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Trying to harness Kelvin Bryant, the Philadelphia Stars' halfback, can be a frustrating experience. All game long the opponents' defensive unit can do a diligent job of clogging up the middle yet keeping Bryant from getting outside, of making him seem no different from the average USFL running back. Then, just when the defenders think they've got him in check, he breaks loose, dancing and juking and running crazy.
Last Saturday, Bryant, who's in a neck-and-neck battle with New Jersey's Herschel Walker for the USFL rushing lead, struck again, this time against the Oakland Invaders. He was held at bay most of the afternoon, but he also delivered a couple of knockout punches that propelled the Stars, now 6-1 on the season and leading the Atlantic Division, to a 17-7 victory before 34,901 fans in Oakland Coliseum. Bryant ran the ball only 14 times—usually dragging three or four Invaders with him as he went for modest yardage—but two of his carries went for long gains that accounted for the bulk of his 118 yards and crushed Oakland. After the game the Invaders, now 3-4, had puzzled looks on their faces. "We stuck 11 'Bikes' on his head all day, but he never quit," said Linebacker Dewey McClain. "You could tell he figured eventually he'd break one, and he did. He runs loose, like Gale Sayers or O.J. He reverses field, and next thing you know, your speed is not so good."
The Philadelphia offense was the quintessence of steadiness, with nary a turnover, partly because with Bryant in the lineup it can afford to be conservative and wait for the inevitable to happen. His two jaunts against Oakland were classics. One was a 45-yard sideline-to-sideline, stop-and-reverse job that set up the game's first score, a 39-yard second-quarter field goal by David Trout. The other was a 37-yard touchdown run just before the half on which Bryant, a 6'2" 195-pounder, shifted through his considerable range of gears while skating up-field on a sweep, dodging a couple of defenders and cracking the corner of the goal line. That gave the Stars a 10-0 lead, which, as it turned out, was all that they needed.
With 4.5 speed and a nose for the goal line—he scored 15 TDs in one three-game span during his junior year at North Carolina, an NCAA record—Bryant has been doing this sort of thing every week this spring while the attention of the media has been riveted on Walker. Bryant and Walker are tied for the league's rushing lead with 713 yards each, but Bryant is several reels ahead on the highlight film. As a runner, he nibbles and nibbles and then gulps. And he's tough. "He'll break tackles on hard guys, linebackers who weigh 240," says Chuck Commiskey, the Stars' right guard.
Bryant doesn't live the way he runs. Off the field he is not flashy, and his frugality is legendary. True, he wears two earrings, one gold, the other diamond, but the gem is worth only $15. Basically he's a quiet kid from Tarboro, N.C., the third-youngest of 10 children of a high school custodian. He chews tobacco and, being a good fellow, heaps credit on his linemen and talks of winning instead of personal goals. On Saturday, when the Philadelphia defensive captain was hollering for water during a time-out, no one was surprised when Bryant, the Stars' highest-paid player, picked up a cup and ran it onto the field. "He's not like a running back," says Rich Garza, Philadelphia's left guard. "He's more like a lineman. He's emotional. He gets ticked off. He's right in there battling with us." No wonder Garza calls blocking for Bryant "a privilege."
To land Bryant, Stars President Carl Peterson offered a five-year contract worth a reported $1.25 million. Just as important, he assured Bryant he would have a good offensive line. The Stars' first two draft picks, Irv Eatman and Bart Oates, were offensive linemen. Then Coach Jim Mora, former defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, built the offense around his prize rookie. The result is a ball-control style that puts the clock on the Stars' side and hurry-up pressure on the opposition.
A third-quarter touchdown pass from Invader Quarterback Fred Besana to Wyatt Henderson was the only blot on the record of Philly's Doghouse Defense, a motley collection of no-names and retreads led by Linebacker Sam Mills and Defensive End Frank Case. Mills is nick—named Field Mouse because he is built low to the ground—the roster lists him charitably at 5'10"—but he made 14 tackles against Oakland. Case, who was raised in the Bucks County, Pa. prison where his father was warden and his mother was a matron, had five tackles and helped deflect a 46-yard Invader field-goal try early in the game. Scott Woerner, the former Georgia All-America defensive back, made the game's final big play in the fourth quarter. After a Chuck Fusina-to-Tom Donovan 18-yard scoring pass had given the Stars a 10-point lead again, Woerner stepped in front of Oakland's Raymond Chester and made an interception at the Philadelphia 29-yard line with 6:05 left.
It was about then that Bryant recovered his diamond earring. It had fallen off earlier, but his backup, Allen Harvin, spotted it in the grass—a diamond in the rough, one might say—and returned it. It would have broken Bryant's heart to have lost it. He figures you earn what you get, whether it's yardage or a diamond, and, hey, $15 is $15 to a guy from Tarboro, even if he is leading the league.