In a hotel room on Thursday night, Harold Brantley finally told his mother the truth. He was nervous.
The next day would be one of the biggest of his life. Missouri Western’s pro day offered the former Missouri defensive tackle the opportunity to work out in front of NFL scouts, all of whom would be eyeing him closely.
Brantley, who had been given a third-round draft grade before the single-car crash that changed his life, knew he’d face plenty of questions, too.
He tried to put on a brave face for his mom, Shantih Dean. But mothers know when something is wrong, and she knew just what to say.
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She reminded him of the day of the crash — June 21, 2015 — and how she made the 14-hour drive from Pennsylvania to Columbia.
When she was first told of the accident, the hospital workers urged her to hurry up, because they didn’t know if her son would make it through the night.
“They wouldn’t promise me he would live,” Dean said.
Dean always believed God had a plan for her son, but that call made her waver in that conviction for the first time.
She decided to pray.
“I said ‘If you want him, I’ll release him to you — he’s not mine to make any demands,’ ” Dean recalled. “‘But if, in your grace mercy, you would see fit to bless us to continue to have him, I believe you have greater things for him.’”
Six hours into the drive, the hospital called again. She was told Harold was stable, and would live. That’s when she knew that there was nothing that could stop her son, and she hasn’t stopped telling him that — or that story — since.
“If it wasn’t going to be death, then what could hold me back?” Brantley said Friday. “So, I mean … I was able to hear that and come out here with total confidence.”
Brantley, wearing a tight white workout shirt, still cuts an imposing, muscular figure at 6 feet 3, though at 275 pounds, he is 20 pounds lighter. Still, it doesn’t take long to see that the remnants of that day and that the changes go far beyond the physical.
At 23 years old, he knows what it’s like to see a dream vanish and the pain and regret that follows. He knows the way drugs help numb that pain, only to cause more problems. And he also knows the importance of faith, and how it can give you strength in moments of doubt.
“At the end of the day,” Brantley said, “something as simple as a car accident on a rainy day can change everything.”
In his parents’ home in Hershey, Pa., there’s a wall with a picture of Brantley from his redshirt freshman year, when the Missouri Tigers lost the SEC Championship Game to Auburn. Next to that is a harrowing photo of Brantley in a hospital bed with his neck and left leg in braces and tubes poked in his ribs to drain his lungs.
And next to that is the NFL Draft evaluation from his redshirt sophomore year, which said he likely would be selected in the third round. In 2014, Brantley recorded 54 tackles, seven hurries and five sacks for a team that went 11-3 and won the Citrus Bowl. He was an athletic freak, weighing about 295 pounds with 13 percent body fat, and he could run a 4.78-second 40-yard dash. He even started to become a vocal leader, according to multiple teammates.
“Harold’s the kind of guy, I would have listened to him even if he wasn’t making plays,” former Mizzou tackle and current Chief Mitch Morse told The Star at the time. “That’s just the kind of character he is and the guy he is — very well-spoken and very intelligent.”
Still, Brantley decided to come back to school to improve his draft stock and become the next first-round pick from “D-Line Zou.”
Then came Father’s Day 2015.
Brantley and his girlfriend, former MU basketball player Madeleine Stock, were driving to a store to pick out some flowers to send home to his stepfather. It had just rained, and Brantley says he was going about 75 mph as he passed a vehicle on U.S. 63. Brantley’s car hydroplaned, hit a guard rail and rolled several times. Neither of them had their seat belts on, but while Stock was launched into the back seat, Brantley was rendered unconscious, hanging upside down when the car settled.
Both were taken to the hospital. Stock had minor injuries, but Brantley’s condition was far more serious, prompting the call to his mother. When she arrived at the hospital, Dean was devastated.
“You forget that the (people you love) are not invincible,” she said. “So to see him, so broken and so vulnerable, under all that medication … it was like, ‘That’s not my son.’ ”
In retrospect, Brantley believes the accident happened for a dual purpose: to humble him and grow his faith.
“Oh yeah, I’ve driven when I’m not supposed to, late at night, I’m switching lanes, trying to have fun with my friends … but I felt like (this) had to be God because there’s nothing I could do (different),” Brantley said. “I was definitely living my life fast. I felt like there was a thousand times where I could have gotten 10 times more injured or hurt just being young and stupid and thinking I was invincible. But the one time I’m actually just cruising with my girlfriend, God decides to teach me a lesson.”
Any positives, however, were hard to see in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Brantley underwent surgery for a broken left leg and a torn knee ligament, and had also broken several ribs and cracked his clavicle. His football career was in doubt, and so was his ability to walk. A month later, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel revealed Brantley would miss the 2015 season but was “lucky to be alive.”
