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Gary Brightwell: The message beyond the number on his back

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Amy Bailey | The Daily Wildcat Wildcat Gary Brightwell (23) runs down the field giving Arizona a first down during the second half of the Arizona-Oregon State game on Saturday November 2 in Tucson. Arizona lost to Oregon State 38-56.

For many athletes, the number on the back of their jersey is only but a fashion statement. Look good, play good, right? But for Arizona senior running back Gary Brightwell, the number zero means a whole lot more. 

“Growing up, I had no father. He was murdered at a young age,” Brightwell said. “In my city, there’s really no love. … That zero represents everything that I stand for. I’m the last of a dying breed, there’s nobody that can compare to me.” 

Brightwell was only a year old when his father, Gary Brightwell Sr., was tragically killed. His mom, Carla Young, took him in at a young age and became a role model for Brightwell — prompting a change of his number from 23 to zero in the 2020 offseason. 

“I’m representing my family,” Brightwell said. “I’m representing my team. Not only my team, but the guys that look up to me. … I don’t even wear it for myself.”

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Brightwell strives to be a role model for others. He recalls a time where he visited his hometown in Chester, Pennsylvania for the funeral of his god brother and was blown away by the support he received from his friends and family. Brightwell said that his success as a young man and a Division I football player has motivated his peers to reach for the moon in life.

“I couldn’t even tell you the smile they had just to see me there,” Brightwell said. “Everybody that was at the funeral, all of their family. There’s not really much that they’re doing in their life, but to see me, it brought them joy and it made them want to go out there and get that.” 

Brightwell is also very vocal on social media, where he frequently posts motivational quotes on his accounts. The idea behind that is simple.

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“I have a lot to say and I feel like it’s selfish to keep it all to myself,” Brightwell said. “So a way to get it out is through social media. Whether you see it or not, the whole America is on social media … I feel like if someone is watching me, they need to see what I’m thinking as well as I need to see what they’re thinking.” 

Although Brightwell’s messages of motivation are for everyone to see, Brightwell’s biggest goal is for his voice to reach the younger generation and prepare them for the journey of life that is ahead of them.

“I want to reach the youth,” Brightwell said. “I want them to understand that it’s okay to have a soft side. It’s okay to not be a thug. Growing up in that situation, you never want to go back. I need to let them know that there’s more to life than just the streets.”

Brightwell has also touched the minds of his teammates and coaches as well. In just his first season as the Wildcats’ running back coach, A.J. Steward has quickly learned the type of person Brightwell is.

“When you hear him talk, you usually end up learning a lot more than he does when you talk to him,” Steward said. “He's a very mature, very well-spoken young man that just sees life a little bit differently than most people his age. I think that’s helped a lot with our relationship. We come from similar backgrounds so a lot of things that he’s preaching, he’s kind of preaching to the choir so to speak so we really have made a great connection. I’m just grateful to be around him every day.”

In what was an eventful offseason full of postponements and unanswered questions, Brightwell stayed patient and forged ahead. The cancellation and rescheduling of your upcoming season is enough to throw any athletes’ motivation off the rails — but not Brightwell’s. 

“I felt like it was more time for me to put in work,” Brightwell said. “I was never disappointed about not having a season. I just felt like it was more time for me to put in work.”

The Wildcats lost a ton of players to the transfer portal this past offseason. It’s easy to follow the crowd and jump ship to prepare for the upcoming NFL draft, but Brightwell decided to stay the course and follow the words of encouragement preached by his mother: patience. 

“What I live by, I just stay patient and wait your turn,” Brightwell said. “I was never going to opt out, just staying patient. My mom always told me to stay patient. Your time is going to come.”

Brightwell figures to be one of Arizona’s several running backs on the depth chart this season. As a senior, he has earned the starting job but the younger talent behind him might be too good for head coach Kevin Sumlin to ignore this season. With all of the potential talent at the running back position this year, Brightwell said he is more than willing to split carries with his teammates. Why? Just another piece of wisdom that he has learned throughout his life.

“I don’t mind sharing,” Brightwell said. “I grew up sharing. It’s not a one man show.”


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