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Packers' pick Bradford inspired by father

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By Tyler Dunne
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
May 13, 2014

GREEN BAY--The pick made little sense. A 6-foot-1 outside linebacker? With 30-inch arms? No, the Carl Bradfords do not last as edge rushers. They’re swallowed by NFL anonymity. Forgotten.

With the 121st overall pick, the Green Bay Packers essentially scribbled over the measurables, over 3-4 logic.

Arizona State’s Bradford understands the draftnik doubt.

“People can’t see the lion roaring inside of me,” he said a day after the draft. “I can’t cry about my height. I can’t cry about how long my arms are. I control what I can control and that’s my effort.”

Part of you believes him, too. Because on March 12, 2013, Bradford’s life changed.

That day in Louisiana, without warning, his father’s eyes rolled back into his head. He collapsed. He took his final breaths in his son’s arms, dying from a heart attack. And son would never be the same. This day had a lifelong effect on Green Bay’s fourth-round pick, a fire-breathing finisher with 20 sacks and 39.5 tackles for loss his last two seasons.

He now plays for his father above all else.

After that call from the Packers on Saturday—family members screaming in pandemonium, the same family members present for that horrifying scene in Jonesboro, La., a year ago—Bradford stepped away. Everything, he exhaled, “rained down on me.” Memories recharged. He remembered discussing this exact moment with his dad.

Then, he cried. Half the tears were joy, half pain. Bradford still copes with this loss. But he knows how to play with it.

Father is still with son.

“Man, I just wish he was here to experience it all,” Bradford said. “He’s here in my heart, and that’s what matter.”

n     n     n

Growing up in Norco, Calif., Bradford grew to expect the occasional “whupping.” His dad, Roy Bradford, was a no-nonsense disciplinarian. The six brothers and sisters lived at a small home on a couple of acres. Horses, cows, pigs, you name it, the Bradford ranch had it.

Dad put son to work. Son stayed in line.

“He really believed in the beatings with the belt,” Carl Bradford said with a chuckle. “An old-soul, old-school type of father.”

So you can imagine Bradford’s horror when he stole a student’s phone in middle school … and Dad found out. Roy Bradford came to the school, approached his son and Carl braced for the snap and crack.

What happened next forever changed Carl Bradford. His dad began to cry. He wasn’t furious, he was disappointed.

He stared into Carl’s eyes.

“That actually hurt me more than a physical whupping,” Bradford said. “Man, it was a crazy feeling in my body.”

He made a point never to disappoint his father again. That day forward, Bradford said he “shaped up.” He never again got in trouble with a teacher, with the law. He feared that look—that chilly, empty gaze—from his father more than any belt. This became a bond forged in trust, in a son determined to make Dad proud. They worked on the ranch together, fixed cars.

And Roy Bradford, who played at Grambling State, was the one who introduced Carl to football.

Football was their glue. Back in his heyday, Roy Bradford stacked plates upon plates onto the barbell himself. So as Carl matured, he chased his father’s weight-room numbers. In the Arizona State weight room, he became a gym-rat legend.

So the day Carl told his dad about his bench press (385 pounds), power clean (400 pounds) and squat (650 pounds) milestones, Dad gave him a much different look.

He smiled.

Said Bradford, “You couldn’t shake us.”

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A year ago, Roy Bradford needed to take his family to his hometown—Jonesboro, La.—a town of about 4,000 people. So many brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles whom his own children never met still lived there.

This was a chance to connect. With Carl on spring break at Arizona State, the timing was perfect.

The Bradfords enjoyed a long day at the home of Roy’s aunt and were ready to call it a night when Dad insisted they all see his brother, Danny, who worked at a casino bingo hall. The kids agreed. And they visited their uncle, played the slot machines, laughed and told stories.

Gathered in a circle, the family members sat on stools. Roy and Carl Bradford, naturally, were next to each other.

And unprompted, Dad turned to son, his eyes rolled to the back of his head and he crashed to the ground. Carl’s sister pounded on his chest. Carl’s brother gave him CPR. Nothing resuscitated Dad to life.

