PITTSBURGH — Game days were the hardest, when the pain Martavis Bryant inflicted on himself, his family and his Pittsburgh Steeler teammates felt the most acute.
So Bryant retreated and refocused. The television in the Las Vegas place he shared with his trainer Alex Fine stayed off while the Steelers went through 2016 without the talented but troubled wide receiver, who spent a full 13 months in exile after violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy a second time.
Oh, he kept tabs on the Steelers from 2,200 miles away as they reached the AFC championship game without him.
Just not when they were actually playing. Watching would cut a little too close to the marrow.
“I was aware of everything that was going on but I didn’t want to put all my attention on it when I had some issues I had to deal with myself,” Bryant said recently after practicing with the AFC North champions for the first time since being conditionally reinstated by the league.
The 25-year-old poured himself into sobriety instead, going through rehab when he arrived in Las Vegas shortly after his suspension was announced in March 2016.
The days started to bleed into each other. Meetings during the day followed by grueling workouts in the desert heat before heading home to be with his family.
The routine and structure gave his life a sense of normalcy. The prospect of becoming a father gave him a purpose.
So did the keen awareness that he was in serious danger of throwing away a shot at stardom if he couldn’t find a way to say no to marijuana.
“I know it’s my last chance,” Bryant said. “I put the right people around me. I got the right people, things set up to help me succeed and maintain my sobriety. As long as I continue to pass my test and do what I’ve got to do for my family and take care of my business here, everything will be just fine.”
This isn’t the first time Bryant has found himself in front of a sea of cameras promising to make substantive changes.
He did the same thing in the fall of 2015 following his first suspension, one that included a brief stay in Houston while being counseled by former NBA guard John Lucas and trading frequent texts with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Will this time be any different? Bryant’s career — and perhaps his team’s chances of chasing down Super Bowl champion New England — depend on it.
When he’s on the field, Bryant is a field-stretching marvel. He averaged 17.3 yards a catch and hauled in 14 touchdowns during his first two seasons in the league, his 6-foot-4 frame and massive stride presenting opponents with a match-up nightmare if they focused too much of their attention on Steelers All-Pro Antonio Brown.
Pittsburgh managed to go 11-5 and win the division for the second time in three years without him, but his absence eventually took its toll.
The wide receiver group that was part of a blowout loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game included Demarcus Ayers (a seventh-round pick), Eli Rogers (an undrafted free agent) and Cobi Hamilton (a practice squad graduate). Bryant’s presence might not have made up the difference, but his mistakes robbed him of the ability to ever really know.
The Steelers wasted little time testing Bryant, sending him out with the starters as he begins the process of rebuilding the trust of the organization and the guys in the huddle. Roethlisberger, who admitted Bryant’s relapse hurt him personally, stayed at a distance during Bryant’s year in exile.
They still haven’t had any sort of formal sit down since Bryant’s reinstatement, though Bryant is optimistic it’s coming.
“We will accept him here with open arms and know that he wants to be here and has to be here,” Roethlisberger said.
The life Bryant is trying to build this time around hardly looks like the one he left behind. His son was born seven weeks ago and he must meet weekly with a counselor as part of the conditions of his reinstatement. He estimates he’s being drug tested 2-3 times a week, something he doesn’t view as an annoyance but another fail-safe designed to keep him accountable.
“I’m not worried about how many times they test me,” Bryant said. “As long as I show up and do what I’ve got to do, everything’s fine.”
The Steelers bought some insurance when they grabbed JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round of last month’s draft. Bryant tweeted out immediately after the selection that Smith-Schuster’s arrival didn’t mean trouble for him, but for teammate Sammie Coates.
Bryant later deleted it after getting reprimanded by coach Mike Tomlin, though he’s looking forward to prove to everyone — maybe even himself — that he’s here to stay.
“Everything is earned not given,” Bryant said. “All I can do is take care of my business and do what I’ve got to do off the field. As long as I do that, they will see the change in everything.”
NOTES: Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell skipped OTAs while recovering from groin surgery in March. … Roethlisberger, who hinted at retirement in January, said he’s “110 percent committed” but added it will be year-by-year going forward.
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