Bobby Pope

Bobby Bryant was more than just a football player

Defensive back Bobby Bryant of the Minnesota Vikings takes a look behind him as he heads for a touchdown during the 1976 NFC championship game.
Defensive back Bobby Bryant of the Minnesota Vikings takes a look behind him as he heads for a touchdown during the 1976 NFC championship game. ASSOCIATED PRESS

There is little debate that Bobby Bryant is the best all-around athlete to ever come out of Willingham.

In fact, he may be the best all-around athlete to come out of Macon. He was a standout for the Rams in football even though he only played a total of five games his final two seasons. He quit the sport as a junior after a dispute with head coach Billy Henderson and then as a senior missed half the year with injuries.

In addition to football, he was a star in basketball, baseball and track and field, earning a total of 13 letters. His high school accomplishments were good enough to earn him a scholarship to South Carolina where he became one of the best Gamecocks ever.

Bryant lettered in football and baseball for three years and as a senior was named the winner of the Anthony J. McElvin Award as the ACC outstanding athlete in 1967. He was an All-American in football his senior season despite his team winning only one game and was an All-ACC pick in both baseball and football that year.

After his college career ended, Bryant was chosen in the seventh round of the NFL draft by Minnesota and was with the Vikings the next 15 years. He spent the 1967 season on the injured reserve list due to a knee injury but was a mainstay for Minnesota the next 14 years as a member of 11 division winners and four Super Bowl teams.

He played in two Super Bowls, IX and XI, but missed Super Bowl IV because of knee surgery and Super Bowl VIII because of a broken arm. In his time with the Vikings, Bryant had 51 interceptions, which is second all-time in franchise history, just two behind Paul Krause. He was named to the Vikings’ 25th and 40th anniversary teams.

It’s apparent Bryant made the right career choice to play professional football, but he also had the option to play professional baseball, and on paper looking at his 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame (his nickname at South Carolina was “Bones” and with the Vikings it was “Skinny”) you would think that would have been the prudent decision.

The left-handed Byant became the first South Carolina pitcher to strike out 100 batters in a season. In three of his most impressive pitching performances for the Gamecocks, he had a 13-inning complete game in a 1-0 win over Maryland, he allowed just one hit in a 1-0 win over North Carolina, and he struck out 16 his senior year in a win over Virginia. In another game, he walked the first two batters in the first inning and then picked both off base.

Professional teams were very much aware of Bryant. Following his junior year at South Carolina, he played in a college league in South Dakota and had comparable numbers to teammate Geoff Zahn, who went on to play 13 seasons in the big leagues. The New York Yankees drafted Bryant following his junior season, but the signing bonus was not to his liking, and he went back to South Carolina to play as a senior.

Following that year, he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox, but he had already made the decision to give professional football a try.

After retiring from football, Bryant remained in Minnesota for five years and then returned to Columbia in 1990 and began working in the auto glass replacement business. At age 73, he is still working in that industry.

He pointed out that unlike today’s NFL players, he didn’t make big money. His top salary during his career was $75,000 in his final season in Minnesota. Former Gamecocks cornerback Stephon Gilmore recently signed a five-year $65 million contract with the New England Patriots with $40 million guaranteed.

Bryant is a member of the Georgia, Macon and South Carolina state sports Halls of Fame as well as the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.

On a closing note The Telegraph has made the decision to discontinue my column effective with this publication, and I want to thank you for reading it during the past seven years.

Contact Bobby Pope at bobbypope428@gmail.com

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