Photo: Ahmad Bradshaw with his mother Kizzy Collins
Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw is the best story in college football. Anyone unaware of that opinion should consider tuning into the 118th Army-Navy Game that is upon us on Saturday in Philadelphia.
Bradshaw’s West Point story began with having survived “Chiraq” – Chicago’s South Side war zone – to accept an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. Survived is the right word. It’s not a play on his military future. Chicago’s South Side has ranked among the nation’s highest murder rates.
As a kid, Bradshaw saw a man fatally shot at 47th Street and Michigan Avenue, only a few blocks from his home in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Another time, while returning home from football practice at Gwendolyn Brooks Academy in the Roseland community, he saw a man held up at gunpoint at 44th and Prairie near the Green Line Station
Is there more ironic path forward for a young man to overcome a deadly gang-riddled environment to establish a foundation for his future as an Army officer?
“It’s a huge, huge story given the tragic circumstances of the environment he was forced to grow up in,” said Army Hall-of-Fame quarterback Rollie Stichweh, who has remained close to the program. “This is where his mom (Kizzy Collins) and high school coach (James Brown) came into play.
“Despite all the bad influences in an extreme situation, a parent and a coach showed him his future. She kept him on a path that led to the gaining admission to West Point. I give the mom and his coach credit for the positive influences they have been on the young man.”
In exchange for Bradshaw accepting his free education and five-year military commitment, West Point offered him a way out with a chance to play Division I college football.
I asked Bradshaw in a past story about the irony of escaping Chicago's South Side to train as an Army officer that may someday be in a hotspot. He said he had spoken about it with an older Cadet from a similar background, and he told him, "I decided if I'm going to die I'm going to do it serving my country instead of somethings stupid back home."
Some people recognize the sacrifice more than others. When Stanford played at Army in 2013, Cardinal coach David Shaw told his players to remember the Black Knights have made their commitments in a time of a seemingly endless war on terrorism.
“I mentioned to my team we are playing against young men willing to do things down the road the rest of us have not been willing to do,” Shaw said at the time. “These are people who deserve our utmost respect. Our freedom is in their hands.”
Bradshaw, a third-year starter, has taken his opportunity and responsibility and run with it.
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound triple-option QB set an Army rushing record this season with 1,472 rushing yards. His total is ranked 10th in the nation with one regular-season game to play.
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner that is a finalist again this year, is 11th through 12 games with 1,443. If Bradshaw runs for 100 yards against Navy – he’s averaging 133.8 per game – he’ll jump to fifth for regular-season totals.
On Bradshaw’s way to accumulating his career numbers, he passed Stichweh for most yards by a Black Knights quarterback. Stichweh is best known for a split with his Navy rival and long-time friend, 1963 Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach. Navy won 21-15 in 1963, but Army avenged the loss with an 11-8 victory in 1964.
Bradshaw didn’t take passing Stichweh lightly. That’s when he sent him a lunch invitation.
“He asked if we could get together for lunch to talk about leadership, and I replied I would love it,” said Stichweh, whose NFL opportunity alongside Staubach was ended by serving in Vietnam. “One of his questions for me was about rallying your teammates in adversity. That’s a key for any quarterback and team leader. You know bad things are going to happen in game. What are you going to do to keep your guys focused?
“Afterward I shared with the superintendent (Gen. Robert L. Caslen, a former Army football player) and the head coach (Jeff Monken) that beyond the nice words it was such a nice gesture. He took the initiative. That’s part of the maturing process. It’s not just about yourself. It’s about those around you and reaching out.”
Bradshaw’s own Army football coronation was ending Army’s 14-year losing streak to Navy last year with a 21-17 win in Baltimore. He directed a fourth-quarter 12-play, 80-yard drive and scored the game-winning touchdown on a 9-yard run.
If Army (8-3) beats Navy (6-5), a more regal position awaits Bradshaw. It is a winner-take-all showdown for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy that the Black Knights haven’t won since 1996. Army and Navy set up the drama with earlier wins over Air Force.