Brantley remembers a strangling feeling of depression when doctors tried to prepare him for the worst-case scenario, which was spending the next few years in a wheelchair. He couldn’t feed himself, let alone go to the bathroom by himself. For someone so proud — and stubborn, he adds — it was both agonizing and infuriating.
“I was so angry at my situation,” Brantley said. “I was angry that I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to support my family anymore. I was lashing out at everybody.”
Soon, Brantley — who had always put more stock in “winning the lottery on the field” than thriving in the classroom — missed classes and turned to marijuana and painkillers to cope.
“Between being in a wheelchair for four months, and then being in and out of surgeries — and me not knowing if I was going to be able to walk again at that point — I didn’t have much of a purpose, you know?” said Brantley, who was also suspended for one game in 2012 for being in a car with three players who were arrested for possessing marijuana. “So I’m waking up everyday, really kind of pointlessly. The drugs I received, pain-wise, from my accident and marijuana were too readily available and too easy.”
Brantley’s injuries healed, and he eventually made it back for the start of spring practice on March 8, 2016. New coach Barry Odom hinted in early Feburary that Brantley had some academic issues, and Brantley missed the last few weeks of spring practice. Still, it mattered little, as he was eventually dismissed from the team in early August because of academics.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t wreck me for a couple of weeks,” Brantley said of his dismissal from Mizzou. “Not only having been there for four years, and having created relationships with my teammates, I had decided to go to rehab to stay on the team and get my marijuana issues taken care of and get off the pills I was on for my car accident, and I was able to make it through that with the support of the coaching staff and my teammates.
“And then, to not be able to pull it together because of academics was devastating.”
Once again, Brantley was forced to pick himself up. But given what he’d already been through, he still believed his mother’s belief that he’d been spared for a higher purpose, one that had only been fortified by her experience during that car ride on the day of his near-fatal crash.
“That wasn’t as bad, because by that point, he’d gone through the hard part — the wheelchair, the crutches, and how you can’t shower yourself,” Dean said. “The scholarship issue, to me, was God having a better way.”
That better way, it turns out, was Northwest Missouri State, which made for the easiest transition if he wanted to keep alive his NFL dreams. He could play right away, it wasn’t that far from Columbia, and it was a winning NCAA Division II program.
But by the time he got all his paperwork finished and transferred to the Bearcats, they’d already played two games, and he never was able to earn a starting spot. He regularly split reps with an upperclassman who had been there for years as the Bearcats went 15-0 and won their second straight national championship.
“I couldn’t have been happier, or felt more blessed after we won the national championship,” Brantley said. “But I have such high standards for myself. I wasn’t happy with my production.”
Brantley, who dropped to 215 pounds after the accident, says he played at around 250 pounds last season, when he finished with 22 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks in 11 games and, most importantly, finished the first trimester with a 2.5 GPA, he says.
But most of the teams he’s talked to — he says he’s spoken to scouts from Seattle, Washington and the Chiefs — are far more interested in investigating his character.
“So much (digging),” Brantley said with a loud laugh. “Understandably, because they’re making a large investment. But it kind of shook me, the first time I sat down with a scout, because I was wondering if he had been talking to my best friends or something. I’m like ‘Who told you that? That was like 11th grade in high school!’ ”
Still, Brantley is grateful scouts would even look at him. On Friday, they got to see him post a 28-inch vertical jump, bench 225 pounds 26 times and run a 4.93-second 40-yard dash. Afterward, Brantley happily reported how it went to his mother, who was waiting outside the building.
“I don’t have words to express the pride that he fought with,” Dean said, through teary eyes. “So many people would have given up by now.”
Brantley isn’t done yet, though. Now, nearly two years after the accident, he will likely be an undrafted free agent, as he estimates he’s about 90 percent of what he was, physically. His 40 time, for instance, was about 0.15 seconds slower Friday than it used to be, and when he heard the time Friday, he was initially disappointed.
But then, he looked over at the assembled scouts in attendance, and his mother’s words from the previous night — that he’d been spared in the car crash for a reason — rang in his mind. His anxiety drifted away, and his mood remained buoyant the rest of the workout.
“This is what I had been working for and dreaming about damn near my entire life,” said Brantley, who plans to finish his psychology degree if football doesn’t work out. “(The time) is a little higher than I thought it would be, but with it being my first 40 since 2015, I’m not too frustrated.
“I’m happy just to be able to still run.”