High school friends on each side of Illinois-Northwestern rivalry get another chance to trash-talk
Illinois junior wide receiver Chris James had a message for Northwestern junior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant heading into Saturday's matchup in Champaign.
"Tell him to be ready to play," James said. "I don't want to see him get pancaked. I'm going to be the first player he will hear about it from."
Bryant had a reply.
"Tell Chris, I'm coming for him," Bryant said. "When I tackle him, I'll say something. I can't tell you what."
What may seem like a heated exchange between two in-state rivals was actually nowhere near that. Both players' comments were joined with smiles and laughs. Ever since James and Bryant first stepped foot onto a basketball court together as freshmen at Morgan Park High School on Chicago's South Side, the two have been good friends.
Yes, together as teammates in basketball, not football.
It's hard now to think of the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Bryant as anything other than a football player, but he played basketball. He spent his first three years at Morgan Park solely concentrating on his hoops game. That was how he knew James, who played both sports.
"I was really surprised he didn't play football," James said. "He was naturally a big guy. It was something that had to happen. He realized where the bread was buttered."
As a senior, Bryant decided to go out for football and discovered he was a natural at it. His teammates nicknamed him "baby gorilla" because he was so much bigger than everyone else. By the end of the season, he had offers from a variety of schools, including Northwestern.
"No, I didn't even think about playing in college," Bryant said. "I just wanted to have fun. Eventually, I got a chance. I just had been blessed. I always had the athleticism to do it. I just put in the hard work."
With Bryant; James, a gifted all-around athlete; Notre Dame quarterback recruit Demetrius Jones; and Tennessee offensive lineman recruit Ramone Johnson, Morgan Park was among Illinois' elite teams in 2005. The Mustangs went 12-2 and won the Prep Bowl at Soldier Field. In that final game, Jones went down with an injury, and James stepped in as quarterback, passing for a touchdown and running for one in Morgan Park's win.
"He was a great player," Bryant said. "He was a guy who never dropped the ball, great hands. He was our everything guy."
James has gone on to be more of a supporting cast player at Illinois. He had a promising freshman season, which included two catches for 52 yards against Northwestern. He redshirted as a sophomore because of an injury and has caught four passes in the past two seasons. He had a 37-yard catch in Illinois' win over Michigan two weeks ago.
But James isn't disappointed that he hasn't become a superstar. It has always been about winning for him.
"I just want a 'W' whether I'm on the field or not," James said. "I just play my role. I know my role. If anybody needs a breather, I'll come in. I've always been this way, even in high school with Corbin. When you have so much talent on a team, you have to play your role. That's why I love playing football. It's a team game."
Bryant's role has progressed each season with Northwestern. Since he joined the Wildcats, he has put on 50 pounds, most of it muscle, and become a key defensive lineman. He sat out a season because of an injury, but has bounced back without a problem. He has 26 tackles and 2.5 sacks this season.
"This is where I wanted to go as a player," Bryant said. "Every sport I wanted to play, I didn't want to be a benchwarmer. I wanted to be the star. When I'm not being my best, I'm not satisfied."
Bryant and James occasionally talk during the season, but mostly they catch up when they return to Morgan Park during the offseason to lift weights together.
Bryant did try to talk, more specifically trash-talk, to his friend after Northwestern defeated Illinois last season, but James didn't stick around long enough to hear it.
"He ran off the field," Bryant said. "I'm going to catch him before he gets off the field this year. I got something for him."
James said, "I might play tackle, so I can go up against him."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.