PITTSBURGH (AP) — Martavis Bryant slowly made his way down the hill that connects the locker room at Saint Vincent College with Chuck Noll Field, his familiar No. 10 Pittsburgh Steelers jersey pulled over the talented if occasionally troubled wide receiver’s shoulders in public for the first time in 574 days.
As Bryant took what he hopes were the final steps in his return from a 13-month drug suspension, a small boy yelled, “Hey Martavius,” adding the extra ‘u’ that’s inexplicably become commonplace during Bryant’s three-plus seasons in Pittsburgh.
Less than 20 minutes later, Bryant was lining up in the slot and running an out pattern during warmups. As he cradled a lob from Ben Roethlisberger and toe-tapped, a voice from the stands said, “Welcome back.”
Yep, it seemed like old times for Bryant on Sunday as he went through drills with his teammates, three days after the league cleared him to practice following a procedural issue that forced Bryant to spend the first two weeks of training camp working out on an adjacent field.
Bryant isn’t exactly sure what the holdup was. If he’s being honest, he also doesn’t particularly care.
“I had no control over that so I had no control what was going on,” Bryant said. “So I had to make sure I came here with the right mindset and attitude.”
Not just about football, but about life. One of the key players for the Steelers when he’s on the field, Bryant has been limited to just 24 of a possible 51 games during his brief career.
He sat out the first six games as a rookie as he underwent a rocky adjustment from Clemson to the NFL.
He sat out the first five in 2015 for running afoul of the league’s substance abuse policy then missed all of 2016 after violating the policy yet again.
The previous time Bryant caught passes in front of the public, he hauled in nine catches for 154 yards in a divisional round playoff loss to Denver on Jan. 17, 2016, a game that showcased Bryant’s considerable gifts, from his 6-foot-4 frame to his soft hands to his remarkable speed.
And just like that, it was taken away. The road back has been slow. Very slow. The pain from having the game taken away from him because of his own doing was too much.
He made it a point not to watch the Steelers reach the AFC championship game, instead focusing on how to get his life together. He moved to Nevada, trained relentlessly and worked on finding balance.
The league conditionally reinstated him in April, setting out a very specific set of plans Bryant needed to follow.
Apparently they weren’t being met, which is why Bryant was informed shortly before arriving at Saint Vincent College last month that he couldn’t practice even though he’d gone through organized team activities and minicamp in May and June without any problems. The setback was a surprise, sure. It also wasn’t going to derail him.
“I just did everything they asked me to do,” he said. “My counselors report to the league about what I’ve done and I don’t get into all that. I just get where I need to be.”
On Sunday that place was out on the field with the rest of the starters. There were no “wow” moments, blame it on a fair amount of rest while being in pads for the first time in more than 18 months.
If anything, Bryant did his best to merely blend in. He chatted with former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, who is in camp as a volunteer assistant. He traded jokes with linemen David DeCastro and Ramon Foster. He smiled when coach Mike Tomlin walked by as the team stretched and said “What up 10?”
“He looked like Martavis,” Tomlin said. “He’s a talented athlete. He’s in good condition, but that’s just an element of it. Knocking the rust off, getting acclimated or re-acclimated to football and the details associated with what requires to win at this level will be a process, so it will be fun to watch him work through it.”
Everyone, it seems, is eager to move on. There was no backlash from the stands or sidelines whenever the ball came Bryant’s way. And if it does at some point, that’s fine by Bryant.
“Everybody gets judged,” he said. “I’m not here for people to judge me. I’m here to play football and get better with my teammates.”
There is room to grow for both Bryant and an offense that could be among the league’s best if he, All-Pro Antonio Brown and Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell can stay on the field at the same time, something that hasn’t happened with any real consistency over the past two-plus seasons.
Bryant is eager but still wary. He’s not all the way back just yet. He still hasn’t been fully reinstated and declined to get into specifics about why. Asked what he still has to do, he smiled.
“Everything,” he said before adding “not mess up.”