On December 6, 1944 – Grover Clinton Bryant Jr. was born to Eva and Clinton Bryant of Weems, Virginia. Weems is a small village on the Northern Neck that sits on the shores of the Rappahannock River. It’s small. Real freaking small. It’s where he and my mom grew up. On November 24, 2021, Grover, my dad, passed away peacefully in his home in Poquoson, Virginia.
Not to sound morbid, but the thought of my father’s passing has been on my mind for well over a decade. When I was working at USA Wrestling around 2011, he called and told me he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He was already undergoing care and he seemingly beat it shortly thereafter. But year after year, it kept coming back. Cancer popped up again in his liver, esophagus and lymph nodes later on. He lost weight but kept fighting. He fought for 11 years.
The last month was rough. He fell twice and grew weaker. Just two weeks after doctors gave him six weeks to put his feet up and be comfortable, he was gone.
I’m someone who feels the need to remember those who have left us. I don’t particularly “like” the thought of attending funerals. In fact, I’m usually a wreck when attending one, even by people I barely knew. Sometimes out of respect or sometimes just out of the pain I see in others. Sometimes I’m overly empathetic.
My mom and dad divorced when I was four. They both remarried. My mom two years later and my dad remarried his first wife almost 30 years after he married her the first time. Her name was Marina and she was the mother of my older sister Debbie. I joke about my southern roots some, because when my dad remarried Marina, Debbie went from my half sister to my half sister and step sister – whom I jokingly called my three-quarter sister.
I spent weekends and birthdays at my dad’s house in Newport News growing up. He moved to Poquoson first, then my mom and the rest of us moved about a year later. I really never was more than a couple miles from him growing up. But those younger years saw a bit of distance. He was never mean to me, in fact, despite knowing the circumstances about why my parents divorced, he never did me wrongly. To that point, he also wasn’t the most attentive, but to be fair, I wasn’t exactly banging down the door. We just kind of co-existed in the same area. I look back at my teen years with some regret. I wasn’t exactly the nicest to my stepmother and I was forgetful. I know the maddest I ever heard my dad was when I forgot to get Marina a card for her birthday – something he’d specifically asked me to do. I might have been 13 or 14.
She passed away in July of 2003, just weeks before I was to start my final year in college. Some of you know I should have graduated much earlier. Another regret I have is her not being able to see me walk across the stage at that school in Norfolk. She was old school. My dad was old school. They jived well and reconnected when Debbie moved back across the country in the early 1990s.
When she passed away, it was my mom’s idea that I ask to move in with him while I got my feet under me as a recent college graduate. I had just started my first full-time job, working at the Daily Press, the local newspaper where I’d been working part-time since high school. I moved in about a year after Marina’s passing and there was where my relationship with my dad, which was closely distant before, blossomed.
Grover worked at the Newport News Marine Terminals in crane maintenance. He was one of the smartest people you’d ever meet, but he worked hard and came home with grease under his nails and his hands dirty every day. Like clockwork, he came home from work at 5:45.
By the time November had arrived, I was disenfranchised by the newspaper, which had taken me off of wrestling despite saying they’d let me continue during the hiring process. I wasn’t happy, so I quit. I had some freelance and announcing opportunities that helped me pay my own bills, but he was letting me crash there, rent free.
During that year, he also got to see me grow up with my own levels of personal adversity. He never judged or chastised, except the time I didn’t plug the computer back in. He had been there and done that in life. I guess it was his way of letting me learn for myself.
That year, I really learned how to grill up a good steak, some pork ribs and spent more time fishing with him than I had when I was growing up. That was his thing. When you live in Poquoson, chances are you have a boat. I think my dad had four of them at some point.
I’m kind of all over the place, but at 25 years old, I was grateful to not just have a relationship with my dad, but to also be friends with my dad. There’s some parental guides that say you should be a parent, not a friend. When you become an adult, it’s nice to have an adult conversation. I’m sure he liked the company.
I can point to a number of things he had a direct factor in – first, it’s my love for shrimp. I never wanted to try shrimp when I was a kid. I was over his house when I was a kid and he had some fried shrimp he’d cooked up – done. Loved them ever since. I loved riding on the motorcycle with him to get ice cream. I used to call it “Baskin in Robbins.” He made an awesome stir fry and Kam Ling’s had the best chicken chow mein in Newport News.
On my 21st birthday, I came home from ODU and we went fishing. On the way in, he cracked open a can of Coke and said “Mmm, that needs something else in it.” He reached into the well-worn igloo cooler and pulled out an ice cold fifth of Henry McKenna, a relatively obscure bourbon – the perfect kind that mixed with Coke. He looked at me and said “up to you if you want one.”
