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Bradley Shows That Seeing Is Believing

Football: Running back lands spot with the Chargers, who take chance on him as others have in the past.

August 31, 1996|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Once again, someone sees something in Freddie Bradley they believe everyone else missed. And once again, that someone can make a dramatic difference in Bradley's life.

Bobby Beathard of the San Diego Chargers, among the most astute of NFL general managers, picked Bradley in the seventh and final round of April's draft, drawing puzzled looks when he announced the name of an unheralded running back from winless Sonoma State.

Bradley, 26, made the team with an impressive exhibition season, and will make his debut Sunday in the Chargers' opener against the Seattle Seahawks at Jack Murphy Stadium. He will play on special teams and, perhaps, a series or two at running back.

"When Bobby called me to say I was drafted, I thought it was a friend having some fun with me," Bradley said. "As the conversation went on I realized this was the chance of a lifetime. He told me I had potential."

Beathard is the latest of a select few to notice.

Most teachers at Hueneme High branded Bradley as a troublemaker soon after he transferred from Helena, Ark., in the ninth grade and began to take drugs and cut school.

George Machado, the football coach, saw more.

Within a year, Bradley moved in with Machado's family, walking in the door with all of his belongings in two plastic bags. Love and supervision did wonders. Bradley flourished at Hueneme, starring in football and earning his diploma.

To this day, Machado, now coach at Horlick High in Milwaukee, Wis., remains a father figure to Bradley.

The day he was drafted, Bradley called Machado and said: "You told me a long time ago that if I changed things in my life, I'd have a chance at this. Thank you."

The pleasure is all Machado's. He has circled five Sundays on his calendar, days the Chargers play teams within driving distance of Milwaukee.

"I'll be there with bells," Machado said. "Freddie has a smile that will warm your heart. It was a blessing for us as much as it was for him the day we brought him into our home.

"Now look at him. He's in an ideal situation, playing for people who see his potential."

Bradley's ability was apparent to everyone at Moorpark College in 1989-90, when he broke O.J. Simpson's national junior college records for all-purpose yards and scoring.

Arkansas offered a scholarship, but once in Fayetteville, Bradley was stopped in his tracks, on and off the field.

A foot injury held him to fewer than 200 yards in 1991, and in April, 1992, he was arrested, accused of having sex with a 13-year-old girl. He was staring at a prison sentence of up to 40 years.

Enter John Everett, a Fayetteville attorney, the next to see something in Bradley few others did--innocence.

"I felt like if he wasn't black and a football player, he wouldn't have been rotting in jail," Everett said.

The trial lasted only days and Bradley was found not guilty. Arkansas already had revoked his scholarship, however, so Bradley went home to Oxnard to live with his wife, Edith, and young son, Svondo.

"My wife stuck with me, believed in me," Bradley said. "So did Coach Machado. That made it bearable. I wasn't sure if I would ever play football again."

The 1992 season came and went without football for Bradley, who had one season of eligibility remaining. A friend recommended Sonoma State, a Division II school in Rohnert Park, Calif. Bradley could resurrect his career pretty much in private.

His experience at Sonoma State was so private, and so painstaking, that he was nearly forgotten. A knee injury forced him to take a medical redshirt season in 1993, he was academically ineligible in 1994 and, when he was finally sound--medically and academically--in 1995, the team was weak and he rushed for only 726 yards and two touchdowns.

The Chargers took a chance anyway, making Bradley the second player ever drafted from Sonoma State--Dallas Cowboy offensive lineman Larry Allen was the first--and are glad they did.

"I like him," Coach Bobby Ross said. "He's very quick, very fast. He jumps out at you."

Despite nagging groin and hamstring injuries, Bradley (5 feet 10, 208 pounds) was the team's second-leading rusher in the exhibition season, gaining 134 yards in 37 carries. He also had six receptions for 44 yards and made four tackles on special teams.

"Fred has an excellent burst in his running," said Sly Croom, the Chargers' running backs coach. "He is explosive and he is strong for his size."

Although the Chargers dumped Natrone Means, their starting running back the last three seasons, Bradley will be brought along slowly.

Leonard Russell, a six-year veteran on his fourth NFL team, and Aaron Hayden, who rushed for 470 yards in only six games as a rookie last season, should get the most playing time. Terrell Fletcher will be used primarily on passing downs.

Bradley had the highest yards-per-carry average (3.6) of the quartet during the exhibition season, and the quicker he learns, the sooner his opportunity will come.

"I'm taking this all with a level head, trying to improve day by day," he said. "Everything has to be so precise here. I've got a lot to learn."

The Chargers are exercising patience, realizing Bradley has played only one full season in the past five years.

"He never really had a college career," Croom said. "He's not ready to turn in a winning performance in all aspects of the game yet. But the improvement is apparent every day."

Bradley gets plenty of carries during practice as tailback on the scout team.

"Getting carries in practice is where he can improve his skills and get game-ready," Croom said. "I've got my eyes on Freddie all the time."

The moment he jogs onto the field Sunday, Bradley will be followed by Svondo, another person who sees only great worth in him.

"I didn't know I'd make the team until the final cuts," Bradley said. "When I told my son, I wasn't sure he fully understands yet. But the more he watches, the more he'll appreciate what I'm doing."

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