This story, part of our “Legends of the Fall” series, appeared in Volume 8 Issue 2 of Hail Varsity. For more stories like this each month, subscribe today.
For the context here, Nebraska football, the name is “Dollar Bill” Bryant. That’s how his Cornhusker teammates, and at least one new-to-the-beat newspaper reporter, knew him.
As he remembers, Bryant earned the nickname as a university freshman in 1974. Some “guys from the East Coast” in his dorm, Abel Hall, gave it to him for what he calls his entrepreneurial attitude. He would go to thrift stores “if people had some things they needed for their dorm room,” said Bryant. “I would find things that needed a little repair, and I would fix them.”
Then those who needed the items would stop by his room and get them, win-win.
As for football, Bryant walked on from Boys Town High and earned a letter as a defensive tackle his senior year. According to a Nebraska football media-guide entry, he was “one of the most personable and out going players ever to wear a Husker uniform . . .”
Bryant is now one of two advocates for students, primarily African-American, with the Lincoln (Neb.) Public Schools. The other is the wife of former Husker teammate Paul Letcher.
Bryant’s goal is to “be an example of resilience because, hey, that’s what young people are going to need a full portion of to . . . negotiate this maze they’re looking at and come out the other side.”
That’s what he has done. And therein is the story, abbreviated as it must be.
Bryant’s journey began in Decatur, Alabama, where he was the third-youngest in a family of 13 children. Of necessity, he began working with his father at age 7 and left home at age 13 because of his love of sports, specifically football. In his family, work came before sports. As a result, his father said, “Well, you either show up when I tell you to show up or there’s the door.”
Bryant opted for the latter, lived briefly with a sister, then “bounced around, lived on the streets, couch-surfing,” he said. That was until he was picked up and put in a detention facility.
His mom had been the impetus because of her concern about his well-being.
Foster care wasn’t an option. “Down there, during that time, late ‘60s, (it) was kind of like indentured servitude,” Bryant said. “I’d heard horror stories about that. I told them (authorities), I’d sooner go to industrial or reformatory school than be farmed out to foster care.”
Instead of either, a probation officer suggested Boys Town in Nebraska.
“You mean like the movie ‘Boys Town’?” Bryant said.
“Yeah, that’s the place,” the probation officer said.
“Man, I would go there,” said Bryant, who was familiar with the movie.
Former Huskers George Buckner, who had gone to Boys Town, Dan Schneiss and Dave Morock coached and taught at Boys Town and were influential in his walking on at Nebraska.
He had planned to return to Alabama to play football, a promise to a judge who had helped him get to Boys Town, but a knee injury his senior season caused every school except Nebraska to back off.
When he arrived at Boys Town in early 1971, Bryant was heavily invested in the Crimson Tide. Though the Huskers had just won their first national title, he told his classmates just wait ‘til Alabama got ahold of them. Alabama did after the next season, in the 1972 Orange Bowl.
The final score was 38-6 Nebraska—for national title No. 2.
“So I took all my (Alabama) clippings and pictures off the wall in my room,” said Bryant.
Though he didn’t complete a B.A. degree in political science until 1992, Bryant was a solid student, allowing him to pay for some of school with grant-in-aid money. His post-Nebraska résumé includes time in the Air National Guard and serving in the U.S. Army, with time in Germany as well as in Saudi Arabia and Iraq during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
He spent time in Atlanta helping a brother-in-law in the start-up for a mobile-mechanics business. He was head of security at Elephant Hall on the University of Nebraska campus, as well as a volunteer assistant at Lincoln High when former Husker Mike Fultz was the head football coach.
Bryant was a substitute teacher in the Lincoln Public Schools. He worked for Lincoln’s Malone Center, its youth outreach program, and for Health and Human Services in Lincoln.
“A lot of the occupations I’ve had over the years didn’t turn out to be career moves, but each of them kind of prepared me for the next step in the journey,” Bryant said.
“It’s been quite a journey, and I guess I’m still wondering what might be up around the bend.”
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.