ATWATER -- Growing up, Bryant La Count didn't hate his first name.
He just didn't understand it.
Were his parents playing a cruel joke on him?
With a unique last name, did he really need to trip people up with an awkward first name, too?
And seriously, what's with the hard "T"? Was "Bryan" not enough?
These were the questions that haunted La Count's adolescence.
These were the silly, inconsequential demons he battled every time he introduced himself to a stranger or heard his name called in class.
So in the sixth grade, he changed it.
Not formally, of course.
But on the blacktop or the playground, to friends and classmates, La Count answered only to Bryan.
Bryant didn't play here.
And if you were a close friend, like say a best friend, he also accepted the shorter, hipper "Bry."
"I wanted my friends to call me Bryan or Bry for short," La Count said. "I don't know why, but I seemed to like that more."
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THEN HIS dad, David La Count, caught wind of the name change and sat his firstborn son down for a history lesson.
"That's where the story starts," said the younger La Count, now an 18-year-old senior basketball player at Atwater High.
Actually, it goes back even further.
To understand the name is to understand and appreciate the tragic story of Bryant Mercer -- David La Count's best friend at Merced High in the 1980s.
David and Bryant were quite the pair. A real-life Pinkie and The Brain. Always together. Always concocting a new scheme to take over the world.
Their corner of it, anyway.
Both were starters on the defensive side of the ball for the Merced High football team.
David was the ghung-ho linebacker, who played with the same fire and vigor we have seen so often from his son. Bryant, his bud, was the overachieving lineman.
They loved the outdoors -- to fish, to hunt, to camp, to four-wheel drive and to be, well...
They were regular visitors at Bryant's cabin near Blue Lakes, and once spent a double-date terrorizing the mud and muck off Highway 59.
Years later, David admits the date didn't go so well.
He wrecked his truck that afternoon, losing control of his Toyota the second his mud-caked tires grabbed asphalt.
The sudden traction jolted his truck into an embankment.
"We got in a lot of trouble for that one," David remembered with a chuckle.
IN FACT, trouble was David's middle name. And had it not been for Bryant, he said, his life would have been full of costly moments and memories.
For all intents and purposes, Bryant was his guardian angel.
"He was the kind of guy who watched your back and kept you out of trouble," David said. "He'd always say things like, 'Hey, maybe we shouldn't go there' or 'Maybe we shouldn't do that.' Or if I was looking to pick a fight like kids do, he'd say, 'Hey, leave him alone.'
"He was a cool guy. Just a really good guy. He cared about people. Cared about everybody.
"If you needed help, he'd be there to help you -- kind of like an angel."
If only Bryant had his own guardian angel, maybe it would have persuaded him not to take a jog that fateful fall evening in 1985.
Bryant was pacing his way down Alexander Avenue when he was struck by a drunk driver.
He died a few weeks later at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto.
"It was hard. I haven't had a best friend like that since he died," David said. "It was like losing a brother. He would have gone far in life.
"I still think about the guy every once in awhile."
THE FLASHBACKS hit David every time he sees or talks to his oldest son, whom he named after Mercer without hesitation.
"It was a done deal," David said. "We didn't even think about any other names."
In a serendipitous turn of events, Bryant La Count is every bit the young man Bryant Mercer was.
A gentle giant.
Mindful of others.
And more importantly, wise beyond his years.
Which is only to say that Bryant La Count gets it now. He finally understands the power and purpose of his first name.
"Your name identifies who you are," Bryant La Count said. "I always wondered how I got the name. I was shocked to learn about that.
"I feel like I've got a great responsibility now.
"In a way, I'm not just Bryant (La Count) but I'm Bryant Mercer, too."
James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star.
He can be reached at 385-2417 or via e-mail at jburns@merced-