CALLAHAN BRIGHT should have been sitting at a round table in Radio City Music Hall with family gathered around him two Saturdays ago. He should have been there in a pinstriped Armani suit holding a cell phone, waving a big, meaty hand as the camera panned the prospective first-round draft choices expected to go early, close enough to see the diamond-studded earring dangling from his ear.
He should have been there. He should have had those things.
Not standing on the back of a trash truck bracing himself against the cold on a gun-metal gray winter morning, fantasizing about being selected at the draft as he gets off to grab another trash can.
It's a strange journey that has led Bright, the 6-3, 320-pound man-child who at one time was one of the top high-school recruit in the country to where he is now - tiny Shaw University, a Division II school in Raleigh, N.C.
Bright, who turned 21 on Jan. 16, is there to pick up the pieces of shattered promise. He's there to reclaim a life that was bordering on dangerously reckless and occasionally veered out of control. He always envisioned himself being farther along than where he actually was.
Bright was supposed to be the next Jerome Brown, the next Warren Sapp. He had heard that since he was 13. By the time he began his senior year at Harriton High School in fall 2004 he was recognized as a preseason All-America; afterward he was named second-team all-Southeastern Pennsylvania and ranked by various national scouting services as one of the top defensive-line prospects in the country. He selected Florida State over Texas A&M in a national signing-day decision that included a live announcement on ESPNews, but never arrived in Tallahassee. A series of missteps and poor judgment got in the way. He failed to meet the eligibility standards and briefly attended Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.
Assuming he had completed even 3 years at Florida State, there's no doubt he would have been a top-10, maybe top-five pick.
Was it the scouting services overrating him? Or was it just Bright?
"Bright just kept getting into trouble, which is kind of sad, because in the time I've been doing this he was the best high-school defensive lineman I'd ever seen," said Bob Lichtenfels, Eastern Regional recruiting analyst for Scout.com. "[Callahan's] the one guy who had the ability to take over a football game. He always had something holding him back that made him fail. Athletically, he's as gifted a player as I ever saw."
Tom Lemming, a nationally respected high-school talent evaluator who has been projecting prep players for 30 years, was amazed by Bright's rare combination of power, speed, agility and quickness for someone his size. Bright was the first player selected in late 2004 to the prestigious U.S. Army All-American game, a now 8-year-old high-school all-star game that is played in Texas in January.
Then he was uninvited.
It was the first sign that something wasn't exactly right with Bright.
"The reports that we were getting back was that he was having problems," said Lemming, who helps select the players for the Army All-American game and works now for CBS Sports. "Callahan wasn't a bad kid, just an immature kid at the time. What we were hearing was that Callahan had this sense of entitlement that went through the roof. He received so much, so quick, he didn't know how to handle it."
He was suspended a couple of games by then-Harriton football coach Hal Smith. Trouble either followed Bright, or Bright followed trouble, depending on whom around him you ask. One misdeed, which no one will discuss, got him sent to Glen Mills, the school for court-adjudicated youth, before his freshman year in 2001.
With Bright, there was always something.
"It was a case of too much too fast, it wasn't handled well," said Smith, who just completed his first season as the head coach at Jenkintown. Smith remains close to Bright's older brother, Eugene, a Purdue defensive end who went undrafted this year.
"Callahan was getting his head filled with all these things like he'd be in the NFL tomorrow. That's what people were saying around him. What got lost in all of his hype was his immaturity and the things he had to work on off the field. He had everyone telling him he was great. Callahan violated team rules. There were discipline issues during practice. The intensity was there, there's no doubt about that. But there were times he crossed the line and I would discipline him."
Denise Bright, Callahan's mother, raised three children by herself; two are college graduates. She works two jobs and she has been through it all with her youngest son. He has challenged her with his adventurous side, she said. He was a little more rebellious during his high-school years than she liked him to be. But she noted something that always has been there with Callahan - he likes to take the long road.
But it was Eugene Bright who feared that his younger brother was headed toward trouble that he couldn't escape.
"There were times I was really concerned for him," he said. "As an older brother, you always try to give advice, but Callahan has been through a lot of things in his life; a lot of things I didn't hear about. There was a concern that you'd get that call in the middle of the night and you'd think the worst. Callahan always had trouble follow him. He didn't help himself sometimes. He was fascinated by different things that he shouldn't have been fascinated by. Callahan got a lot of comparisons in high school, and I mean early in high school. If he was able to go hardship in high school and jump to the NFL, he would have done that. Now he's ready for it. Back then, he didn't handle it right."
There were stories that tailed Bright like a stray dog, like him dropping out of college, getting arrested. Bright took a hard fall, which in a way he's grateful about today.
"If I went to Florida State, I might not have been able to handle it," Bright says today. "At one point, I didn't know where I was going. But some things changed."
What made him change?
Easy. Bright had to work a township job picking up trash. That, and the recent birth of his son, Xavier Christopher Bright.
He was dumping trash every morning. It was a job. Something to pay a few bills. Something to keep a roof over his head. Then it dawned on him. After all the promise, amid all the speculation as to how quickly he'd reach the NFL, where was his life going?
"I wasn't ashamed of picking up trash, it was something to do, but I began asking myself if this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," Bright said. "It made me think about being on the back of that truck. I didn't want to be a trash man for the rest of my life. This is where the mistakes I made got me."
There is accountability now where once there wasn't.
"Callahan has done a lot of growing up, he's been forced to," said Shaw defensive coordinator Perez Boulware. "You couldn't have asked for a better teammate last year when he worked the scout team for us. Here's this kid, one of the best in the country at one time, playing scout-team defense. It might have been humbling for him, but he did it well. None of our guys could block him."
On the field, not much has gotten in the way of Bright; instead, he has repeatedly gotten in the way of himself.
In July 2007, Bright was arrested and charged by the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office after being caught in a series of raids with possession of marijuana and intent to "manufacture" the drug, according to a police affidavit. Bright said the case is still pending.
Many who have had contact with Bright, from his youth at Harriton to today, want to see him make it. His gleaming smile and affable personality are infectious; they draw you in, much like his play. He seems to have reached a comfort zone within himself, though getting there was an arduous process.
Even Tom Marino, a longtime NFL scout, has been captivated by the lineman's upside. He has been monitoring Bright's progress at Shaw.
"He has the ability to be a top-10 guy, and I say that without his having played a down of college football yet," Marino said. "Callahan has the physical tools to disrupt, at any level, and there's no one at the Division II who will be able to block him. He has Jerome Brown ability, but Jerome played 4 years at a major school [Miami]. He's not a bad kid. He just likes taking the easy way out. I want to see him make it. But it matters what you've done, not what you're projected to do."
In a sense, Bright finds himself right back where he started, someone touted with a ton of ability who now faces a personal Waterloo. He is expected to toil in the North Carolina sun this August in preparation for his first time on a college football field. He knows this is it.
"I'm not happy with the things I put my mother through," Bright said. "I could have gotten out of situations by walking away in the past. But you can't change the past. Everything just happens for a reason. I needed to go through those things. I was wild, I was whipping and running. I would definitely kick my ass, if I could walk through a time capsule and see me as a high-school kid again. I know a lot of people turned their backs on me and I have a good memory. There's a lot of people out there I have to prove wrong, a lot of people. I'm a one-and-done after this season, because this time next year, I'll be there at the draft."