OAKLAND, Calif. — A psychologist walks into an Oakland Raiders team meeting.
Stop if you’ve heard this one.
He’s talking about gray matter, a pair of almond-shaped masses in the temporal lobes. He wants to know whether any players are familiar with these regions of the brain that process fear and sadness.
Here comes the punch line.
A defensive lineman blurts out: “The amygdala.”
But it’s no joke. Last month, the Raiders invited a psychologist to counsel rookies about keeping their cool and the lineman who spoke up was Desmond Bryant, newly graduated from Harvard with a degree in psychology.
So it’s a fish-out-of-water story, right?
An Ivy Leaguer passes through the looking glass and tumbles into the land of Al Davis, a mad circus of renegade athletes and near-pathological fans adorned in spikes and chains.
“Yeah,” Bryant says with a chuckle. “Seems a little strange.”
Except the big guy with the baby face doesn’t quite fit the Harvard stereotype, not with his baggy shorts and flip-flops and a wad of chewing tobacco stuffed in his lip.
As he speaks, a different sort of tale emerges.
Through the first three games of the NFL season, Bryant has worked himself into the rotation as a backup defensive tackle, not bad for an undrafted free agent who wasn’t expected to make the league.
“He’s a terrific player,” Coach Tom Cable said. “The more he learns how to play the double-team, the better he gets.”
If he seems like a novelty — only a few Harvard alumni currently play in the NFL — there are two things you should know:
No. 1, Bryant is, indeed, educated and articulate in a quiet sort of way.
No. 2, He always wanted to play professional football and has always focused a great deal of his intellect on that goal.
Coming out of high school in 2004, the North Carolina native chose Harvard over Duke and Towson not for its prestige but because Coach Tim Murphy said all the right things.
That Bryant could be a four-year starter. That he had a shot at the pros.
As Murphy puts it: “We don’t get too many kids in our program like Desmond. … Genetically and physically, he looked like an SEC kid.”
Only after arriving in Cambridge did the freshman realize the Southeastern Conference — say Knoxville or Tuscaloosa — might have been a better fit.
“The Ivy League’s not really my type of environment,” he said. “I had some really good teammates and friends, but outside of the football world I didn’t interact much with the other kids.”
There was trouble during his freshman year, an undisclosed team violation that Bryant still won’t talk about. It got him suspended from football for much of the following year.
Then, after a strong junior season, he took a leave of absence in 2007 to get his academic affairs in order. Even after his return, priorities remained a source of friction.
“I was more concerned with playing football and playing football well,” he said. “My coaches used to talk to me about that quite a bit.”
Sounds like perfect training for the Raiders. Yet Bryant seems a bit regretful about his college days, saying: “I didn’t pick the best path, that’s for sure.”
Give him credit for graduating in June — earning a degree on his terms — and for capping a noteworthy senior season with a burst of fireworks at Harvard’s pro day.
NFL scouts liked his size, 6 feet 5, 290 pounds. They loved that he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.92 seconds, manhandled the bench press and had a 31-inch vertical leap.
Those numbers outweighed his lack of big-time football experience, prompting several teams to offer free-agent contracts.
The Raiders seemed like a good choice, in part because a distant cousin, Chester McGlockton, had played for them.
That would be the same Chester McGlockton known for peculiar behavior. Like wearing a fur overcoat in practice. And reportedly approaching a rival coach about a trade — during a game.
“Really?” Bryant said. “I hadn’t heard those stories.”
More important, Bryant got word that Davis, the team’s oddball owner, liked him.
So he traveled to Oakland and pulled a switcheroo — having wriggled through Harvard as a football player, he now employed his college smarts to fight for a spot on the roster.
“Everything is calculated,” he said. “Trying to fit in and doing whatever I have to.”
That meant seeking advice from coaches before practice and working overtime to improve his stance, his hands, the transition from run to pass defense.
All those years of reluctant study helped him digest the playbook quickly. In the locker room, Bryant dutifully fetched Gatorade and water for the veterans, never lording his degree over anyone.
“He probably likes to read thick books and all that kind of stuff, but he seems normal,” defensive end Greg Ellis said. “He’s pretty quiet and to himself, like he should be as a rookie.”
His college coach believes that Harvard football, with its classroom demands, prepared Bryant for the NFL by helping him mature and learn time management. Cable isn’t so sure.
“Where he went to school, in my opinion, doesn’t have anything to do with it,” the Raiders coach said. “Tough people make good football players.”
Cable liked Bryant’s raw physical skills and the improvement he showed in camp. It didn’t hurt when the rookie crashed into the backfield in a preseason game against the New Orleans Saints.
“I mean, I sacked Drew Brees,” Bryant said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
(Optional add end)
So, it turns out, this is a story about a young man who knew where he was headed all along.
Early last month, Bryant made the Raiders’ 53-man roster and has increased his playing time with each game, recording tackles against Kansas City and Denver.
He has come to know the “Black Hole,” that section of McAfee Stadium where the most, well, colorful fans reside.
And how would Bryant, armed with his psychology degree, analyze the devotees in their face paint and Halloween garb?
“To me, that’s what football is all about,” he said. “Especially coming from Harvard where the majority of people coming to the games are 60 years and over, wearing their ties and their sweaters.”
In other words, the Ivy League kid has found a home.