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Union's Bryant knows there is more to life than basketball

JACKSON, Tenn. - 3/4/2011 - By Bill Sorrell, Baptist and Reflector

Abandoned by his parents and left on the streets of El Progreso, Honduras, when he was seven months old, Gabriel was taken into an orphanage founded by Catholic nun Sor Teresita Gonzalez.

Now 14, Gabriel is an excellent soccer player with a great voice and a million-dollar smile and one of the most popular students at his technological high school.

The Copprome orphanage would also become home for a boy with mental challenges because his mother tried to drown him when he was a baby. It is home for another boy who suffers from a blood disease and was found on the streets at age 3 begging for food. It is home for a teenage girl whose family members sexually abused her and sold her into sex trafficking when she was a child.

"All of them are brave kids," said Union University senior Kayla Bryant, who heard stories first-hand when she spent July 2010 at Copprome polishing Spanish, her minor, and ministering, a major part of her life.

A shooting guard for the No. 1-ranked Lady Bulldogs, Bryant went to Uganda in August 2010 with Union's team, visiting five orphanages in 10 days.

This summer Bryant, a member of Wartrace Baptist Church, Wartrace, plans to be an intern with the Tennessee Baptist Children's Home in Franklin. One day she wants to open a children's home in her hometown of Shelbyville.

"That could take a good five to 10 years, learning the system, getting the money and grants from the government. I feel like that is what God wants me to do and the need is present," said Bryant, who will graduate in May with a major in social work.

"My passion is children and I feel like my goal in that is to spread love to them, especially to the ones who do not think they are loved."

While not confident in her Spanish, Bryant went to Honduras after her father, Mark Bryant, found it on the Internet and Sister Teresita corresponded with her.

Her second day there was horrible she said. "I was so homesick. I didn't know anyone there."

However she was confident that it was God's will. "I told myself God sent me and He knows what He is doing."

She read the Bible, especially Psalm 71, every night. "After that I felt a lot better."

As she saw the poverty of Honduras first hand she began to lose the insulation of a sheltered American. A continent away and a month later she would see poverty again.

There would not be as many resources in Uganda as Honduras. Mosquitoes would be more abundant and toilets less. The Union women played with village children and gave away school supplies. Children would run with their bus yelling "muzungu," translated "white people," in Lugunda, one of the nation's official languages.

The children "adored us," said Bryant. "Some of the villages we went to had never seen white people. The smallest ones were scared. Most of the kids thought we were celebrities."

Union teammate Kayla Hudson watched Bryant as she loved on the children "unconditionally. No matter what they look like, what they are wearing, how dirty they are, she interacted with the kids. The way they attached to her was incredible to watch. For me I saw Christ in that and His love through her," said Hudson.

That didn't surprise Union women's basketball coach Mark Campbell.

"She always has a great heart. She is willing to do what she has to do. She is not one of those who is intimidated by situations. She dives in and tries to lead. She is really responsible when it comes to meeting other people's needs."

Coaching Union to NAIA national championships in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010 and to the second-most wins over the last five years of any women's program in the NAIA and NCAA (behind the University of Connecticut), Campbell has made a "huge impact" on Bryant.

"He has helped me mature spiritually and shown me what is important and how I can use basketball to help God speak through me," she said.

Ironically in 2009 Campbell coached against Bryant in the national championship game. Union defeated Lambuth for the title.

Bryant began her collegiate career at Lambuth in 2007 after being recruited out of ultra-successful Shelbyville Central High School, a team with 12 state championships, 10 under her mentor Rick Insell. He is now women's basketball coach at Middle Tennessee.

Calling the 2008-09 team her favorite because of the advancement the Lady Eagles made when few gave them a shot, Bryant was bonded.

"We were very close. We were more like a family," she said. When she decided to transfer to Union her junior season, she called LU teammates. "They were not very happy with me. Part of me felt like a traitor. I was taught in basketball to be loyal to your team. I was really torn with the decision. I felt like God was pulling me to Union," said Bryant, whose mother Gloria West Bryant had also played at Shelbyville.

Before she phoned Campbell to commit she went to her back porch and began praying, asking God for a sign.

"After I prayed I was looking around in the backyard and the first thing I saw was a turkey. I said that is not a sign." Then she saw a red robin. "Of course red is Union's color and that is where I wanted to be."

Transferring to Union and going on both trips changed her perspective, she said. "It got me on the path I should be."

Bryant and Hudson had crossed paths while playing AAU basketball. Hudson told Bryant that going to Union was one of the best spiritual decisions she had made. "I wanted that for her as well," said Hudson.

Averaging 4.7 points a game, Bryant wants to do her part to help the team. "I am a shooting guard. I don't drive. To stay on the court I have to put the ball in the hole."

Complimenting her maturity," Campbell said that Bryant "makes us a whole lot better."

Hudson, the team's second leading scorer with a 16.2-point average, called Bryant one of the best shooters she has teamed with.

"She is mentally tough. She really understands what we are about and the system we want to run. I have seen an unbelievable amount of love that she pours out for people on the court."

Bryant, who was born in Panama when her father was in the Army, sees the world through different lenses said Campbell.

"She sees through gospel lenses. She was created with certain abilities and is going to use those gifts to glorify God."

After going to Honduras Bryant said that she saw a change in herself. "I grew more spiritually. The whole summer it was me and Him. It was like taking a vacation with your best friend; me catching up and strengthening my relationship with God.

"I firmly believe that God has a specific plan for each person. It doesn't matter how I feel about something, I should follow what He says because I am rewarded by doing that."

Another role model is Edna West, her grandmother. "I admire her and she is a very strong woman." The two have been known to have water fights together.

Bryant, who is putting together her grandmother's life story in pictures, was baptized when she was 8 at Calvary Baptist Church in Shelbyville.

Bryant makes a point that God has given her basketball as a ministry.

"When things are going rough on the court, I can always lean on Him to help me get through tough times. I feel like God has put basketball in my life and the abilities I do have are a platform for Him.

"This year I learned more than anything God doesn't care if I win a game or not. The most important thing for me is to spread His love, help draw people to Him and witness to others. That is why God gave me basketball. He can reach others through me." - Sorrell is a freelance writer in Brownsville.


Steven Aldridge
Phone: (731) 661-5027
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