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October 9, 2007Stanford wide receiver Mark Bradford overcame the tragic passing of his father earlier in the week to catch the game-winning TD pass in the Cardinal's dramatic upset over USC. As we look back to the cover article from the Dec./Jan. 2002-03 issue of Student Sports Magazine, it's evident that overcoming adversity is nothing new for this amazing student/athlete.
Eyes on the Prize
by Greg Biggins
Fremont grid-hoop star Mark Bradford's challenged upbringing molded him into the man he is. And he is a man, though he just turned 18. Now, he's got his pick of any football scholarship in America and his dream is just beginning to unfold
Mark Bradford has lived through more pain and heartache than any 18-year old should have to endure. His friends say he's always smiling, always joking; yet there seems to be a sadness to him that's evident to all those who really know him. Even when he's laughing on the outside, those eyes never change their expression. They tell a tale of personal tragedy that would get the best of most young men.
But not Bradford, a premier grid-hoop athlete for Fremont High of Los Angeles. He has used his experience to fuel his dreams and in the process, according to his football coach and mentor, Pete Duffy, has become "the most incredible kid I've ever been around."
RUNNING THE SHUTTLE
Bradford was born and raised in Los Angeles in a middle class area that he describes as, "nice as you long as you stay away from certain areas." Bradford's father starred in football and baseball at Locke High in southeast L.A., a stone's throw from the gang-infested streets of Watts. That's where Bradford, a star wide receiver and small forward, inherited his athletic ability, said his Aunt Debra.
"Mark is a natural just like his daddy," Debra said. "His father was so gifted, it was incredible watching him. He was one of those athletes you see where everything looks so fluid and they barely have to try to be the best on the field. Mark is the same way. He's driven to be the best and that's exactly how my brother was."
That's about where the similarities between father and son end. When Bradford was just two years old, his father was jailed for drug possession with intent to distribute. So began an endless cycle of incarceration followed by liberty for Mark Bradford, Sr. that has continued to this day. As a result, Bradford the infant became very close to his mother, clinging to her anytime she attempted to leave the room.
But no amount of clinging could prevent the tragedy that was soon to come. When Bradford was just six years old, his mother, Ann, contracted HIV and died of AIDS shortly thereafter. It was a huge blow for Bradford, losing the only parent he really knew at that time in his life.
"It broke my heart," Bradford said. "At the time, she was all I had. She was always there for me and now she was gone. I was lost for a while and didn't know what I was going to do. I had a younger brother I had to look out for, too. It was rough."
Things worked out where Bradford's father was coming out of prison at the same time his mother passed away. So both he and his younger brother, Travis, moved in with their dad. Just two years later, however, Mark Sr. was back behind bars. The shuttle brought the Bradford boys to their Aunt Veda.
"It was all right because my aunt had five kids and I got to know all my cousins," Bradford explained. "We all became pretty close. Travis and I both learned a lot about family and right from wrong. I don't like to look back that much but I know I grew a lot as a person at that time."
After one year, Mark Sr. secured his release and a two-year stint with their father followed. But he couldn't stay clear of the law and was soon behind bars again. That spawned a custody battle between both sets of grandmothers. Bradford and Travis, who is two and one-half years younger, were awarded to their father's mother. Just a week later, the boys' grandmother on their mother's side passed away unexpectedly.
"She had cancer but no one knew about it," Bradford said. "It didn't have anything to do with who the judge ruled for because she kept it secret. It floored everyone who knew her because she seemed healthy."
The Bradford boys received a lot of love at their grandmother's, again learning about family and commitment.
"We showered both of the boys with love," Debra said. "My mom always had people over and we wanted to make sure the boys knew they were wanted and loved. My brother called all the time while he was prison and told us how he wanted the two of them raised. He loved them and told the kids that. So it wasn't like the boys felt they were abandoned. They knew their daddy wanted to be with them. I think that's a big reason why both of them have turned out as well as they have. Even though both parents weren't around, our whole family went overboard to make up for it."
The brothers temporarily went their separate ways when Mark Sr. remarried as Bradford was entering junior high.
"I ended up moving in with my step-mom but Travis stayed with my grandma," Bradford said. "It was the first time we were ever apart and it was hard on both of us."
According to Debra, the move was orchestrated by Mark Sr., who felt Travis needed a little more structure in his life. He also thought it would help Bradford to flourish on his own without the responsibility of having to help raise his brother when he was still just a kid in his own right.
It was at this time in his life that Bradford made what proved to be one of the most important decisions he would ever make.
"I knew that going into high school, it was up to me to decide what kind of life I would have," Bradford said. "I knew I didn't have a normal family life. We didn't have gangs on my street or anything, but you could find them right around the corner. I could feel sorry for myself or I could give everything I had in the classroom and playing sports to make a better life for myself. That's what I chose to do."
