For Eagles defensive leader Stewart Bradley, competitive streak a family tradition

Stewart Bradley, the Eagles middle linebacker, is back running the defense a year after blowing out his right knee. His hyper-competitiveness is a trait he inherited from his parents, John and Ann, in Salt Lake City.
Stewart Bradley, the Eagles middle linebacker, is back running the defense a year after blowing out his right knee. His hyper-competitiveness is a trait he inherited from his parents, John and Ann, in Salt Lake City.
Posted: August 29, 2010

They were just little kids, so given the four years between them, it was a fair contest. The game between brothers was to see who could wash their hair and body, and then rinse and turn off the shower water the fastest. Thomas Bradley would lean against the closed bathroom door and click a stopwatch as soon as his big brother, Stewart, turned the water on, and then clicked again as soon as he turned the water off.

"He had the record," Thomas said. "It was, like, 42 seconds."

Stewart Bradley is, and always has been, hyper-competitive. It is a trait he inherited from his parents, John and Ann, and one that was a necessity growing up in the Bradley's Salt Lake City house, where fights still tend to break out over board games, and tennis matches are played in stone silence.

It is also why, a year after blowing out his right knee in the preseason, Bradley is back manning the middle of the Eagles defense, convinced that he not only is 100 percent healthy but that his knee is now actually bionic and better than ever.

He might not be a savior, but at 6-foot-4, 258 pounds, Bradley is a beast at middle linebacker, with long arms, broad shoulders, heavy legs, a long wingspan and good instincts. He is smart, savvy, aggressive and hungry after spending a year away from his teammates lifting weights and strengthening his surgically repaired right knee. Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called Bradley's return to the lineup "a significant addition," and the Eagles defensive signal-caller said at the beginning of camp the thing he missed the most was hitting people.

"You don't realize how much you miss that, until you can't do that," Bradley said.

That attitude makes his mother shudder, but it is just what the Eagles need. Last year, they were lost without Bradley, who became a full-time starter in 2008. His absence affected every position, and the Eagles never could find an adequate replacement.

To say Bradley will solve all of the Eagles' defensive problems is unfair and unrealistic. But with him back, they should be better - and possibly much better - because, among other reasons, Bradley's competitiveness is contagious.

Just ask his mother.

Full of energy

Bradley was 4 years old when his father first hooked the tips of two skis together and sent his first-born down the mountain, as he said, "edgy-wedgy style" at Snowbird, a challenging ski resort not too far from their Utah home. John Bradley, 54, was an athlete in high school and, as an adult, an outdoorsman. He loved to ski, fly fish, rock climb, hike and bike, and his kids would become the same. Ann Bradley, also 54, was a dancer as a kid, but she shared her husband's love of the outdoors and sports.

Stewart was precocious as a child, and full of energy, his mother said. He started playing soccer when he was 3, and he was a ball hog.

"He always wanted to be the one kicking the ball, being the star," Ann Bradley said. "I think he was just born with that."

He also was born with a competitive streak. When Stewart was in fourth grade, the fifth-grade bully was picking on him, and Stewart didn't know how to handle it. His father told him he needed to defend himself. The next day, the bully hit Stewart, and Stewart popped him right back.

"He didn't have any more problems," John Bradley said.

John Bradley pushed his son to play competitive tennis, but when Stewart was 10 or 11, it became more business and less fun. "After that," John Bradley said, "we didn't push."

And they didn't have to. Stewart was always a big kid, and he was a natural athlete and tough. He was the quarterback of his little league football team, and he played rugby, baseball and ran track. Stewart had a modest football career at Highland High School, where, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he played safety, a little at quarterback, and returned kicks. But a broken finger as a sophomore and a broken collarbone as a senior limited him to just one full year, as a sophomore, of starting action.

(Stewart also was a wing on the Highland rugby team that won three straight national championships.)

When Nebraska offered him an academic scholarship and a chance to play football after a mandatory redshirt year, Stewart jumped at it - against his parents' wishes.

"I was sick about it," said Ann Bradley, who wanted her son to stay closer to home. "But he's really hardheaded, and he said, 'This is what I want to do. I'm 18, and I'm going to do it.' I remember crying all the way home after we dropped him off."

