CAMP TONTOZONA, Ariz. — When Arizona State linebacker Carl Bradford walked out of the tunnel at Sun Devil Stadium for Monday’s team scrimmage, he had his father on his mind.
“Whenever I walk in that stadium, it’s a different feeling now knowing my father’s not going to be there watching in person,” Bradford said. “That’s something I’ve still got to deal with, and I’m going to overcome it.”
It has been five months since Bradford’s father, Roy, died of a heart attack in his son’s arms, and Bradford is still healing from the loss, fighting his emotions on a daily basis.
Spring practice, of which Bradford didn’t miss a day despite it beginning days after his father’s funeral, was much harder, and Bradford left the field in tears more than once. Bradford misses his father more when he’s away from the football field or the weight room, but he’s still trying to regain his complete on-field focus.
“It’s still hard,” Bradford said. “It’s always going to be hard, and it’s always going to be there. What I’m still working on is when it’s football time, it’s football time, and then worrying about family and everything else outside of football. That’s one thing I’m still trying to do.”
It is often easier to handle a personal tragedy immediately after after it has happened, with a strong support system in place. But when others have moved on, those who have lost are left to deal with their remaining grief alone.
That hasn’t been the case for Bradford. While he has moments when he feels alone, his teammates have remained supportive and encouraging.
“It helps me tremendously,” Bradford said. “These are great guys, and they try to keep me uplifted and always laughing.”
Football is a therpeutic outlet. Bradford is on the cusp of a pivotal season after a 2012 campaign in which he recorded 20 1/2 tackles for loss and 11 1/2 sacks.
Bradford has even bigger goals for himself in 2013, including one really, really big goal.
“Twenty-five sacks,” Bradford said. “Take it or leave it. I’m getting 25 sacks, and in my mind I can do it. I really believe that 110,000 percent. I’m not going to let any offenses stop me from getting that goal.”
Twenty-five would be one more than former Sun Devil linebacker Terrell Suggs’ single-season NCAA record set in 2002. Both Bradford and All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton want the record, and both believe they can get it — although it might be more achievable for Bradford, who plays on the outside, than Sutton, an interior lineman.
Bradford and Sutton got to meet Suggs recently, albeit briefly, when the Baltimore Raven stopped by the new ASU weight room over the summer.
“I had to get back to my workout, so I didn’t really have time to talk to him,” Bradford said. “It was crazy. He’s a huge guy, first of all. To break his record, I’m going to have to go over the limit, do double time the things I’ve been doing.”
That’s pretty much what Bradford set out to do, having easily the most impressive summer of any Sun Devil in the weight room. He went viral briefly when a video got out of him power-cleaning 400 pounds.
“I’m really proud of that,” Bradford said. “I’d never done that.”
But weight room heroics alone don’t translate to success on the field. Bradford, a 6-foot-1, 241-pound junior from Norco, Calif., has progress to make as a player before he’s ready to break a college football record.
“I’m challenging Carl,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “Carl is a phenomenal athlete, one of the most powerful guys I’ve ever been around. It’s just (doing it) every down, down-in and down-out. Seven downs out of 10 doesn’t get it done.”
Bradford admits he has days and downs when he hasn’t given a complete effort. He also acknowledges relying on his athletic ability too much last season, neglecting fundamentals and technique.
“He still does,” Graham said. “I’d say last year it was 90 percent athletic ability. And he’s smart, he studies and all of that. I’d say it’s 50-50 now. But it’s hard when you’re that athletic and you make that many plays.”
Bradford — whose Devilbacker position is a linebacker/defensive end hybrid — has been working a lot in fall camp on technique with new defensive line coach Jackie Shipp.
Graham wants Bradford to be more of a leader and to improve his run-stopping ability.
“We’re challenging him and coaching him harder,” Graham said. “That’s something I think is sometimes hard for them to understand. It’s ‘Why am I doing well and you’re pushing me harder than everybody else?'”
As frustrating as it might be, Bradford knows it’s for the right reasons. He knows he needs it to achieve his personal goals and those of the team.
Reaching those goals without his father to witness them would be bittersweet, but Bradford says they’d be a fitting tribute to his father’s memory.
“I’ve got something in store for the ASU fans this year,” Bradford said. “I’m just ready to go get it. I’m done talking. I’m ready to go accomplish it.”