The first time Gary Brightwell talked to New York media after being selected in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, he spoke excitedly about playing special teams. Many players entering the NFL, stars at every level leading to pro football, are turned off by the grunt work of special teams.
Brightwell’s excitement, though, did not surprise J.D. Maull, his high school football coach.
“No, no, no. In high school he always wanted to be on special teams and we played him on special teams. So he knew the value of special teams,” Maull told Big Blue View. “When he went to college they didn’t redshirt him at Arizona because he was that good on special teams. He was the gunner.
“It goes back to his background. Gary will do whatever it takes to get on the football field. He’s not ashamed of anything. Some kids, they think it’s beneath them. To him, no. He wants to play. He’s a team guy. That’s Gary. That’s Gary to a T. He doesn’t care.”
When Brightwell was asked about sharing a position with Giants star running back Saquon Barkley, he didn’t express any awe. In fact, he said he was focused on himself and hadn’t thought about Barkley.
That didn’t surprise Maull, either.
“No. That does not surprise me. The bright lights don’t scare this kid,” Maull said. “He’s going to push Saquon Barkley. That’s him. That’s Gary. Total confidence in himself. You don’t bet against Gary Brightwell. You just don’t. He has so much confidence, and I admire that about him.”
Nothing about football should faze Brightwell.
Brightwell grew up in Chester, Pa. In case you aren’t familiar, Chester is the most dangerous city in Pennsylvania. It’s the 20th-most dangerous city in the USA, with a violent crime rate of 13.8 per 1,000 residents.
Brightwell’s father, Gary Sr., was murdered while simply pumping gas in Chester when young Gary was just a 5-month-old baby. He has watched friends die on those mean streets in Chester. Brightwell’s sister was killed in a car crash.
Life is difficult, Brightwell knows. Special teams? Meeting Saquon Barkley? Anything on a football field? Not so much.
“Football is not hard. Either you got it or you don’t. Either you work hard or you don’t. It’s not hard. It’s just practice hard and then win easy,” Brightwell told the Arizona Daily Star back in 2017.
“Football is not complicated, life is complicated. … That was the most complicated thing for me on this earth. Being a black, young male coming up, it’s hard because some don’t even get to see the age of 18. That was my hard thing. Football wasn’t hard for me.”
Football was Brightwell’s way out. His way to a better life than what he saw all around him. He told Maull when he first enrolled at St. George’s High School to play football for him that the NFL was on his mind.
“His environment made him tough. His environment made him deal with adversity. It also motivated him,” Maull said. “His environment, his childhood, when things have happened, things he saw have molded him.
“He’s a tough city kid. Doesn’t say a whole lot. Comes to practice. Practices hard. Very, very aggressive. If you believe in him, he’ll give you everything he has.”
A young man doesn’t make it out of the environment Brightwell grew up in without tremendous dedication. He also doesn’t make it without tremendous family support. You can read in great detail about “Team Brightwell” in a great piece done by Ryan Dunleavy of the New York Post. Suffice it to say that Brightwell’s mother, Carla Young, was a tremendous influence for him.
“Every kid, we’ve all been there, we’ve had our low points. His mother played a big factor. His mom’s a great mom. She was always there for him. He had great support,” Maull said.
“She played a big part in where he’s at today.”
In his two brief videoconferences with New York media, one the day he was drafted and one at rookie mini-camp, Brightwell has been pleasant. His answers, though, have been short and to the point. He hasn’t said any more than he has had to in order to answer whatever question was asked.
It’s probably no surprise given what he has seen in his life that Brightwell does not open up easily. I didn’t talk directly to Brightwell before writing this. Maull isn’t sure Brightwell would have given me much, anyway.
“He kinda has a closed circle and you’ve gotta be in his circle to know him,” Maull said. “He’s a tough city kid. Doesn’t say a whole lot. Comes to practice. Practices hard. Very, very aggressive. If you believe in him, he’ll give you everything he has.”
Brightwell trained for his Pro Day at TEST Football Academy in New Jersey. TEST Director Geir Gudmundsen told Big Blue View his experience with Brightwell was pretty much what Maull might have predicted it would be.