FINDING HIS PATH THROUGH ATHLETICS
Bradford entered Fremont and was immediately the top athlete at the school as a freshman. He started on the varsity basketball team his first year in school and qualified for the city championships in the long jump.
"He was extremely quiet, an introvert, but on the court, he had the heart of a lion," Pathfinder head basketball coach Sam Sullivan said. "He hates to lose and is one of those players who always stepped up in the big games."
After watching Bradford take over games with his size and athletic ability, Duffy, Fremont's football coach, couldn't help but think what he could do on the gridiron.
Bradford didn't come out for football his first year at Fremont. "He didn't know how to play and never played the game before," Duffy said. "I told him, 'Mark, 6-2 small forwards are a dime a dozen but 6-2 wide receivers are the rage in college right now.'
"I told him if he trusted me, I could help him get there. I wanted to gain his trust so I spent a lot of time with him that whole summer before his sophomore year. He came out for football and that first day and I mean literally, that first day after never playing before, he was one of the best players I had ever seen."
Bradford earned All-City honors in both football and basketball his sophomore year and was excelling in the classroom, carrying a 3.5 GPA.
"I got to know Mark really well his sophomore year," Duffy said. "I couldn't believe how mature he was. He was already a man basically. He had to overcome so much and had to grow up fast to survive. He was one of those kids mature and wise beyond his years."
Duffy became a mentor for Bradford, picking him up for school every day and taking him home after practice.
"That man deserves a lot of credit," Debra said. "He doesn't just do it for Mark and Travis. He picks up a couple of other kids, too, and has never once asked for a dime of gas money. In four years, Mark hasn't missed any school which means Pete hasn't missed a day of picking him up. He's like an angel."
As good as he was as a sophomore, Bradford took it up another notch as a junior. He led the football team to the City Section semifinals, finishing the year with 75 catches for 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"I played with (former New York Giant star running back) Joe Morris in high school and coached (former Nebraska running back) Thunder Collins and Mark is at that same level," Duffy said. "He's so physically gifted that the game comes easy for him, but he still works his butt off and is a great leader on our team."
On the hardwood, Bradford averaged a modest 15 points and eight rebounds a game, numbers that don't come close to showing how important his role on the team was.
"I'll never forget our playoff game with Crenshaw last year," Sullivan said. "Mark took us on his back and refused to let us lose. We kept falling behind by 10 and then he would come down and hit two baskets in a row to keep us close. He brought us all the way back. It was the first time Crenshaw had ever lost a playoff game at home.
"He's one of the best defensive players I've ever seen. It doesn't matter if it's a guard or a center, we always put Mark on the other team's top scorer and he would shut them down. I compare him athletically to (former Cincinnati Red all-star outfielder) Eric Davis, who played for me here. Everyone knows Eric as a great baseball player, which he was, but he was a great basketball player, too, but I would give Mark the edge because of how strong and physical he is.
"More than that, Mark is just a great person," Sullivan continued. "He's still a little shy and doesn't let too many people get close to him but that's understandable. The two people who are supposed to be closest to him haven't been around much so I think he might be afraid of getting too close to someone and then being hurt again."
Through all the trials and tribulations he's been through -- Bradford actually calls them "blessings" - he doesn't have a trace of bitterness, even for his father who has been in and out of his life.
"I know there are a lot of people in the world worse off than me," Bradford said. "Even though my parents weren't around growing up, I still had a lot of family there who loved and supported me. My dad is there for me. He wants to know everything going on in my life and never misses a game when he's back home.
"God has blessed me with so many things but I really don't feel like I've done anything yet. I think I'm on my way to becoming successful, but I'm not there yet. I'm going to get there though, I have no doubt about that."
Bradford signed with Stanford over USC and UCLA in the Class of 2003, and immediately began contributing on "The Farm". His numbers in 2003 were the best for a true freshman in Stanford history, as he totaled 37 catches for 587 yards and three touchdowns receiving. Bradford also joined the Stanford basketball team in November of '03 and was a reserve point guard on the Cardinal 03-04 team that went 30-2, won the Pac-10 title and spent several weeks at No. 1. Bradford posted similar numbers on the gridiron as a sophomore, catching 34 passes for 482 yards and a score despite injuries that affected the Cardinal at the QB position. After giving up basketball that December to focus on football, Bradford posted team-high totals of 37 catches for 609 yards and six TDs as a junior in '05 despite missing two games with an injury. Included in those totals were a career-best day at ASU, when he caught nine passes for 185 yards and two scores. Was on the way to big things in '06, catching nine passes for 108 yards and a TD in the opener against Oregon before being sidelined with a foot injury early in game two and missing the rest of the season. Bradford got a medical redshirt and returned as a senior this fall, where he caught the game-winning, 10-yard TD pass from Tavita Pritchard in Stanford's epic 24-23 upset over No. 1 USC. Currently ranks second on the team with 21 catches for 252 yards and two TDs and has career totals of 139 catches for 2,041 yards and 13 TDs to this point.