The ambulance arrived and he was pronounced dead. He was 70 years old.

Yes, Roy was a man of 350 to 400 pounds, but there were zero signs, zero pre-existing conditions that could’ve softened the blow. That entire day, he was “alive and kicking and laughing,” Carl said. This was shock turned horror.

That moment his father’s eyes turned white, Carl “felt dead” himself.

Said Bradford, “I can’t even explain how horrible it was.”

Almost immediately, he redirected to spring football practice—numb and confused.

“My feelings were gone,” Bradford said. “I didn’t know how to feel. I didn’t know how to act. The man who raised me since I was young was gone … and I can’t do anything to bring him back.”

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Some days, he’d weep. Other days, he’d shut down.

Bradford never considered quitting football. To him, giving up on the game equated to giving up on his dad. But early on, he played in a lost daze. His head coach at Arizona State, Todd Graham, could see it, too.

Graham was in Louisiana for the funeral. He knew Roy Bradford was more than a father; he was “a hero” to Carl.

“There’s a physical fatigue and a mental fatigue that come with the grieving process,” said Graham, who also coaches the outside linebackers. “He dealt with that. It took him a little bit to come out of that. He never said anything. He didn’t talk a lot about it. I could tell it was bothering him.”

Bradford and Graham—two very, very Type A personalities—became closer. Bradford spoke more with the team chaplain. A renewed faith in God helped. He learned to, somehow, accept this tragedy. And as a player, Graham told Carl Bradford to take all this emotion … and use it. “Rise up,” he said. That’s what his father would want.

One breakthrough was a 62-41 shellacking of USC. Bradford had five solo tackles, one sack and a game-long clear mind.

“That was a game where he really learned to let it out,” Graham said. “He really takes it to another level in those big games.”

Son pinned a photo of his dad in his locker. Euphoria replaced sadness. He played on emotion—at times, too much emotion. After one heated exchange against Oregon State, Graham benched Bradford for a half. Yet quickly, Bradford made each Saturday a salute to his father.

Early that season, Graham tinkered with X’s and O’s. He had Bradford drop in coverage. He moved him around. Finally, he stopped himself. Why bother? The best way, the only way, to use Bradford was to cut him loose. Graham capitalized on this unrelenting passion.

Bradford finished with 61 tackles (19 for loss), 8.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception returned for a touchdown.

Graham once coached against Dwight Freeney in college, another short-ish pass rusher

To him, these two are similar.

“He’ll make a tackle, be on the ground and do a hand spring off the ground,” Graham said. “Like a gymnast. Really explosive. And he knows how to bend. He knows how to contort his body. And he’s just so fast off the football … he’s the best I’ve ever coached coming off that edge.

“He’s a guy who will start with the potential to be an all-pro.”

n     n     n

So this is why Carl Bradford’s Twitter account name reads “I am my Father.” This is the mentality.

“I am him. I walk in his vision,” he says. “When I make a play, I know how excited he’d be. I just think in my head, ‘Keep going. Make him more excited.’”

Again, it’s no secret why Bradford dropped into the fourth round of the NFL draft. Brian Gutekunst, the Packers director of college scouting, even noted that Bradford isn’t “your prototypical 6-4, 35-inch arm type of guy.” He does see rare explosion. Gutekunst pointed to the 37-inch vertical and 10-foot-1 broad jump, saying this helps players with shorter arms defeat blocks.

Smarts help. Bradford decoded quarterbacks’ audibles on a play-to-play basis at Arizona State.

Asked about the Packers’ scheme and his skills, Bradford said it’s a perfect match and that Green Bay drafted “one hell of a player.”

Starting this weekend at rookie camp, he’ll get a chance to prove it.

The true fuel to his explosion—the key to an undersized pass rusher sticking—is simple. His dad.

The grieving process continues. By no means is Bradford over his father’s death.

He does know how to cope with it all on the field.

“He’s definitely still running through me,” Bradford said, “still running through my blood and my veins. He’s always and forever in my heart. And I’ll always be motivated by that.”



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