‘He, to me, is a harder nut to crack as far as getting to know him because he’s guarded. Not guarded in a bad way, but he needs to trust you,” Gudmundsen said.
“He was and is a guy who is calculated and he soaks everything in to try and learn as much as he can before he acts.
“He flourished at the end of us getting to know each other.”
Below, the end result of the work Brightwell did at TEST.
“It was a fun process with Gary,” Gudmundsen said. “He’s a special talent, but more importantly he’s a special human being, a special kid.”
Where does Brightwell fit with the Giants?
Barkley is the acknowledged star. If healthy, he is going to get the majority of running back snaps and touches. No argument. No debate. The Giants spent a surprising amount of money in free agency on backup Devontae Booker. Since drafting Brightwell, the Giants have added a pair of running backs with NFL pedigrees in Corey Clement and Ryquell Armstead.
It would be easy to think Brightwell would be an odd man out, destined for the practice squad with four experienced backs also stocking the depth chart.
Remember, though, what Maull said:
“You don’t bet against Gary Brightwell. You just don’t.”
Brightwell’s love for, and ability on, special teams will give him a chance. Especially with a head coach like Joe Judge, whose background is special teams. Judge watched players like Nate Ebner, Matthew Slater and Brandon Bolden make long and successful NFL career out being primarily special teams players.
Could Brightwell follow that path?
“In the NFL they look for those guys, guys that are versatile. I was surprised too that the Giants took him because I had some NFL teams contact me,” Maull said, admitting the Giants were not not among those teams.
“Now looking back at it their head coach was a special teams guy. So, it kinda makes sense now that he goes and gets Gary Brightwell in the sixth round because Gary can play running back, he also can play gunner, he can be on your punt team, kickoff team. He brings a lot of versatility.”
The larger question is, can Brightwell be an NFL running back?
“I believe he can,” Maull said. At the NFL level I don’t think he’s a home run hitter. He is that guy it’s third down and three, third down and four, he’s that guy who can be a third-down back.”
“He’s a guy that can run between the tackles. He has great vision.”
Gudmundsen referred to Brightwell as “a bruiser” who is “going to get those hard yards that’s a great complement to what Saquon does.”
Lance Zierlein of NFL.com wrote this in a scouting report about Brightwell:
One-speed runner relying on size, urgency and toughness to make up for a lack of open-field talent. He can hit the edge and turn the corner on counters and bounce-outs, but gets too impatient to cut runs back. Below-average vision diminishes his ability to get the most out of runs, but his loose lower body makes sharp cuts against the grain a successful weapon for him. He’s a tough runner, but lacks creativity and contact balance to stand out against others in this class, despite his traits.
Brightwell only caught 19 passes as Arizona, but he played some slot receiver for the Wildcast. Thus, route running and pass catching are not outside his skill set.
Giants fans will remember Jon Hilliman, a running back out of Boston College and Rutgers who played three games for the Giants in 2019. Hilliman is now training athletes in the New Jersey area and worked at TEST with Brightwell.
“He’s somebody that gets down to business. He works. He keeps to himself for the most part. If he really trusts you, he opens up, but he keeps to himself and he’s a really focused kid. He kinda keeps the main thing the main thing,” Hilliman said of Brightwell.
“He’s somebody that’s going to go in and just work. He’s not really thinking too much about the glitz and the glamor. He’s somebody who loves the game. He loves the grind. He’s just somebody who’s into being the best player that he can be for the organization.
“With the mentality he has I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a long, successful career in the NFL.”
Hilliman knows who the lead back is in New York. He knows the depth chart. He also believes “110 percent” that Brightwell can succeed in the league as a runner — if he gets the chance.
“I think Gary is a football player. When you get somebody who is a football player you can plug him in just about anyplace,” Hilliman said. “He’s just a football player. A gamer. He’s somebody who can make a play wherever he’s at.
“As a back, yeah I think he can do it. I think he’s proven in college that he’s a promising ballcarrier, polished, with skills. I think if he gets the opportunity to get a big portion of some carries I think he’ll be very, very successful.”