In his development as a high school and college pitcher, Micah Bryan learned to throw a changeup.
And now Bryan, who was a three-sport athlete at East Wilkes, is taking the rare step of changing up his college athletic career, with a chance to be a part of history in the process.
After playing baseball for two seasons at UNC-Charlotte, Bryan is giving up that sport to be a part of the 49ers’ brand new football program.
Charlotte (as the school refers to its athletic teams) will play its first-ever football game against Campbell Aug. 31 at home.
“I chose football because I didn’t want to leave college with any regrets,” Bryan said. “Football had always been my favorite anyway, so I thought I’d give it a shot.
“With football, you really don’t have to think,” he added. “You just run and hit, especially with the position (inside linebacker) that I’m playing…. I’ve always been the kind of guy who’s better at making a decision and sticking with it, so I felt football would be best for me.”
As a football player for the Cardinals, Bryan played both ways but was better known for his prowess on offense. A three-year starter, he rushed for over 1,000 yards in both his junior and senior seasons. As a senior quarterback, he directed an offense that scored a school-record 422 points.
Brad Lambert, who became the 49ers head coach after 10 years as an assistant at Wake Forest, was looking at another East Wilkes player when he saw game film from two of Bryan’s best performances as a senior. Against Surry Central, he ran for 295 yards and scored six touchdowns, both career highs. And against East Surry in the opening round of the state playoffs, Bryan led East Wilkes on the game-winning drive, throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Bauguess with nine seconds to play in a 22-19 upset win in Pilot Mountain.
With nearly three-quarters of the 49ers roster made up of freshmen, Lambert was looking for upperclassmen when he approached Bryan last spring.
“Coach Lambert was having a big cookout for all the recruits who are now freshmen,” Bryan said, “and he came down on the (baseball) field and asked me how I would feel about trying to do both (football and baseball).
“I kind of laughed it off, thinking he was kidding, and then I thought I may have the opportunity to do it.”
After pitching in Iowa in a summer league for college players, Bryan came back to Charlotte to talk to his baseball coach, Loren Hibbs. “I’d been thinking about it all summer, because I had really, really missed football,” Bryan said.
“We sat down and talked about it, and we both decided that it would be best for me to choose one (sport).” Because of the workload involved in playing two sports, Bryan said, “He didn’t want me to cheat either the baseball or football teams. When I told him I wanted to play football, he was 100 percent in. He was really excited for me.”
Bryan joined the football team in August. He had to give up his baseball scholarship and was essentially a walk-on as a football player, but has earned a football scholarship. He is currently at the top of the depth chart at inside linebacker after moving from safety and will wear No. 29, although he said he would like to switch to a single-digit number if one becomes available. He will have two years of eligibility remaining.
Jeremy Helton was Bryan’s baseball coach at East Wilkes and also an assistant football coach. When Bryan told him of the switch, Helton said, “At first I was surprised. I knew that he had talked about it and he loves football. I was really happy for him, that he had the opportunity to do both. I know he’s having to hang baseball up, but it’s neat that he has the ability to play two Division I sports.
“I think he’ll do extremely well (as a football player),” Helton added. “That’s the way he’s wired. He’s really aggressive and he loves to hit people.”
The buildup to the first game at Charlotte is drawing student and community interest as well. The 49ers had regular practices—but no games—last fall. Even so, Bryan said there was a crowd of 7,000-8,000 people—complete with tailgaters—at the team’s first intrasquad scrimmage.
The 49ers will play their home games at a new on-campus stadium.
And he expects the team to have success in its first year. “The amount of talent that we have with our class, with our freshman class that is here now,” Bryan said, “we have some freak athletes.”
Not all of those teammates are strangers. Peter Fields, a tight end, was at Bishop McGuinness when East Wilkes was a member of the Northwest Conference. And Kyle Hoffman played at Alleghany before transferring to Berry Academy in Charlotte.
And when the 49ers face Campbell Aug. 31, there will be another familiar face. Former Starmount quarterback Jake Barr, like Bryan a multi-sport athlete in high school, is on the Camels’ roster as a linebacker.
Playing in the first football game in school history “is a huge deal,” Bryan said. “If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know how this entire year with no games would be. Just having that thought in the back of our minds of being the first ones ever to play a Charlotte football game, that’s what pushes us on a daily basis.”
Bryan—who has three brothers, Nathan, Jared and Camon—has a much more personal motivation as well. Their mother, Mikki Bryan, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis during Micah Bryan’s senior year at East Wilkes. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, ALS—more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. The nerve cells waste away and die and can no longer send messages to muscles. There is currently no cure.
“I was talking to Camon (the youngest brother) about being an athlete beyond high school,” Bryan said. “In college, everyone’s just as athletic as you are, so the thing that sets you apart from other people is how you prepare yourself from day to day and how you push yourself from day to day.
“Seeing Mom—how she is every day—pushes me because that makes me think who am I to not try to maximize my ability when she can’t do anything and she would love to be doing what I’m doing.”
Note: Charlotte will participate as an independent in football in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. The 49ers will join Conference USA in football as part of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in 2015.