He’d let me sneak a sip here and there when I’d stay at his house on weekends, but there was one of the first “adult” connections, and it was with a bourbon distilled in Bardstown. I still have some Henry in my bar. Hard to find outside of the Southeast.
Where I might have missed out on actually having my dad in the house as a parental figure, his love and admiration for his grandchildren was unmatched. Daniel, Debbie’s only child, is 30 now. He’s got three children of his own. Marina had a daughter from her second marriage, Georgia, and she has four children. I have two daughters. Daniel’s father wasn’t in the picture, so he’s taking my dad’s passing in a way that I can’t really comprehend. Grover was his only male parental figure and while that might have brought out a little jealousy when I was a teen looking for some attention from my own dad, I understood as I got older that the role my dad was playing was more important.
Daniel grew up in that house. If he wasn’t at home, he was a mile away at Grandpop’s. My dad took to being a grandparent immediately – his boat – seen pretty much everywhere around the Chesapeake Bay – was named Grandpop’s Toy. When my wife and I had Lucy, our oldest, his smaller boat got named the Lucy L.
Rolling it back a bit, I moved to Pennsylvania in 2005, taking a job with the NWCA. I’d come back to announce ODU matches, for holidays and the Virginia Duals. My dad never was much into wrestling, but he started making a habit of coming to see me at the Duals and we’d have an annual dinner in the hospitality room with the Duals’ legendary seafood dinner.
Most people around Poquoson knew my dad from his fishing times. I even have friends who knew my dad and knew me, but never made the connection. It actually made them smile when they found out. One of his best fishing buddies was Paul Benton, who lived right down the street. Paul worked the Virginia Duals since pretty much its inception. When my dad would come to the Hampton Coliseum, he’d sit and chat with me some, then go hang out behind the mat with Paul and watch Poquoson wrestle. For the fact he was still a “move in” after 30 years, it was hard to find a man who was as much Bull Island without being a real Bull Islander than my dad. Boats, southern drawl, Poquoson bedroom slippers.
The only other wrestling connection he had was sitting in the corner from time to time with Georgia when Matthew, Georgia’s second-oldest, wrestled for a year or two in New Kent before they moved back to the Northern Neck.
Again, grandpop coming in to lend a hand.
Near the end, Debbie called me to tell me he might make it to Thanksgiving, hopefully to Christmas. She’d been shouldering the load with Daniel and his wife Megan for the last couple of months. Living 1,200 miles away doesn’t make it easy to help – in fact – the helpless feeling was hard to take. We talked on a Wednesday in early November. That next Tuesday, I flew to Virginia on a one-way ticket. I did what I could to take the pressure off Debbie, Daniel and Megan. Made some meals, sat with him while Debbie, who teaches eighth grade, was at work and did anything he needed for a couple of days.
It’s hard to see someone you’ve known your entire life and has always looked a certain way become old and frail. The last thing I did before I left was give him a hug before I flew home that Saturday. Wednesday, he was gone.
Grover Bryant had an opinion on everything. He had a slightly off-color sense of humor, loved hats, crude shirts, fart jokes, collected knives and would have very colorful language when he’d stub his toe.
If you know me, you’d know I’ve picked up on many of those traits. When I sit on the couch and my shirt might creep up from my waist, exposing the lower portion of my gut, my wife says “You’re Grovering.” It cracks me up just to think about it.
While he was my dad for 42 years, the last 16 were really some of the most memorable, even though I was living in another state for 15 of them. The year I lived back with him changed my perspective and helped me understand the man he became rather than the one his friends from the 70s and 80s may recall.
It took him a while to get Abby’s name right – once saying “Amy!” when he was going to get her to reel in a massive flounder we caught when I brought my then-girlfriend home to meet the folks. It might have taken him a few more times to get that right.
There’s probably more I could write or say, like how he would always get to “up home” to Weems faster when he drove than when I went with my mom, or the time I wore a crude shirt to school in fifth grade and got in trouble for wearing it because I didn’t know the not-so-subtle meaning of a shirt involving crawdads or my favorite hat growing up that was in his old blue van that read “Stud Service.”
He didn’t want a memorial service, in fact, he called me up about 15 years ago, long before any diagnosis and said “you don’t gotta worry about anything when I go, I got it all paid for.”
His wishes were to have his ashes spread in the Chesapeake Bay at his favorite fishing spot, Chub Rock. There was no better spot to fish with him than there. When he told me this, just days before he left us, I looked at him and chuckled as we were watching Gunsmoke. I said “that’s about as fitting of a way I can think of.”
We’ll have a seafood boil in his honor soon and make the boat trip to Chub Rock sometime in the Spring.
To Grover, the man who loved to fish, sounded like Boomhauer from King of the Hill, fried up chub nuggets and had a name he shared with a muppet, one so bad, even he didn’t want to curse me with being a third, you will be missed.
Grandpop’s Toy, out.