The NCAA has made a lot of rule changes for college football this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. But one it made just beforehand might end up having the most significant impact on Gary Brightwell this season.
The senior running back changed his number this offseason, going from the No. 23 he donned for his first three years with the Arizona Wildcats to 0 after the NCAA made it possible for that to be worn by football players.
The change was one Brightwell says he was quick to make, but not because of anything to do with himself.
“I don’t even wear it for myself,” he said Friday, via Zoom, after Arizona’s practice. “I’m representing my family. I’m representing my team, not only my team but my guys that look up to me. That zero, it represents everything I stand for, I’m the last of a dying breed. Nobody can compare to me, so I just had to make that change.”
Brightwell opened about Friday about his childhood growing up on the East Coast, living in Philadelphia and Chester, Pennyslvania and Wilmington, Delaware before graduating from high school in Baltimore. His father, Gary Sr., was murdered when he was a year old, leaving his mother Carla Young to raise him on her own.
“My mom has always been my father,” he said.
For someone who has been through as much as he has—Brightwell said he recently went home to attend the funeral of his godbrother, who had also been murdered—he is about as upbeat and hopeful a guy that you’ll ever meet. Or follow on Twitter, where many of Brightwell’s inner thoughts are put out there for everyone to read.
“The whole idea behind that is, I have a lot to say, and I feel like it’s selfish if I keep it all to myself,” he said. “So the way to get it out is through social media because, whether you see it or not, 24/7 the whole America is on social media. Especially right now with this corona going on. I feel like, if there’s somebody watching me they need to see what I’m thinking, as well as I need to see what they’re thinking.”
Brightwell said he hopes his timeline, which is packed with inspirational messages, can make a difference in some young people’s lives by understanding it’s okay to be real.
“I want to reach the youth, I want them to understand that it’s okay to have a soft side,” he said. “It’s okay not to be a thug. Growing up in that situation, you never want to go back. I need to let them know there’s more to life than the streets.”
Running backs coach AJ Steward, who was hired by Arizona in mid-February, feels a kindred bond with Brightwell despite their brief relationship because the two had similar upbringings.
“I’m grateful to be around him every single day,” Steward said. “He’s a very mature, very well-spoken young man that just sees life a little bit differently than most people his age. As you can hear when you hear him talk, you usually end up learning a lot more than he does when you talk to him.”
Brightwell enters what may or may not be his final year at Arizona—he said “it’s up in the air right now” whether he’d take advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted in order to return in 2021—treating this like a last hurrah. He has run for 915 yards and eight touchdowns in his career, adding 68 receiving yards with a TD catch and 86 yards on kickoff returns, but has only got 10 or more offensive touches six times.
He figures to have a much more pronounced role with J.J. Taylor now in the NFL, though Brightwell doesn’t see it that way.
“Honestly, I feel as though I have the same role,” he said. “It’s go time for me now. There’s no more chances, no more second chances. When (Taylor) was here, I was learning, I would learn from my mistakes. I don’t really have time for no mistakes right now.”