Stichweh has followed Bradshaw’s on-field maturation closely with the added examining eye of a fellow quarterback.
At first, Bradshaw had his moments as a sophomore until he struggled with injures and fumbles. By the end of the 2015 season, he watched from the sideline as Chris Carter led Army to a lead over Navy before Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds, a third-team All-American pick who was fifth in the 2015 Heisman voting, led a comeback victory.
The starting job was thus open in spring football and entering 2016 fall camp. Bradshaw and Carter spent the spring and off-season drilling and helping each other improve, but Bradshaw gained an edge in fall camp when Carter suffered an injury. Bradshaw went onto to his breakout season.
The 2016 season will always be remembered for Army ending the losing streak to Navy, but there was more to it. The 8-5 record also accounted for Army’s first winning season and first bowl game victory since 2010. The Black Knights beat North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“What I have liked about Ahmad is he has been leading by example,” Stichweh said. “If you go back four years ago, Army football lost a lot of games with self-inflicted wounds. We lost games more than teams were beating Army. Ahmad’s first year starting he was having trouble giving up the ball.
“He has really worked on holding onto the ball. Jeff Monken and (quarterbacks coach) Mitch Ware spent a lot of time working with him. Army football has made huge improvements the past two years, and Ahmad has led the way.”
This seems the ideal Saturday to label Bradshaw the best story in college football. The Army-Navy Game in the afternoon and the Heisman Trophy ceremony in the evening.
Bradshaw will be highlighted for the competition in the game, but he won’t be on the grand TV stage for college football’s individual night. He deserves some votes similar to Reynolds in 2015, but the Heisman spotlight apparently belongs to Oklahoma badboy quarterback Baker Mayfield. He is the presumed Heisman winner, although the Heisman mission statement includes that award is based on the winner that "exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity." Bradshaw had a game to play, but he deserved of presence of some sort on that stage with the two other finalists of high character, Jackson and Stanford running back Bryce Love.
Last summer there was video of Mayfield running from the police before they tackled him. He was arrested for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and fleeing.
Last summer there probably was Army video somewhere of Bradshaw, too. He was jumping out of a plane or wading through a swamp as part of his summer military training. West Point cadets typically spend the summer before their senior year training at places like Fort Bragg in North Carolina or Fort Benning in Georgia.
It’s a difference worth remembering. This is a time in American sports and politics when character matters less and less. Mayfield, who is celebrated excessively, appears set to join past badboy Heisman winners such as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (2012) and Florida State’s Jameis Winston (2013). Meanwhile, Bradshaw flies under the radar.
About a month ago ESPN’s cameras caught Mayfield taunting Kansas’ players and fans by grabbing his crotch.
About a month ago Bradshaw sat down for lunch to pay his respect to an Army legend. Stichweh, who lives Connecticut only about a 60-minute drive from West Point, humbly accepted the invitation.
“West Point has been a life-changer for him, but it’s a two-way street,” Stichweh said. “I’ve had the privilege to get to know Superintendent Caslen. His mission is to develop leaders of character. Bob Caslen has dedicates his life each day to doing everything possible to accomplish that mission.
“Now let’s bring that back to Ahmad. He has responded to that kind of training at West Point to become a leader of character. Right now it’s being displayed on the football field, but in the not too distant future he’ll be providing that leadership for his troops and whatever else he does in life.”
Stichweh gained another sense of Bradshaw’s character when they had lunch. It was on a Thursday afternoon “Spirit Day” at the West Point Club near the parade fields. The Cadets were in attendance along with the players, coaches, cheerleaders and band.
“What impressed me was Ahmad’s great popularity on the campus beyond his exploits on the field,” he said. “What I observed was not just the teammates but the reactions to Ahmad of all the Cadets in attendance. There is respect for him as a leader in that class. He’s an impressive young man. He’s gone above and beyond being a football player.”
Follow Tom Shanahan’s stories on Twitter @shanny4055.