Giants rookie Gary Brightwell overcame family tragedies to achieve NFL dream

Sometimes, dreams come true with years of commitment. Sometimes, tragedy strikes without warning. Gary Brightwell’s life is the intersection of the two.

Carla Young pulled out the family Bible — now 10 generations old — and removed a slip of paper not seen by her son in 15 years.

In the empty space after “I want to be …” created a world of possibilities, kindergarten-aged Gary Brightwell wrote, “A football player to play pro football.” He brought it home to his mother, who stored it securely until it was time to travel from her Delaware home to Brightwell’s NFL draft party at a rented Airbnb in Orlando. That’s where 30 family and friends celebrated Brightwell’s sixth-round selection by the Giants on May 1.

“I knew since the day I [was born],” Brightwell told The Post. “My 1-year-old picture is of me holding a football.”

Sometimes, dreams come true with years of commitment. Sometimes, tragedy strikes without warning. Brightwell’s life is the intersection of the two.

As tension gave way to hugs and high-fives, the presence of three people missing from that party could be felt: A father murdered at a gas station when Brightwell was five months old, an older sister killed in a car crash when he was a senior in high school and a grandmother who taught him how to play football as a way of keeping him safe. She died just weeks before the draft.

“I never cried when my husband died because I didn’t have time for tears when I had kids to raise,” Young, Brightwell’s mom, said. “The day Gary got drafted I cried for the funeral, I cried for my husband, I cried for everything I’ve never cried for all these years. I don’t know what it was tears of, but they wouldn’t stop coming. And it felt amazing.”

Giants rookie Gary Brightwell as a baby with his father Gary Brightwell Sr.
Courtesy of Carla Young

Brightwell, 23, was born in the Philadelphia suburb of Chester, Pa., a city of not-quite five square miles where the homicide rate per 1,000 residents ranks second-highest in the country, according to recent FBI statistics. Twenty-two years ago, Gary Brightwell Sr. was shot pumping gas at a Sunoco in front of witnesses, but the case remains unsolved.

“If you look at somebody the wrong way,” Brightwell’s high school football coach J.D. Maull said, “you might have your life taken away from you in Chester.”

Until she moved her family to Wilmington, Del., Young returned to the gas station every day to say a prayer and to let her husband know she was holding up her end of their vows.

“When we got married, we made a promise: If anything ever happens to me, you take care of the kids, first and foremost. If anything happens to you, I’ll take care of the kids, first and foremost,’” Young recalled. “You can’t hide from your fears. I couldn’t let it overcome me.”

Brightwell was too young to retain memories of his father, but his goal for the legacy of their shared name starts anew Friday at Giants rookie minicamp.

“I think about my dad every day, it don’t matter if I’m riding past the gas station or not,” he said. “It’s like a lost soul, but I know he is living through me right now. Everything you see me in, that’s what he had.”

‘Team Brightwell’

The family motto is written on a sign hanging in Young’s home.

Team Brightwell, when one’s up, we’re all up, when one’s down, we’re all down

A talented athlete without a support system, Brightwell Sr. was a loving father who “had his bouts with the law and was a product of his environment,” Young said. His death sent her back to work and their son to the local athletic fields.

Young was a flight attendant and a paramedic simultaneously, later balanced three jobs and ultimately became a trained restaurant-contracted and private chef.

“There were days I went to work in the wrong uniform,” she laughed. “Most of the time, dinner was in the cooler in the trunk. We had more picnics than anybody can imagine.”

Gary Brightwell with his mom Carla Young on signing day.
Courtesy of Carla Young

All the while “Grandma D” — the late Dolores Anderson — kept Brightwell off the streets.

“When she took me outside, she taught me how to play football, basketball, baseball, anything to keep me busy,” Brightwell said. “She was in love with sports and taught me all the rules. She would tackle me.”

Tackle a 4-year-old? Young got angry about it back then. She laughs at it now. Look where he ended up.

By 8 years old, Brightwell realized being “the man of the house” came with certain responsibilities: Take out the trash, wipe down the walls and check the oil in the cars.

