NFL dream about to come true for Delaware running back after a long journey through tragedies, distance
Gary Brightwell has dreamed about playing in the NFL since he was in elementary school.
Sure, Brightwell heard all of the warnings, beginning with "you're too small," and "you need to have a backup plan."
That continued when he arrived at St. Georges as a ninth-grader, where he was one of four running backs who would eventually play football in college.
And it certainly continued at the University of Arizona, where Brightwell again had to fight his way up the depth chart.
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But Brightwell never saw it that way, and now he's on the precipice of the three-day NFL draft that begins April 29. Some experts predict Brightwell will be selected in one of the later rounds of the draft. He could also sign with a team as an undrafted free agent.
"I never really had a Plan B," Brightwell said. "All the marbles are already in ... I’m just looking forward to one team taking a chance on me. Whoever gives me that shot, they won’t be disappointed."
Brightwell is making sure of that.
He said he weighed 155 pounds when he arrived at St. Georges in ninth grade vying for playing time with three other top running backs in twins Tarron and Keyjuan Selby (both of whom went to Delaware State) and Tymiere Griffin.
"I told myself that I can’t be a backup for too long, not in high school," he said. "So I made this decision that I’m going to put this work in. When I was at St. Georges, I did double overtime. I worked out, then I’d go home and work out again.
"By my sophomore year, I was an animal. By my junior year, I led the league (in rushing) and I led us to a state championship that we unfortunately lost (to Howard)."
By Brightwell's senior season, he moved on to St. Frances Academy in Baltimore to face better competition.
It was the same way at Arizona. In four seasons, Brightwell, who eventually grew to 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, earned more and more playing time until he was the primary running back last season.
Arizona played just five games in 2020 after the Pac-12 shortened the season due to COVID-19. Brightwell rushed for 409 yards, including two 100-yard games.
But that wasn't easy, either. Brightwell played for two head coaches and four running backs coaches at Arizona. He could have returned for one more season, but decided to turn pro.
"When I declared, many people didn’t believe in me," Brightwell said. "They didn’t want me to come out. They wanted me to go back for my final year. But I just doubled down on myself and put all the marbles in. I was ready to go."
Two family tragedies
Getting a chance in football was the least of what Brightwell had to overcome.
His father, Gary Brightwell Sr., was killed at a gas station in Chester when Brightwell was a baby. His murder was never solved.
Brightwell's oldest sister, Shanell, died in a car accident in November 2016. Brightwell found out after his game that night, when St. Frances played IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
"It was devastating for all of us," said Brightwell's mother, Carla Young Brightwell. "We're still trying to deal with it."
Brightwell experienced death throughout his life, including close friends he grew up with in Chester and in Wilmington, where the family moved when Brightwell was in middle school at Prestige Academy.
Led by his mom, their family was determined not to let Brighwell suffer the same fate.
"I never knew my dad," Brightwell said. "I was raised by six women. I had to grow up quickly and be the man of the house. I needed them and they needed me."
There was his mother, three older sisters – Karreena, Shanell, and Sade – an aunt and a grandmother.
They call themselves "Team Brightwell." And it's easy to see why. They drove Brightwell to whatever sporting event he was participating in, whether it was a game or a practice. And Brightwell played them all – football, basketball, baseball, track, and yes, even soccer.
All the while, Brightwell had to maintain his grades in school, do chores around the house and stay focused on his dream.
"My mom was my dad, so it was basically like whatever she said, goes," Brightwell said. "That also led me to be a tough kid. I was tougher than many guys who had a dad in their life. I was taught that I was the man of the house, so I gotta protect my house."
"Team Brighwell" went everywhere Brightwell went. That included Carla Brightwell and 25 friends and family members flying out to Tucson, Arizona last month for Brightwell's Pro Day at Arizona.
The Arizona Star reported that an NFL scout at Brightwell's Pro Day timed him at 4.51 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
"It was awesome always seeing them at my games," Brightwell said.
That included his family attending a soccer game he played in while at St. Frances.
"He called me one night and said he had a soccer game coming up," Carla Brightwell said. "We started laughing, asking him, 'What do you know about soccer?' But let me tell you, he played the hell out of that soccer game.
"All you gotta do is tell him there’s competition and he’ll do whatever he has to do to win."
'Very easy to coach'
J.D. Maull had seen this, too.
Maull, who now coaches at Cape Henlopen, was the head coach at St. Georges when Brightwell arrived as that skinny, 155-pound freshman. Right away, Maull knew that Brighwell would grow into a top player.
"He’s the best pure football player I’ve ever been around coaching-wise," Maull said. "He has a lot of things that you can’t teach, especially his vision. We knew when he walked in as a ninth-grader that he was going to be a Division I football player.
"He was very easy to coach. He just came in and did his work. He didn’t take any practices off. Gary practiced hard all the time. He put the time in the training room. He had a goal, and his goal was to play Division I football and then the NFL."
Maull knew there wasn't much of a need to throw the ball with Brightwell in the backfield. In Brightwell's junior season, when St. Georges reached the championship game, the team threw just 52 passes all season.
Brightwell rushed for 1,309 yards and scored 23 touchdowns.
"You want to get the ball in your best players’ hands," Maull said. "It was easy for us to give him the ball."
But Brightwell needed more to achieve his dream. So he went to St. Frances for his senior season, one of the top high school football programs in the country.
Brightwell played in only four games that season, but averaged 130 yards rushing per game.
"I felt it was the best decision," Maull said. "We couldn’t challenge him. He needed better competition, and St. Frances was playing top competition from around the country."
That's where the Arizona coaches first saw him, and Brightwell was intrigued, even though it was nearly 3,000 miles from home and just a short time after his sister died.
Brightwell's decision surprised his family, many of whom expected him to sign with Temple. They showed up to his signing day wearing Temple gear.
"I really didn’t want him to go away from home," Carla Brightwell said. "We had Temple in our plans for three years. So in my mind, he was going there. But once everything happened with my daughter, it was a whirlwind after that."
A first at St. Georges
It took a while, but Brightwell got his chance at Arizona and made the most of it. That included getting an invite to the NFL Combine, which was canceled this year due to COVID-19.
Brightwell is the first St. Georges player to get invited to the NFL Combine, and soon, he'll be the first St. Georges player to get a chance at making an NFL team.
All of that means something to Brightwell. He knows former Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood, who spent last season with the Steelers, is the only running back from Delaware to get drafted into the NFL. The Eagles selected him in the fifth round in 2016.
Brightwell wants to be the second.
"This means a lot to me," Brightwell said. "I’m looking forward to making a change, that a running back from Chester and Delaware can make it to the NFL."
"Team Brightwell" understands that, too. They will watch the three-day draft in Orlando, Florida, with nearly 100 other friends and family members making the trip. They'll likely be especially focused on Day 3, when the fourth through seventh rounds will be held.
To them, it's a celebration of the hard work they all put in raising Brightwell, of driving and flying thousands of miles to help him fulfill his dream. In many ways, they all had a hand in it, one way or another.
"This is going to be the biggest family trip we ever had," Carla Brightwell said. "We wanted to go somewhere quiet and nice, and take a little bit of the edge off instead of just sitting home, being nervous and uptight, pacing the floor."
But draft weekend is only the beginning.
"The dream isn't over yet," Brightwell said. "I gotta get my foot in the door first, and show the whole world what type of player I really am."
Team Brightwell will be there for that, too.
Contact Martin Frank @email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.