JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - On the Maryland football team, everyone has a Lamar Bryant story.
Some of them are tall tales, some of them will induce belly-aching laughter, and most of them, according to junior center Kyle Schmitt, probably aren't suitable for publication in a family newspaper.
But picture, if you can, Bryant - all 6 feet 3 and 315 pounds of him - standing in front of a banquet hall full of people last year, days before the Peach Bowl. He has a microphone in his hand, and he's part of a select group of players prepared to belt out the national anthem to kick off a comedy show that's part of the festivities in Atlanta. When Bryant's turn comes, every pair of eyes locks onto him, and the biggest showman on Maryland's football team does something he'll likely never be able to live down. He chokes.
"He couldn't remember the words," Schmitt said. "He was kind of just standing there. He's lucky we didn't start booing him."
Ever the fierce competitor, however, Bryant gathered himself, and rallied. When it came time to sing the final lines of Francis Scott Key's patriotic opus, Bryant belted out the land of the free and the home of the brave like a polished veteran.
"What happened was, I'm kind of an egomaniac," said Bryant, an offensive lineman. "They had the Jumbotron off to the left, and I was looking at the Jumbotron. I was like, `I look good on TV.' Next thing I know, everyone is pointing at me, waiting for me to sing. I knew all my teammates were going to give me [grief] about it, but I didn't care. I figured I'd make up for it in the end."
In a way, Bryant's story is a metaphor for Maryland's 2003 season. Ranked No. 15 during the preseason, the Terps were thrust into the national spotlight, but stumbled under the bright lights, losing their first two games. Things didn't look good after a 7-3 loss to Georgia Tech on Oct. 23, but a midseason rally helped erase the early disappointments, and Maryland ended up winning nine of its past 10 games to earn a berth in the Gator Bowl on Thursday against West Virginia.
"I think our seniors just decided that we had hit rock bottom, and we had to make things right," Bryant said.
Bryant, a four-year starter, played a major role in the turnaround. After breaking his left foot during preseason practices, Bryant was forced to miss Maryland's first three games, and he wasn't really healthy until midseason. But his return against the Mountaineers on Sept. 20 not only gave the Terps' offensive line some stability, but also gave the team a much-needed nasty streak.
Bryant, as much as anyone, is Maryland's emotional powder keg. Before Thursday's game, it's a sure bet he'll be head-butting teammates in warm-ups, waving his arms to Maryland's fans and pounding his chest right up to the opening kickoff.
"Some guys give soul-stirring speeches, or they have the right things to say at the right time, but I've never been one of those guys," Bryant said. "I just go out and compete as hard as I can. The way I get my teammates going is, they look at me and they see me out there going a million miles an hour trying to block people. That's what's behind my emotion."
As big and as strong as Bryant is - he can squat more than 700 pounds - it's easy to imagine he was predestined to play football from birth. But that's hardly the case.
Bryant never even buckled up a chin strap until he was a junior in high school, and he only did it then because Larry Layman, the football coach at Crossland High School, walked into his English class one day and demanded he come out for the team. Up until then, Bryant had focused mostly on basketball, where he was a scrappy 265-pound power forward.
The first day of practice, the coaches were assigning numbers to players. Bryant had a choice: Take No. 85, and try to mold himself into a tight end, or grab No. 73 and go to war in the trenches. When Bryant reached for 73, the coaching staff was elated.
"My offensive line coach starting calling me `The Future,' " Bryant said. "He said anyone that would pick playing on the O-line must be somebody special.
In basketball, I was the kind of guy that was happy to get the offensive rebounds and dive for loose balls. I think the offensive line immediately spoke to my character. I liked being the guy that did all the dirty work and got none of the credit."
Not much has changed in seven years, except Bryant (and the rest of Maryland's offensive line) is getting some much-deserved credit lately. Against Virginia, Bryant, Schmitt, left guard C.J. Brooks, right tackle Eric Dumas, left tackle Stephon Heyer and tight end Jeff Dugan opened up holes in the second half, helping Josh Allen run for 257 yards in a 27-17 win.
Against Wake Forest two weeks later, the offensive line was at it again, as Bruce Perry ran for 237 and three touchdowns in a 41-28 victory.
"That's why you play the game as an offensive lineman for those games right there," Bryant said. "I'd love seeing my running back in the open field, whether it's Josh, Bruce or whomever. It does my heart good. That's what I live for."
NOTE: Third-string quarterback Orlando Evans injured his right knee in yesterday's practice and is likely out for Thursday's game.
Matchup: No. 23 Maryland (9-3) vs. No. 20 West Virginia (8-4)
Site: Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.
When: Thursday, 12:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 11, 4/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Maryland by 3 1/2