“If I wasn’t playing football, maybe I would’ve been doing something else,” Brightwell said. “Honestly, football is what brought me out of trouble, made me the person I am today. In the cities of Wilmington and Chester, there is nothing but trouble.”

Giant Destiny?

Ten years ago, Young was a bridesmaid in her cousin’s wedding.

“We wore red, white and blue,” she said. “My family is not just Giants fans. It is really deep that my entire family are like superfans. I don’t know how that began, but I have family with a 12-foot Giants flagpole in front of their house and magnets all over their cars.”

It’s too much to say Brightwell’s draft destination was fated. It might shortchange the work he put in to get to this point and ignore that he expected to be picked as high as the fourth round, possibly by the Cowboys.

“I know I’m better than where I was drafted,” Brightwell said. “Of course it’s a dream come true, but I haven’t done anything yet so it means nothing to me right now. It’s just the beginning.”

Brightwell averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns over three seasons in a split backfield at Arizona, but he made his draft stock on special teams. Giants assistant special teams coordinator Tom Quinn — an Arizona alum — discovered Brightwell, and the organization’s scouting notes off of pre-draft Zoom calls backed up recommendations from college coaches: Excellent football IQ, oozes toughness and hard work.

Giants coach Joe Judge is one of two active NFL head coaches from a special teams coordinator background. He knows the difference between rookies repeating lines fed to them — “Whatever it takes to win, coach!” — and Brightwell’s passion for the “hidden yards” that win games.

Gary Brightwell runs during a game against Arizona State on Dec. 11, 2020.
AP

“He got mad at me when I told him I’d only let him play on punt team,” said former Arizona running backs coach A.J. Steward, now at Oregon State. “You can’t be the starting running back and run down on kickoff team. But that’s how he’s wired. If he knows he can help in a situation, he wants to be the guy to help us win. He’s probably the best I’ve ever coached in that regard.”

Brightwell was a “man among boys” during three years at St. George’s Technical School. Even as the best player on his high school team, he could not be convinced to take a breather. He returned kicks and punts and lined up as a punt gunner.

“When he runs down the field, he runs with a mission,” Maull said. “He is going to hit you. He’s not playing flag football.”

There’s reason to be angry.

The obstacles Brightwell survived are cycling through to his nephew and the twins left parentless when Shanell Brightwell was a passenger in a car that lost control and struck a utility pole in Chester in 2016. Young, her other two daughters, Sade and Kareena, Gary and five other kids the family helped raise have stepped up.

It’s like a lost soul, but I know he is living through me right now. Everything you see me in, that’s what he had.

Gary Brightwell on his dad, Gary Brightwell Sr.

“My mom’s been my dad my whole life,” Brightwell said, “but my sister had a big impact on my life because she was my second mom. Whatever answers my mom didn’t have, I went to her. I try to show the kids you just have to be humble, and stay out of the way of trouble and there’s always going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

‘Best Man For the Job’

Brightwell accelerated through a hole and raced down the sideline for 34 yards as a former top-100 recruit cut off the angle to stop the play.

“I thought that was one of the best runs I’ve ever seen in my life,” Steward said of a scene from the 2020 season-opener against USC, “and he didn’t even want to watch it on film because he thought it was like the most embarrassing thing in the world to get shoved out of bounds by a five-star safety.”

Right then and there Steward learned a fundamental truth about Brightwell’s pride.

“He doesn’t even want it if it’s just given to him,” Steward said. “That’s really rare in today’s society. You literally can’t just hand him something and get, ‘Oh, thanks for handing it to me, coach.’ He wants to know the reason you gave me this opportunity is because I earned it. I beat these other guys out, and I was the best man for the job.”

All the makings of the next blue-collar Giants fan favorite are here. Maybe even the makings of a longtime special teams standout, like recent Giants Nate Ebner and Michael Thomas, with a role carved out behind running back Saquon Barkley.

First things first: Make the roster cut as a rookie. Keep writing what Young describes as a “bittersweet story.”

“You don’t bet against Gary Brightwell,” Maull said. “To know this young man as a 14-year-old with his mind set on going to college, getting a degree, going to the NFL, making his mom proud, to see him do it, the bright lights of New York City are not going to scare him.”

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Ryan Dunleavy

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