While many college players daydream about a career in the NFL, Wisconsin senior defensive tackle Wendell Bryant spent last summer preparing for life after the pros. Five days a week for two months the 6'4", 293-pound Bryant stuffed himself into a chair at the Merrill Lynch branch in Madison where, as an intern, he analyzed clients' investment portfolios. "I've heard too many stories of athletes losing huge sums of money," says Bryant, a personal finance major. "If I go in the draft [he's expected to be a first-round pick], I'll probably throw my bonus into a couple mutual funds, watch $10,000 grow to a million and a half by the time I'm 40 and be able to set up my kids' education. I want to enjoy being old."
Bryant's stock as a player has risen steadily since he arrived at Wisconsin in 1998 from St. Louis's Ritenour High, for which he made 125 tackles over his final two seasons. His no-holds-barred approach to preseason workouts so impressed Badgers coaches that they played him in 12 games as a freshman, including the 1999 Rose Bowl, in which he sacked UCLA quarterback Cade McNown on a fourth-down play with 1:07 left to secure a 38-31 win. In each of his next two years he led Wisconsin's linemen in tackles and was tied for first in sacks. This season, while anchoring a line that lost three starters to graduation, Bryant has a team-high 16 tackles for a loss and shares the Big Ten lead with six sacks.
"The kid's been fighting double teams for three years, and he still comes up with big plays," says Green Bay Packers scout John Cochran. "Even if he's not putting up enormous numbers this year, everyone in the NFL knows what he's capable of."
Defensive line coach John Palermo says Bryant has yet to reach his peak. "He could carry 15 more pounds," says Palermo, "but he's constantly shedding weight from all the walking that he does. This is a big campus, and most kids have a car or at least a bike to get around. Wendell's philosophy is, Why do I need a car, Coach? I walked as a freshman, I can walk as a senior."
Bryant credits his mother, Karen Wells, for building his character, which includes the patience to wait until after his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Wells worked on an assembly line for General Motors and moonlighted at the post office throughout her only child's youth. She earned her bachelor's degree in education from St. Louis's Washington University in 1992 and is a researcher for a chemical company in St. Louis.
A year ago she intervened when Bryant, frustrated following an overtime loss to Northwestern, started talking about leaving Wisconsin early to enter the 2001 draft. "I made the sack on that one," says Wells. "I explained to him that only a few lucky people in this world get their college education for free, and all he had to do [to be one of them] was go to school and play the game that he loves."
Although the Badgers' season isn't going the way Bryant hoped it would—Wisconsin is 5-5 with games remaining against Michigan and Minnesota—he says he has second-guessed his decision to stay in school only once. "We had just lost to Illinois, and I thought, Man, I stayed around for this? But then I got in the locker room, saw the pain and hurt in my teammates' eyes and realized that this is exactly what I came back for: to be with my brothers for one more year. Now that's something of value."