NORTHRIDGE — Jaumal Bradley looks at his infant daughter, Jaion, and can't forget.
"She's a reminder that I have to keep going," Bradley said.
He looks at his girlfriend Tyna, Jaion's mother, and counts his blessings.
"She helped me get myself established," Bradley said. "She introduced me back to reality."
He looks around the Cal State Northridge football field, his playground and workplace, and feels vibrant.
"When I'm out there, I'm free to run," Bradley said. "Every step, every yard is a positive stride."
Only two years ago, Bradley was at the California Youth Authority in Chino, a young man unsure about his future.
But he knew one thing: He wanted no part of his past.
Jaumal Bradley sits in a football office at Northridge, his fingers rimming a paper cup, his chiseled 5-foot-10 and 215-pound frame occasionally rocking the swivel chair.
The Matadors just finished practice and Bradley, who had a particularly good workout, is even more upbeat than usual. He's starting at running back for Northridge (4-3, 3-2 in conference play) against Weber State (5-3, 3-2) in a pivotal Big Sky Conference game today in Ogden, Utah, and he's jazzed.
Quietly jazzed, without boast or attitude, but jazzed nonetheless.
"It's something that's been my goal," Bradley said. "There's no excuse for me to fall short. I feel I can compete with all the backs in the conference."
It's his third start this season and the first time he'll carry the rushing load because Coach Ron Ponciano suspended senior Melvin Blue, the team's leading rusher, for the game against the Wildcats because he violated team rules.
So Bradley, a junior transfer from Mt. San Antonio College who is rounding into form after foot surgery in July, is watching his stock at Northridge rise.
"He's obviously becoming a mainstay on this team," said Keith Borges, Northridge's running backs coach. "He's becoming a team leader more and more. The kids really respect him."
Bradley last week carried 13 times for a season-high 79 yards in Northridge's 32-26 loss to Montana State, giving him 185 yards in 42 carries. He gained most of them as Blue's backup in Northridge's pass-oriented offense, but he's no longer playing second fiddle.
He wasn't at Mt. San Antonio, either, rushing for 1,287 yards and 20 touchdowns in two seasons, and helping the Mounties to a 13-0 record last year and the mythical junior college national championship.
"I miss his leadership," said Binky Benton, Mt. San Antonio's running backs coach. "On the field or off the field, I'd want him by my side."
That Bradley got to Mt. San Antonio, or anywhere, is practically a miracle.
He was referred to Mt. San Antonio's football staff by a counselor at the CYA, where Bradley spent seven years for his role in a gang-related killing when he was 15.
The day he was freed, Bradley went directly to the college. Benton and Coach Bill Fisk had visited Bradley at CYA and gone away impressed enough to seriously recruit him.
"Right away I took a liking to him," Benton said. "His appearance was nice and he was very polite and humble. . . . I have complete admiration for Jaumal."
Bradley, 24, won't discuss what specifically landed him at CYA. He came from a good home in Compton--his uncle and confidant, Omar, is the city's mayor--but he started running with the wrong crowd.
His promising football career at Gahr High in Cerritos, where he played varsity as a sophomore, soon was out the window. And Bradley soon was behind barbed-wire fences.
"I take full responsibility for my actions," said Bradley, whose gang tattoo near one biceps is an annoying reminder of his troubled youth. "I did the time and I paid the price."
Bradley used his time well at CYA. He became a Muslim, read voraciously, played sports and vowed to redirect his life.
"He decided to take advantage of all the services," said Dave French, a CYA counselor who coached Bradley in football and baseball. "He's a very intelligent kid. You could talk to him and he would listen."
Gradually, Bradley started to find his way, to move forward. He didn't want to be a recidivism statistic, Bradley said, so he prepared for his release. That came in 1996, when good behavior and his participation in CYA outreach programs helped slash his sentence, which originally called for his incarceration until age 25.
"Instead of serving time, I was letting time serve me," Bradley said. "I utilized my time to sharpen my mind and prepare myself to reenter society.
"[A spiritual advisor] told me, 'You have to break the chains of psychological confinement. Don't take that with you when you get out.' "
Bradley took the words to heart.
He stormed through Mt. San Antonio, balancing two jobs, school work and football to graduate with a 3.6 grade-point average.
His life was changing rapidly. He met Tyna, they had Jaion 16 months ago and Northridge offered him a football scholarship. The teenage years largely holed up in a 10-by-6 cell were drifting farther away, replaced by purpose and hope.
But there were adjustments.