How a home lost to Hurricane Laura helped the Ragin' Cajuns land recruit Bryant Williams
They lost family photos. They lost the first picture Bryant had ever drawn. They lost a lot.
“I’m that mom that (keeps) a lot of things I really shouldn’t,” Styron said.
Out of all the loss, however, came an unexpected gain.
When it became apparent his old school, Class 5A Barbe High, wouldn’t play football in 2020 because of damage it sustained, Williams needed a new place to play. Family connections led the 6-foot-8, 315-pound offensive tackle to Grand Lake High, a Class 1A Cameron Parish program not on the maps of most major college recruiters.
Williams wondered how going from one of Louisiana’s biggest and best teams to one of its tiniest would impact scholarship chances.
“He was kind of worried at first,” Styron said. “Then they kept winning, and they kept winning, and it was just like, ‘Wow.’ ”
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Grand Lake went to the 1A state championship game, where it lost to Oak Grove.
“I told my grandpa (Mike Styron), ‘I’m going from a 5A school to a 1A school.’ … But I took the chance,” Williams said, “and it paid off.”
And it did. On June 14, Williams announced he was committing to play for UL.
“If there was a blessing from a hurricane, a disaster,” Brandi Styron said, “the blessing was he got to go to Grand Lake and play for them.”
The plan was to play at Barbe
Williams registered for another year of Barbe football in June of 2020. Styron bought all the clothing needed for the season to come.
In August, as Laura approached from the Gulf of Mexico, the two evacuated.
Among the items scooped up before leaving were the Barbe Buccaneers T-shirts, sweatshirts and sweatpants needed for the fall. It soon became apparent they wouldn’t be needed.
Not long after the Category 4 hurricane made landfall near Cameron with all her wrath – winds peaking at 153 mph, 42 deaths, $19 billion in damage when all was done – coaches and players gathered to discuss if there’d be a season to come.
“The day I left our Barbe meeting … something in my gut told me that’s not going to work out,” Williams said.
“He was like, ‘Mama, I don’t think they’re going to have a football team. What am I going to do?’ He was panicking,” Styron added. “He was like, ‘This is my junior year; this is when (college recruiters) start looking.’ I was like, ‘Son, I don’t know what we’re going to do.’ ”
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Many Barbe seniors scattered to other area programs.
For Williams, finding a new place to live took priority.
Williams’ outdoor weight bench helped keep the family trailer from tipping over, serving as a brace of sorts.
“It was like walking through a funny mirrored house at a theme park – you go up, you go down, and it was all broken,” said Styron, who had just four years of payments left when the trailer was lost.
Williams and his mom found refuge with her parents, whose Lake Charles house survived.
“(My) grandparents (Mike and Angie) live in a nice home, so they welcomed us with open arms,” Williams said. “I’m just very grateful for them.”
Still, times were trying.
“It was a tough few months for us, because not living in your own home is kind of weird,” Williams said. “But we made it work out.”
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Grand Lake happily took Williams in
With the housing situation addressed, Williams still needed a team.
Coincidentally, his mom attended elementary school in the area with Grand Lake’s coach, Jeff Wainwright.
“(Wainwright) called my dad and said, ‘You think Bryant would want to come and play football with us?’ ” Styron said.
Around the same time, Williams heard from his cousin, Kaleb Styron, a Grand Lake football player.
“He called me one day and said, ‘Hey, I heard Barbe canceled their season. I know you love football, so if you want we’d love to have you at Grand Lake,’ ” Williams said.
“It was a tough decision, because being at Barbe for two years and learning under those coaches, it was a great experience.”
But Williams knew what he had to do.
“I didn’t want to stab Barbe in the back after all those years they’d been working with me,” he said. “I didn’t want to be ‘that guy.’
“But I talked to (Barbe) Coach (Mike) Cutrera and he said, ‘If you believe you can go over there and succeed, we’d love that for you.’ He was very understanding.”
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Cutrera’s tough loss was Wainwright’s good fortune.
Soon, Williams was starting at left tackle with cousin Kaleb playing next to him on the line.
“Changing schools … there was not a complaint in the world,” Wainwright said. “Just ‘Yes, sir; no, sir.’ Put his hand in the dirt and went to work for us.”
When he first saw Williams practice, Wainwright knew what he needed to do.
“Before the recruiting started (last) fall … I said, ‘Bryant, what are a couple schools you’d like for me to contact just to understand you’re playing ball here (after) all this stuff with the hurricane that went on?’ ” Wainwright said.
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Williams gave him five.
“The first one was UL,” Wainwright said. “So (the Cajuns) are getting a kid, first and foremost, that wants to be a Ragin’ Cajun.
“In this day and age, what’s important is that you’ve got the heart already. And the body’s there. Now he just needs to be developed.”
'He was never Little Bryant'
Another season at Grand Lake should help before Cajun coaches start working with Williams.
“We’re hand in the ground, coming at you, aggressive-type stuff,” said Wainwright, who runs a split-back veer. “UL, they do that kind of stuff at the goal line. Bryant’s gonna fit right in with that package.
“He’ll have to learn all the pass (protection) stuff. … It’s a lot different game than we play in single A. But he is athletic. His feet are great, and he’s really, really agile.”
The size, though, is what really stands out.
Williams checked in two weeks early at 9 pounds, 12 ounces, and 22½ inches
“He was never ‘Little Bryant,’ ” Styron said.
“Since the first time I put him in sports when he was 4, I have had to carry his birth certificate with me in my wallet.”
As he soared toward 6-8, Williams said, “My feet were hanging off the bed.”
Once Laura hit, however, that was the least of Williams’ worries.
Even after settling in at Grand Lake, the hits kept on coming. Two games into last season, in early October, Hurricane Delta brought additional damage to the region.
“We were worried about our season getting canceled,” Williams said, “but we let it play out and everything fell into place again and we were right back on track.”
Grand Lake – forced by the hurricanes to play home games 50-plus miles away at Jennings – advanced through the playoffs, made it to Natchitoches for its state title game and finished 8-2.
“It ended up being a magical season, a perfect season almost,” Williams said. “It was an amazing experience to be a part of the Hurricane Hornets.”
Napier and the Cajuns connected
In late January, UL reached out to Williams. Facetime meetings with coach Billy Napier and other coaches ensued.
“I did not expect a top 15 team to offer me for my first offer,” he said.
By February, Williams and his mom were able to leave the haven his grandparents provided.
“We moved right back into the old place where we were,” he said. “We got a new trailer, and we’re basically in the same spot we were last time.”
In May, however, more misfortune struck.
A Lake Charles storm with 12.5 inches of rain and flooding caused by lingering hurricane debris forced Mike and Angie Styron to gut their house and seek refuge at their daughter’s home.
“That family’s been nailed with it,” said Wainwright, the high school coach. “We’ve been through a lot. Bryant’s been through a lot.”
In early June, however, luck turned.
Williams went to an LSU camp were Cajun coaches watched him up close and spoke with Styron. A week later, Williams visited UL with family in tow – Brandi, father Brent Williams and grandparents from both sides of the family.
Even before touring facilities, the Cajuns had him at hello and a quick slideshow.
“We were like, ‘So what do you think Bryant?’ ” Styron said. “He’s like, ‘I’m sold.’ ”
For a son and his sentimental mom, after all they’ve experienced, UL’s offer is a sign of good things to come.
“It feels like a dream,” Styron said. “I still have to pinch myself.”