When Carl Bradford got the call that he’d been drafted by the Green Bay Packers, the person he most wanted to share this dream-come-true moment with wasn’t there. His father, Roy — his hero, his best friend — had died in his arms 14 months earlier.
“I was speaking to the Packers, and soon after that I just walked away by myself and broke down in tears thinking about him and how proud he is of me,” said Bradford, the Packers’ fourth-round pick Saturday out of Arizona State. “I know he's up in heaven, smiling down and so proud of his young son.”
What started out as a day of family joy in March 2013 ended in tragedy for the Bradford family.
Bradford’s father had grown up in Jonesboro, La., and he wanted Carl and his siblings to meet the extended family. After spending a couple of days getting to know aunts and cousins in Jonesboro, a town of about 5,000 people in northern Louisiana, the Bradfords were driving home to California. But Roy, 70, wanted Carl to meet his half-brother for the first time, so they made a detour.
“He works in a bingo hall or something like that, and I finally meet him,” Bradford told the Arizona Republic in a story last year. “He looks just like us. You can tell he’s a Bradford. We all look alike. I knew from my first meeting: Yeah, that’s my brother.”
After the family spent some time visiting, Bradford glanced at his father and noticed he had a blank look in his eyes. Then the unthinkable happened: Roy fell from his stool and he wasn’t breathing. Carl and his siblings rushed to his aid. His sister performed CPR on her father. Roy had suffered a fatal heart attack. He died in Carl’s arms.
"It was the most difficult thing I've ever been through in my life,” Bradford said during a teleconference with Wisconsin media Saturday. “To have your father pass away in front of you, in your arms, it's something I'll never forget. It's always a memory that's there in my head when I close my eyes at night …"?
Now, the son plays for his father.
“I play for him, I play through him,” Bradford said. “It just gives me strength and courage and motivation.”
It also helped him become a person and player the Packers coveted. Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson was asked if he talked to Bradford about his father.
“I don’t know if I talked to him specifically about that, but he’s a look-you-in-the-eye, grown man,” Thompson said. “I don’t know. I think we try to look at a young man’s path on how they got to where they got.
“There’s a number of stories in this draft if you went through all the teams in the league. The hardship and the difficulty of these young men getting to where they get to, I think I do have a personal bias for those people that have the hardest track.”
Now, it’s up to Bradford to make an impression on the field. The 6-foot-0 ¾, 250-pounder projects as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme the Packers play.
Bradford played mostly as a defensive end in college, where last season he had 61 tackles, including 19 for losses, and 8 ½ sacks. He also showed playmaking ability with three forced fumbles and returning an interception for a touchdown.
But his size will force him to adjust to the linebacker position in the NFL.
“I think he’s a very quick-twitch,” Thompson said. “He’s got the dynamics he’s shown to play with power on the edge. To set the edge. I think he’s going to be able to stand up on the outside and be a good player for us.”
To Bradford, it doesn’t matter where he plays.
“I'd probably say outside backer,” he said of where he thinks he fits best, “but I played in college with my hands in the dirt a majority of the time. I would say outside backer, but right now I'm focusing on what's going on and focusing on learning the defense and understanding that first and then play wherever they need to play at."
The Packers closed out the draft without addressing a perceived need at inside linebacker. When asked if Bradford could move inside, Green Bay’s director of college scouting Brian Gutekunst said, “Inside, outside, I think that will be determined. But we think he has the ability to do both.”
Wherever he plays, Bradford said he will have his hero and his best friend beside him.
“I always prayed he'd be here with me,” he said of his father, “but he's here in my heart and spirit and he always will still be my right-hand man. He's amazing.”
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