If his life were a movie, Youngstown State senior Christian Bryan would be played by Mark Wahlberg, but with a receding hairline. He may not be from the Valley, but he’s as blue collar as a Struthers plumber, as gritty as Don Bucci’s voice.
At 5-foot-10 and (cough, cough) 190 pounds, Bryan willed himself into becoming a Division I wide receiver by channeling his Philadelphia roots and out-Rocky Balboa-ing guys more talented than him.
Which is why, 258 days after his last real football game, he’s still miffed about the way the Penguins fought their final rounds.
“There’s plenty of things in my head that I want to say but I can’t,” Bryan said, referring to a 42-13 loss to South Dakota State in a Stambaugh Stadium snowstorm. “To be honest, we didn’t even show up to play. You seen the snow and I think kids just said, ‘You know what ...’”
Bryan stopped, then thought back to a speech that senior wideout Jelani Berassa gave in front of the team just before camp started.
“Jelani said, ‘If you watch that game, you would think South Dakota State was playing on [dry] grass or regular turf and that it wasn’t snowing out,’” Bryan said. “And he was right! They came out with the mindset that they don’t care if it’s rain, hail, sleet or snow. They wanted to get in the playoffs and that’s what happened. We went out and we curled up.
As a freshman, Bryan led the Penguins in receptions (46) and yards (722), benefiting from instant chemistry with quarterback Kurt Hess and extra attention given to Berassa. With Berassa hurt the last two years, Bryan’s numbers have dropped, from 30 catches for 372 yards and three TDs in 2012 to 26 catches for 306 yards and two TDs last fall.
But he’s still one of the team’s best receivers — and one of its best leaders, a coach-in-training who doubles as YSU’s chattiest interview. He understands the fans’ frustration over YSU’s playoff drought because he feels the same way.
“It’s been absolutely crushing,” he said. “We’ve been one game short for three years in a row. I can’t even put into words how it’s felt.
“Last year we were 8-1 and lost our last three games. That’s a mindset thing. We’re not less talented than anyone else.* But you’ve got to have the right mindset. You’ve got to play with your mind and play with your heart.”
(*This is a lie. North Dakota State was more talented. But it sounds good.)
On paper, this year’s team seems like the least likely of Bryan’s tenure to make the playoffs. The Penguins are breaking in a rookie quarterback, several new offensive linemen and must replace their best defensive linemen (Kyle Sirl), linebacker (Teven Williams) and defensive back (Dale Peterman) on a unit breaking in a new defensive coordinator (Jamie Bryant).
But the running backs are ridiculous, the wide receiver group is talented and there’s some intriguing new players on defense, even if you’ve never heard of most of them. This could work, Bryan said.
“The depth on this team surprised me,” he said. “We have a lot of new talent. We just need some leaders, for the older guys to step up into that role.
“For the past three years, we’ve seen absolutely everything. Our mentality is going to change this year. We will be ready for that type of [South Dakota State game]. The situation at the end of the year? That’s not going to happen again.”