'Hometown hero' Gary Brightwell overcame odds, miles to join Arizona Wildcats
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Arizona Football

'Hometown hero' Gary Brightwell overcame odds, miles to join Arizona Wildcats

Since Gary Brightwell joined the Arizona Wildcats this summer, three friends in his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania, have died. One funeral is scheduled for Friday.

Brightwell won’t be there. He’s preparing for his first college football season with a “Beanie Bowl” scrimmage set for Friday night at Arizona Stadium.

The 19-year-old Brightwell has lost both his father and his oldest sister. He’s more than 2,000 miles away from home.

All of that — moving across the country for school, adjusting to college life and practicing against big-bodied college football players every day — is difficult, Brightwell says. But it’s not hard.

Let Brightwell tell you what’s hard. It ain’t football.

“Football is not hard. Either you got it or you don’t. Either you work hard or you don’t. It’s not hard. It’s just practice hard and then win easy,” said Brightwell, a wide receiver on a UA team that will open its season Sept. 2 against Northern Arizona.

“Football is not complicated, life is complicated. … That was the most complicated thing for me on this earth. Being a black, young male coming up, it’s hard because some don’t even get to see the age of 18. That was my hard thing. Football wasn’t hard for me.”

• • •

Brightwell is named after his father, Gary Sr., but he never met the man. He was murdered when Brightwell was just 5 months old.

Gary Sr. was shot several times in the back while pumping his gas at a Sunoco gas station in Chester. Gary’s murder meant his four kids — daughters Shannell, Kareena and Sade and Gary Jr. — would be raised by their mother, Carla Young.

Carla switched careers, from working at a hospital to life as a private chef, and helped her only son grow as an athlete, getting him where he needed to go, making sure he was on the straight and narrow. That last part was never an issue — Brightwell has never been arrested, suspended or put in detention, and has never been in a fight. He made the honor roll, too.

Brightwell played football, baseball, basketball, soccer and ran track. His mom drove him everywhere.

“We call ourselves Team Brightwell,” Young said. “We do it together. We sacrificed together. We did it all.”

In November, Team Brightwell lost one member when Shannell, Gary’s oldest sister, died in a car crash. She was 29.

• • •

Not much really flies under the radar when it comes to college recruiting anymore. Players create elaborate and overproduced videos to announce their college. They post on Twitter every time they receive a scholarship offer or when they whittle a list of possible destinations down, from 20 to 10 to seven to five to three.

Team Brightwell eschewed the hullabaloo.

Brightwell’s mother didn’t allow him to entertain college offers until the end of his junior year of high school — she wanted him to focus on academics first.

Stony Brook, Old Dominion and Monmouth offered after Brightwell rushed for 1,309 yards and scored 23 total touchdowns as a junior at St. George’s Tech in Middletown, Delaware. That wasn’t good enough for Virginia Tech coaches, who told coach Jeremy Maull that Brightwell wasn’t big enough for big-time college football. Brightwell was 5 feet 11 inches then; he’s since grown to 6-1.

But Maull knew Brightwell was a Division I talent when he saw him practice for the first time as a freshman.

Maull remembers how Brightwell, as a sophomore, scrambled to recover an errant toss from the quarterback 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Brightwell then dodged tacklers from every direction and burst up the field 40 yards for a touchdown.

“There were times he carried guys on his back,” Maull said.

Eventually, Brightwell became too big for Delaware. Before his senior season, Brightwell transferred to Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy, a program that sent 11 players to Division I programs this season.

This is where Arizona saw Brightwell for the first time. UA co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Calvin Magee said the running back’s “flash” stood out on film.

“He has some wiggle, and he was a tough dude,” Magee said. “We just liked everything about him.”

Arizona was sold on Brightwell, but Team Brightwell wasn’t sold yet on Arizona.

Brightwell’s mom put up a board in their rented Baltimore house with all of Brightwell’s offers and information about each school on it. No stone was left unturned. She saw Arizona’s 3-9 record in 2016, and the Wildcats’ bevy of injuries at running back. She researched the coaching staff, did background checks and looked at their family life. Did they play sports? What’s their coaching track record?

Everything was a factor.

“I knew they had a crappy record, I knew they had a lot of injuries,” Young said. “To put it bluntly, my opinion was that they sucked.”

Then she sat down with Magee and watched film. She asked questions: Why were the running backs getting injured? Was it the fault of the offensive line? How will the offensive line be this season? How do you plan on using Gary?

Magee had answers for everything. Soon after, Brightwell verbally committed to the UA.

Only nobody in the public — and only a few in Brightwell’s private life — knew about it. Brightwell, saddened by the loss of his sister a couple months earlier, wasn’t doing interviews or drawing attention.

He walked into a family party on national signing day to find family members decked out in Temple Owls hats and shirts. Then Brightwell put on an Arizona hat. The room went silent.

