abilities as a running back as God-given that were cultivated during backyard ballgames in Southside Jacksonville.
"I played a lot of backyard football and hot ball, where it's every man for himself. You try not to get tackled by 10 or 15 players," said Bryant. "We used to play man hunt, we'd run through the woods, and I ran from a lot of dogs.
"Everybody on the block I grew up on was family. My friends and brother helped me get where I am today. I was the youngest, and my older brother, Nathaniel, and I played a lot of one-on-one."
The summer before seventh grade, Bryant worked hard to shed extra weight and make the move from the line of scrimmage to the backfield. He and his step-father trained three times a day, at 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m., and altered his diet. The latter led to one of his favorite meals of broccoli and ground beef.
While Bryant changed his body mass and boosted his speed, his height never quite caught up. But for a running back, his low center of gravity, lateral cuts, and acceleration make him one of the best in the nation.
He's heard smack talk about his height throughout his life, but it's simmered down after slicing through all those PFL defenses.
"I go into the game with the mentality that they're already talking about my height, but when I go on the field I feel like I'm the biggest," said Bryant.
Dolphin Head Coach Ian Shields likens his style to the great Barry Sanders, coincidentally, the same player Bryant envisioned himself as during all those backyard tussles.
"He's hard to tackle for a lot of reasons: he's hard to find, has tremendous feet, he can accelerate, his lateral quickness is off-the-charts, and on top of all of that, he has great football instincts," said Shields. "I'm not saying he's Barry Sanders, but at this level, he has 'it'."
Now nearing the halfway point of his final campaign, Bryant wants to leave a lasting legacy and play for those closest to him. He married his high-school sweetheart, Ashanti, three years ago, and the two welcomed a daughter, Alayna.
"I want to lay it on the line for my best friends on the team and all my brothers on the field," said Bryant. "Before a game I think about my wife, who supports me so much each week, and my daughter.
"I feel like my running style is a reflection of my life, having to adjust on the drop of a dime, but it's also of my city and my neighborhood."