In his nine seasons as football coach at Howard High, Bruce Strunk says he led more than his fair share of committed and talented athletes. None, however, epitomized Howard football more than Saif Bryant.
“We’ve had so many special kids come through, really dedicated kids, but I can honestly say I don’t think anyone loved Howard football more than him,” said Strunk, who stepped down last spring as football coach at the school. “Even after he graduated [in 2015], he was up there at the school and around the team every chance he got. Practices, games, in the weight room … you name it, he loved it all.
“He was the epitome of everything we did in terms of changing the culture of the program and turning things around. In my mind, he is Howard football.”
Early Sunday morning in Ellicott City, 21-year-old Bryant, of Columbia, was killed in a single-vehicle crash. Police said Bryant, a junior, physical education major and member of the football team at Morgan State University, was pronounced dead at the scene after his car had left the road for an unknown reason and struck a tree, catching on fire around 3 a.m. As of Monday afternoon, police had no further details about the cause of the crash, according to Seth Hoffman, a spokesman for Howard County Police Department.
Strunk said he heard the news immediately when he woke up Sunday morning via text.
“Devastating … you get that kind of news and you just can’t believe it. He was just such a wonderful kid,” Strunk said. “I never knew anyone to say one negative thing about him.”
Another of his former coaches at Howard, Michael Ritucci, echoed Strunk’s comments and added that while Bryant was a quiet kid, he stood out both on the field and off it.
Among his career highlights while playing for the Lions was registering four sacks in a playoff win over Paint Branch his senior year to secure the program its first regional championship since 1999. Howard also won a county title that season, while Bryant earned first-team all-county honors.
“Saif was one of those guys that was happy to put on his pads every day at practice and did it with a smile. He had a great smile,” Ritucci said. “He was a quiet leader and spoke with his pads. His work ethic became a metaphor for his life.”
Ritucci said that he and Bryant would still talk every couple weeks over the last couple years about life and his aspirations. During one of those more recent talks, the weekend before Easter, Rittuci said that Bryant had expressed an interest in coaching one day.
“He loved mentoring younger guys,” Rittuci said. “He asked about how he could get into coaching to try to impact more young people.”
Morgan State University’s head football coach Ernest T. Jones said Bryant, a nose tackle, was at a chilly team practice Saturday morning. At about 260 pounds, he was smaller than the other men on the defensive line but was quick and agile.
“You’re talking about a smaller guy who is playing a position meant for a big guy, and he is holding his own,” Jones said. “He doesn’t say much. He is really quiet, but he is a fundamentally sound kid, a technician, if you will.
“What the big guys did with power and strength, he made up for with his athleticism and speed.”
Jones said Bryant was a “walk-on” player who impressed Jones and the coaches during an open tryout for his mix of athletic ability, personality, commitment and academic performance.
Bryant’s ability to make the Morgan team from an open tryout was rare, and a testament to his abilities, Jones said.
“He works his butt off,” Jones said.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.
Strunk said that his memories of Bryant and the impact he had at Howard High will not soon be forgotten.
“That smile and that grin, that’s something I’ve seen in my head a lot these last two days since I got the bad news. That’s something that I think will stick with me,” Strunk said. “He loved being a part of this program and the program loved him.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.
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