June 17, 2016, was supposed to be one of the happiest days of Baylor defensive end Brian Nance’s life. But the same day his daughter was born – just hours later – Nance received one of the most disappointing phone calls of his life.
Nance, who took a postgraduate year in 2012 to get his grades on track before enrolling at Baylor, was placed on academic suspension for failure to hit the targeted grade point average. He was ineligible for the 2016 football season and would not be able to attend classes at Baylor. Nance had hoped to get his master’s degree while playing football. Suddenly, it was unclear whether he could attend Baylor again.
“It crushed me that day,” Nance said. “It’s like someone took something away that you’ve been training your whole life for.”
Considering the obstacles he had to overcome to get to that point, it was a devastating blow.
Nance lives in Temple so his kids can attend the good schools in the area and be near his girlfriend’s parents. Of course, that means he has to wake up at 4:35 a.m. and drive 40 miles to Waco to make morning workouts – and he’s done it since his freshman year in 2013.
It’s a lifestyle that would make most 23-year-olds shudder, but it was a sacrifice Nance was willing to make for his family. But, everything he worked toward was on the cusp of falling apart.
In a last-ditch effort, Nance asked Baylor fans to email the university and ask for him to be reinstated. Of course, it was too late.
Baylor nation if I could get everyone to email Baylor University to give me a chance to come back this semester and…
Nance was given two choices: Either he could transfer to another institution, or he would be required to sit out the 2016 season. With two young children in Central Texas and a group of teammates to think of, it was never a choice.
“I took the year off because I bleed green and gold,” Nance said. “I didn’t want to let down my brothers. Why give that up?”
While Nance never swayed in his decision, it didn’t make the experience easier. He relied on scholarship checks from the university to cover his expenses. Without them, his family had money issues.
During his suspension, Nance could not work on academics. So in the aftermath, he focused on two things – being a good father to his newborn, and staying in shape so he would be ready if the time came.
“I just had to figure out what I could do to get physically and mentally right,” Nance said. “I worked out every day. I never changed anything up.”
He gained motivation by training with his 5-year-old son, Jayvon. Like many young kids, Jayvon wanted to be just like his father. That meant doing sprints and trying to do what his dad did. Nance tries to keep him away from lifting weights, but Jayvon still tries to grab the curl bar every so often.
— /// 3-ThaHardWay (@FlyguyNance) July 7, 2017
“He wants to be great,” Nance said. “I don’t make him do anything. He looks to me. That’s huge motivation, seeing him look up to me.”
Nance also attended every Baylor football game that he could to stay involved with the team. He was there to greet his “brothers” as they got off the bus for the Bear Walk before games at McLane Stadium.
“Nothing changed really – I just couldn’t play,” Nance said.
While Nance was under academic suspension, Baylor hired Matt Rhule away from Temple as head football coach. It was an important moment for the program, but also a seminal moment for Nance.
When Rhule accepted the Baylor job, one of his best players – second-round NFL draft pick Dion Dawkins – immediately went to his office to vouch for a defensive end who was suspended academically at Baylor.
“I sat there saying to myself, ‘I can’t wait to meet this kid and figure out what’s going on,’ ” Rhule said.
Dawkins and Nance played together at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., before enrolling at FBS institutions. However, the Nance who met Rhule in December was not exactly the svelte All-American who starred for Texas state powerhouse Trinity Euless.
“I came to the school [to meet Rhule], no money, hair was rough,” Nance said with a chuckle. “Kind of had that dad weight on me.”
But while Nance wasn’t at his physical best, Rhule saw something within him. He saw a student who aspired to graduate. He saw a father who just wanted to take care of his family. He saw a player who aspired to greatness.
“From the first day I met him, no one has been more engaged or welcoming,” Rhule said. “When I see a guy who wakes up at that time in the morning and makes sure his kids are up and drives here and goes home and does his homework, he’s exactly what we’re looking for.”
One week after Baylor hired Rhule, Nance received a letter in the mail. Baylor granted him reinstatement, and he would have one remaining year to play college football. His comeback had begun.
Just got my reinstatement Back from @baylor will be back in school Jan 9th thank you God !!🙏🏾
— /// 3-ThaHardWay (@FlyguyNance) December 13, 2016
Building for life
As you would expect from such a resilient man, Nance quickly became a favorite in the spring. Rhule listed him as the player who improved most as a leader in the last month of practice. He earned one of four spots to represent Baylor University at Big 12 media days.
“He’s just motivated,” defensive end K.J. Smith said. “You can see it in his eyes, you can see it off the field. You can see him really try and most the most of this last year.
“That year off, it lit a fire under him.”
Nance plans to graduate with a degree in kinesiology and leisure studies this fall – Dec. 16, 2017 to be exact. He knows that date by heart.
He’s a kid from the streets of Buffalo, N.Y. Nance knows that most young men don’t get a second chance, but he also understands what he had to overcome.
“I grew up in a rough neighborhood, and had the chance to move to Texas and play at Euless Trinity,” Nance said. “I went to prep school and everything. I didn’t have the easiest road. I just want to show [my kids] that this is what hard work gets you.”
Nance posted 15 tackles in his first two seasons, but will switch roles for his senior year. Nance thinks he can earn comparisons to Rhule’s most notable protégé, linebacker Haason Reddick.
But if the NFL doesn’t come calling, Nance is prepared. While volunteering extensively with the team this spring, Nance learned he had a knack for talking to adolescents.
“I want to be there for the younger people, mostly high school to college,” Nance said. “I felt like I connect with that age group. Whatever they’ve been through, I’ve probably been through worse.”
Rhule is rebuilding a program that experienced one of the most shocking scandals in recent memory. Off-field culture has taken center stage in the program. He believes Nance can be an inspiration to the program.
“To me, if there’s an example of the great things that are happening at Baylor, it’s Brian Nance and the commitment he makes day in and day out to be a great father, to be a college graduate and to be hopefully a tremendous defensive end, which I know he will be,” Rhule said.