It proved to be a terrific decision. After Stewart redshirted as a freshman, he played in all 13 games in 2003 as a backup defensive end. As a sophomore in 2004, the coaches moved Stewart to linebacker, and he started 10 games at strongside and finished second on the team with 67 tackles.

In the fifth game of his junior season in 2005, Stewart tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and missed the rest of the season. But he didn't doubt his ability to come back, and he didn't lose sight of his ultimate goal.

Early in 2006, John Bradley asked Stewart, who was an accounting major, if he had an internship lined up for the summer. Stewart told him no. He was going to spend the summer focusing on his rehabilitation and on football because, Stewart said, "I'm probably going to play in the league."

He meant the NFL, of course.

"I was thinking, 'Get a grip,' " John Bradley said. "I didn't mean it like I didn't think he could do it, but you've got to have a backup plan. . . . I'd looked at the statistics. There are not too many people who can do it."

Devastating injury

Stewart Bradley did do it. He came back as a senior and led the Cornhuskers in tackles, forced three fumbles, recovered four fumbles and had six tackles for loss. After graduating in December, Bradley focused on the draft, and the Eagles selected him in the third round with the 87th overall pick.

Bradley started one game as a rookie in 2007 against New Orleans and became the first player in franchise history to register a sack and an interception in his first career start. He became a full-time starter in 2008, finishing second on the team with 151 tackles.

The Eagles were counting on him being their defensive leader in 2009, but Bradley tore the ACL in his right knee during the team's Flight Night. It was a devastating injury for Bradley, but even more so for the team, which never found a viable replacement.

Because Bradley had gone through the process of rehabilitating his knee in college, he said it made his second rehab easier.

"I'm a pretty rational dude," Bradley said. "It wasn't like a real emotional break, I guess, just a ligament. It happens. You get it fixed and get back. It wasn't like I really needed any sort of emotional support."

But he did need help. His mother, who is a nurse at a surgical center, flew to Birmingham, Ala., and observed Bradley's surgery, performed by the renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrews. They spent five days in Birmingham, where Bradley's rehabilitation began immediately and then returned to Philadelphia and set up a cot on the first floor of Bradley's four-story townhouse in Old City.

For two weeks, Ann shuttled Stewart - and often Eagles tight end Cornelius Ingram, who'd had his own ACL surgery in Alabama a day apart from Stewart - back and forth to the Eagles practice facility for rehab. Then, while their teammates were pushing through a promising season, Bradley and Ingram were pushing each other.

"There were days I was dead tired, and he was, like, 'Let's get some extra reps,' and I was, like, 'I just told you I was dead tired,' " said Ingram, who also went through an ACL rehabilitation in college. "But it helped. Anything we did, he wanted to do extra, and it's no secret to why the guy's good. . . . He made sure, regardless of if he was frustrated he couldn't play last season, he was going to be right for this season."

And by all accounts, aside from a minor calf injury suffered in June, Bradley is right, back playing fast and downhill. In one of the first 11-on-11 drills of training camp, he seemingly came out of nowhere to pick off a Kevin Kolb pass to Jeremy Maclin. Before team drills another day, Bradley said to a teammate, "Who am I going to destroy today?"

Barring injury, Bradley will be back, calling the plays from the middle of the Eagles defense when they open the season in two weeks against Green Bay.

"I feel good," Bradley said matter-of-factly last week.

His parents still worry about him - "You don't want him to get mangled," John Bradley said - but Stewart was home for three weeks just before training camp started. He worked out in the mornings, then hung out with his family, often playing board games at night.

That competitive streak? All of the Bradley men agree it comes from Ann.

"We play Monopoly," said Thomas Bradley, now a junior studying pre-med at Utah after spending two years on a Mormon mission in Japan. "She doesn't win very often. If she's winning, she's super happy. If she loses, she throws fake money at us. So we get it from her."

"That's sort of embarrassing," Ann Bradley said. "I'm a bad sport. It isn't cute. They win at everything. Can't they let me win at a board game?"

No. It doesn't work that way, not in the Bradley house.

"I'm like the black sheep in the family who doesn't have a master's degree," said Stewart Bradley, who did not go on a mission in college but did fulfill his dream of making it to the National Football League.

"It's like he was made for it," Ann Bradley said. "This is sort of his destiny to do this, and he's taken advantage of it."


Contact staff writer Ashley Fox

at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.

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