“They kept it real with me, that’s my biggest thing,” Brightwell said of Arizona. “I’m a real guy. I’m a man that can stand on his own two feet and accept responsibility. I’ve been learning that since I was a young buck. I know if I can stand on my own two feet and accept all responsibility, that makes me a man.”

• • •

Brightwell changed ZIP codes earlier this summer. He has since changed positions, too.

Early in training camp, Brightwell asked to be moved to slot receiver. It didn’t take long for him to realize that Arizona’s stable of running backs, which includes Nick Wilson, J.J. Taylor and freshman Nathan Tilford, was the program’s deepest in years. He’s now practicing exclusively at receiver.

Brightwell’s going to play, too, both on offense and special teams.

A year ago, UA coach Rich Rodriguez lauded Taylor — then a freshman — for his football IQ and ability to grasp concepts.

Brightwell is even better. UA receiver Shun Brown pointed to Brightwell’s “bright future” and said he’s “a guy you want on your team.”

Wilson has never seen a freshman like him.

“It’s not even the mental side. He picked that up very quickly, but it just seemed like he went from running back to wide receiver and didn’t have no hiccups, no issues. … His running style is explosive, he can cut on a dime and he runs hard. He’s impressive.

“Looking at him,” Wilson added, “I’m surprised he wasn’t recruited a lot more highly.”

Brightwell doesn’t know why schools weren’t interested either, but he doesn’t really care.

Brightwell wants to get his family out of a bad neighborhood, he said, and he’s trying to get some of his friends out, too.

Before he left for college, Brightwell told his mom that he had a surprise for her. She thought it was a gift. It was his friend. Brightwell told his mother that the friend was going to live with her for the year, go back to 12th grade and get his life in order. He’s done that for six other friends.

“To Chester right now, Gary is a hometown hero,” his mom said. “You have kids walking around with T-shirts with his face on it, his picture hanging from people’s houses. He’s a hometown hero because he beat all odds. The family he come from, the Brightwells, he’s the first man to graduate high school in six generations and the first to ever go to college. It’s amazing.”

• • •

Brightwell slumps into a couch at Sands Club in the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility at Arizona Stadium, an upscale club-seating area populated with couches, chairs and tabletops straight out of an Ikea catalog.

Tucson and the University of Arizona are a far cry from Brightwell’s home in more ways that one. That’s a good thing. Here in the Old Pueblo, Brightwell is at ease.

His dreadlocked hair is long enough to cover all of his head and parts of his face, and maybe that’s by design.

Brightwell doesn’t talk much, and isn’t interested in letting people know what he’s thinking. He’s economical with his words, and unless you’re in his circle, he won’t say much.

But make no mistake: He’s ready. Gary Brightwell really wants you to know Gary Brightwell, to remember the name.

Brightwell and friends from Chester started their own clothing brand called Say Less, which currently makes T-shirts and sweatsuits, and soon, he said, will debut collared shirts. Brightwell is proudly the face of Say Less, and he came up with the name.

“He doesn’t talk,” Young said. “A lot of people take it as cockiness, but it’s not. He listens and he pays attention more than he talks. That’s why people started calling him ‘Say Less,’ because he don’t talk. Then he’d go on the field and dominate the game. So it’s, ‘don’t say what you gonna do, just do it.’”

Brightwell is eight days away from his first-ever college football game. His mom and two sisters will make the trip.

He won’t say much, but he will say this: This is all for them.

“This is actually not exciting to me because this is something I knew I was capable of,” Brightwell said. “The exciting part will be when I start making millions and have my mom and my family out of the hood. That’ll be exciting to me, when they don’t have to pay for nothing and it’s all on me. I know what I’m here for and I know what I have to do to accomplish my goals. Not a soul can get in front of what I have to do on the field or off the field.

“My family made their way out of no way for me. I just want to be able to do the same for them, that’s all.”

Extra points

  • Asked if he had figured which three quarterbacks he can win with — a camp-long goal — Rich Rodriguez said he has narrowed the field to four: Brandon Dawkins, Khalil Tate, Donavan Tate and Rhett Rodriguez. “Those four are all getting reps,” Rodriguez said, “and all four probably will get reps next week.” That doesn’t mean all four are vying for the starting job. More likely, Dawkins and Khalil Tate are battling for the top spot — with Dawkins still the favorite — while Donavan Tate and Rodriguez compete for the No. 3 job. Freshman K’Hari Lane not being in that mix puts him on the redshirt track.
  • Expect Shun Brown, Arizona’s top receiver, to also be the Wildcats’ No. 1 punt returner and one of their top two kickoff returners.
  • Rodriguez is fully in favor of a proposal to change the redshirt rules so that players could play in up to four games without burning their redshirt. He is annoyed that it isn’t in effect already. “It makes a lot more sense,” Rodriguez said. “Then you can use your entire roster. I wish it was in place now, but it looks like we’re going to have to wait a year.”

Contact: zrosenblatt@tucson.com or 573-4145. On Twitter: @ZackBlatt

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