Cullen Bryant dies at 58; former L.A. Rams running back

Cullen Bryant, 1951-2009
Cullen Bryant, seen in 1974 in his No. 32 jersey, breaks away toward the sidelines for a big gain on a kickoff return. In 13 seasons in the National Football League, he scored a total of 23 rushing and receiving touchdowns. He ran for 3,264 yards in 849 carries, and caught 148 passes for 1,176 yards.
(Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times)

Cullen Bryant, a mainstay of the Los Angeles Rams for 11 seasons and a running back on their 1980 Super Bowl team, has died. He was 58.

Bryant died of natural causes Tuesday at his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., according to sister-in-law Wanda E. Bryant. She said Bryant, unbeknownst to the family, had been under a doctor’s care and that his death was a surprise even to his three brothers.

A second-round pick of the Rams in 1973, he played for the team from 1973 to 1982, and again in 1987. He spent the 1983-84 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.

“He was an outstanding person with great character traits,” said Chuck Knox, who coached Bryant with both the Rams and Seahawks. “When we asked him to do certain things, he’d do them. He never complained about anything. When he got that big body moving, it was something else, and he had muscles on top of muscles.”

Listed at 6 feet 1 and 234 pounds, Bryant was stronger than most tailbacks, and he was the biggest player of his era to regularly return punts and kickoffs.

“When Cullen hits those holes, nobody wants to stick their nose in there,” teammate Jack Youngblood told The Times in 1979. “Those little 180-pound [defensive backs] just jump on his back when he runs by.”

In 13 seasons, Bryant scored a total of 23 rushing and receiving touchdowns. He ran for 3,264 yards in 849 carries, and caught 148 passes for 1,176 yards. He also ran back three kickoffs for touchdowns.

“I guess some of the ends coming down on punts or kickoffs are surprised to see a guy of my size,” Bryant told The Times in 1976. “They’re used to tackling smaller people and might slow up or hesitate. This gives our blockers time to set up a return.”

Two years into his National Football League career, Bryant found himself at the center of a legal case that tested the power of then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to regulate free agency.

The controversy started in 1975 when Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom signed Ron Jessie, a former Detroit receiver whose contract with the Lions had expired. Under the “Rozelle Rule,” the commissioner was empowered to award the Lions either draft choices or players if the teams couldn’t agree on compensation.

Rozelle ruled that Bryant must go to the Lions as compensation. At the behest of Rosenbloom, Bryant headed to federal court in Los Angeles.

At the hearing, the judge heard Bryant’s legal counsel, heard the league’s rebuttal and then essentially said he couldn’t believe this type of servitude still existed.

The NFL capitulated a few days later, before the judge even ruled.

Born in Fort Sill, Okla., on May 20, 1951, William Cullen Bryant spent his high school years in Colorado Springs, and played college football at Colorado before entering the NFL.

In recent years, Bryant, who was divorced, largely kept to himself except for spending time with his two adult sons, William Cullen Jr. and Brandon; and his 13-year-old daughter, Brianna, his sister-in-law said.

“He loved his children,” Wanda Bryant said. “He would spend as much time as he could with his daughter especially, and he had a very close relationship with her.”

A memorial service for Bryant will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Trinity Baptist Church in Colorado Springs.

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