TEMPE, Ariz. — With a semester in session and spring practice nearly at hand, spring break offered Arizona State linebacker Carl Bradford the chance to do something his father had always wanted him to. Bradford had never met his father’s family in Louisiana, so he, along with one of his brothers and one of his sisters, traveled with his father to the tiny town of Jonesboro, about an hour and a half from Shreveport.
Roy Bradford did not return from the trip. While in Jonesboro, he died of a heart attack in his son’s arms at the age of 70. He was buried there in the same town where he was born.
Though now burdened with a loss far worse than football could ever inflict, Carl Bradford endured a painful spring without missing a single practice, strengthened by the support of teammates and his father’s memory.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about my father and don’t shed a tear for him,” Bradford said. “I’m really not the type to just sit back and go ‘Why me? Why this? Why did this happen to me? Why, why, why?’
“I just know I’ve got to keep pushing myself and keep helping my family. I know they want me to do this.”
Bradford had a breakout season for the Sun Devils in 2012, recording 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. The coming season could bring even greater production and accolades for Bradford. He wouldn’t be here without his father.
Growing up in Southern California, Bradford idolized his father, who had played football at Grambling State under legendary coach Eddie Robinson. Naturally, Bradford wanted to play football, too.
“I always wanted to follow in his footsteps in everything he did, whether it was working on cars or playing football,” Bradford said. “Anything he did, I wanted to be just like him.”
Bradford is also like his father as one of many children. Bradford has two brothers and three sisters in California, two half-sisters and a half-brother in Louisiana and a half-brother in Portland. That’s more siblings than most can claim but nothing compared to Roy Bradford’s family.
The second-oldest of 32 total brothers, sisters, half-brothers and half-sisters, Roy’s half of the family is naturally quite extensive. Some of his siblings died in recent years, so it had become a priority that his own children get to know the ones still living. He showed his children where he was born and raised and introduced them to the people he’d grown up with — brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews.
“He was touring me around meeting everybody and seeing how they lived,” Bradford recalled. “They’re real sweet people. He just wanted me to know where I came from, where my roots are. We’d been wanting to do it for a long time, so we finally got around to it with my busy schedule and what not.”
On March 12, Bradford met the last of the relatives he had not yet, an older half-brother. It was also his biological brother’s birthday, and the whole family planned to celebrate after the last introduction. There was no indication anything was wrong with Roy Bradford.
“Right after that, we were all having a good time, and he just fell and had a heart attack,” Bradford said. “I actually had him in my arms when he passed.”
ASU has been hit by tragedy more than once recently. Just before the Sun Devils’ appearance in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl last December, star running back Marion Grice’s brother was fatally shot in an attempted robbery in Houston. Grice left the team briefly but still played in the game, dedicating his performance to his brother.
This spring, at least two other players experienced deaths in their families. No player went without strong support from his teammates.
“Every team goes through those things,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “I think you have to go through some suffering to be successful. We help these guys learn how to deal, and when you face your greatest adversity is when your true character is exposed. I’m very proud of how these guys have responded to those trials in their lives.”
Bradford’s loss was a bit different. His father was, as Bradford described him, his “right-hand man.” And the team had not yet convened for spring practice, so Bradford didn’t have that support system around him in Louisiana, though only until word got back to Tempe.
Graham flew to Louisiana, along with co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Paul Randolph and senior associate athletic director Tim Cassidy, to support Bradford and attend funeral services.
“You can say whatever you want to say, but your actions speak louder than your words,” Graham said. “So we wanted to be there for him.”
Immediately calls and text messages began rolling in from teammates offering words of support, prayers and encouragement. Starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, Bradford’s roommate and best friend on the team, was among the first.
“I called him and he was just kind of quiet and wasn’t talking much, so I just kind of gave him his space,” Kelly said. “I just let him know I was here for him.”
The outpouring of support meant the world to Bradford and his family. The presence of his coaches perhaps meant the most, as they had dropped everything they were doing without hesitation to fly across the country.
“I think he found out how much we care about him and how close we are,” Graham said. “I was very proud of his teammates and how they embraced him, and again his character just showed through.”
No one would have blamed Bradford had he missed ASU’s first spring practice March 19 — less than a week after he buried his father — or a few after that. Most 20-year-olds would need a little time to gather themselves after such an experience. But Bradford was there, making football his sanctuary and offering his family a source of strength.
“If they see that I can push through it with football and school and all that going on, then maybe it gives them a little, ‘Well, since he’s still doing it, I can still go to work, I can still do my daily activity and stuff like that,'” Bradford said. “I don’t just do it for me.”
Spending hours in the weight room, in meetings and on the practice field gave Bradford an escape from the harsh reality that his father was no longer just a phone call or a five-hour drive away.
At times, however, that reality found its way onto the practice field. Something would remind Bradford of his father, triggering a flood of emotions that made it difficult to focus and perform at his highest level. But even if he couldn’t totally escape those emotions, being on a football field was better than being anywhere else.
“If he wasn’t doing that and just sitting at the house, he’d be constantly thinking about it,” Kelly said. “Coming out here with his brothers and constantly doing something instead of us just hanging out by ourselves really helps him a lot.”
Bradford says he’s been holding up well enough in the month since his father’s death but admits his father’s absence is likely to hit him harder come Sept. 5, the date of the first game of Bradford’s junior season.
“That will be hard to look up and not see him there, because no matter how busy he was, he always tried to attend my games,” Bradford said. “Just knowing he won’t be here in the flesh to actually watch me play. … But I know he’s up in heaven looking down and watching me play.”
Though Roy Bradford won’t be there to see his son have what might be his best season yet, Carl takes solace in the fact that his father saw him reach this point.
“It meant a lot — the smile on his face,” Bradford said. “I know how proud he was of me in everything I did, school and football. For me to be able to go out and perform like I did last year was a great way to show my love for him.”
Bradford this spring coined the phrase “Carl Bradford Era” (CBE), an implication that it’s his time to take the next step and also the start of a friendly competition with All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton to collect the most sacks this season. Though he says team goals come first, Bradford wants to break former ASU defensive end Terrell Suggs’ school and NCAA single-season record of 24 sacks in 2002. He wants to do it for his father.
Bradford, a Pac-12 honorable-mention selection last season, knows it won’t be easy playing this season without his dad. And as much as his teammates’ support helped initially, it can only stretch so far as the group shifts its focus toward competing for a Rose Bowl.
“The hard part of it — obviously the shock of it is very, very difficult, but it’s the months and months later, because everybody forgets about it and you’re still dealing with it,” Graham said.
Bradford, too, knows he’ll never stop dealing with what he experienced that day in March.
“The way he looked at me before he passed, the whole experience I had digging his grave, burying him — all that is something that will never go away in my mind,” Bradford said. “I think about it every night before I fall asleep. That’s the first thing I see when I close my eyes. It’s just something that will be stuck with me for the rest of my life.”
As much as that memory will remain with Bradford as a reminder of what he has lost, it will also stick with him as motivation. Roy Bradford may not be in the stands anymore, but Bradford plans to play as if he is.
“I always played for him and for my family,” Bradford said. “It’s another motivation to keep me going, keep me strong and focused. It always has and always will be for him.”