GREEN BAY – Carl Bradford didn’t have to look far for motivation.
Throughout his final season at Arizona State, a photograph of his father, Roy, hung in his locker. The man he called his “role model” was never far from his mind, and always in his heart.
“I know his dad is his inspiration,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said on Saturday afternoon, after the Green Bay Packers selected Bradford in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. “He will be a great Green Bay Packer. You’re getting a guy who’s got a tremendous heart. He’ll lay it on the line and do things right.”
Just like his father taught him.
Last March over his spring break, Bradford headed to Jonesboro, La., with his family to see where Roy grew up. Bradford had never been to Louisiana, and was going to visit relatives whom he had never met.
Bradford recounted in his “NFL draft diary” for USA Today, that specifically, Roy wanted to take his children to meet their half-brother, Danny. At the local bingo hall where Danny worked, the family spent time talking and playing slot machines.
Then, Roy suddenly fell to the floor. His family tried to resuscitate him, but it was too late. Although an autopsy was never performed, doctors suspected Roy’s March 12 death was the result of a heart attack. He was 70 years old.
“It was the most difficult thing I've ever been through in my life,” Bradford said Saturday. “To have your father pass away in front of you – in your arms – it's something I'll never forget. It's always a memory that's there in my head when I close my eyes at night.
“From now on, I play for him, I play through him. It just gives me strength and courage and motivation. When it first happened, I was lost, but I found the Lord Jesus Christ. He got me through. To know that my father is in heaven, super proud of me, keeps a warm place in my heart.”
That’s where his father was when Bradford’s phone rang midway Saturday, with the Packers informing him he was the team’s fourth-round pick (No. 121 overall).
“I was speaking to the Packers and soon after that, I just walked away by myself and broke down in tears thinking about him and how proud he is of me,” said Bradford, who has on his Twitter account (@CarlBradford52) a photo of his dad, the words “I am my father” in his Twitter name and “RIP Dad” in his bio.
“I know he's up in heaven, smiling down and so proud of his young son,” Bradford said. “I played for him, I played through him and it's a blessing through the grace of God that I got this opportunity. I always prayed he'd be here with me, but he's here in my heart and spirit and he always will still be my right hand man. He's amazing.”
For Graham, who despite being the head coach still coaches the outside linebackers, it was especially difficult to see one of his favorite players cope with such a loss. Graham and other Sun Devils staff members flew to Louisiana for the funeral to be with a player he said was “like family” to him.
“There’s not much you can say in those situations, but I know he appreciated us being there,” Graham said. “It was hard. He went through a hard time. His brothers and sisters are really close; he’s got a really close family.
“All we did was just be there for him.”
And then Bradford got back on the football field. Statistically, Bradford’s redshirt junior season was not as productive as the year before. After registering 81 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks as a sophomore, those numbers dipped to 61 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Bradford said his father’s death affected his play because he wasn’t always “mentally there” on the football field.
“I would think about (my dad),” Bradford admitted to FoxSports.com in February. “Once you lose your father that way, there’s no telling what could happen. Your mind just goes.”
As Arizona State’s “Devil-backer” – a hybrid defensive end and linebacker role – Bradford went from starting only one game in 2011 to being a known commodity to Pac-12 opponents, who game-planned more for him last season and sent more double-teams his way. Still, his 19 tackles for loss were fourth-most in the conference, and he tied for the team lead in sacks, finishing eighth in the league.
“The Packers are getting a guy that has just scratched the surface,” Graham said. “He hadn’t played before I came to Arizona State. He just sat the bench. So he only played two years. He’s just an unbelievable worker in the weight room. He’s got a great heart, great passion for the game.
“Man, he is made to play the game of football.”
Both Bradford and the Packers’ staff said he will start his NFL career at outside linebacker, but Bradford said his first priority is to focus on learning and understanding the Packers’ defensive scheme. But Packers director of college scouting Brian Gutekunst believes Bradford has the traits to be productive in that role.
“Carl’s a real good athlete, really smooth, fluid athlete, he’s got a lot of twitch,” Gutekunst said of the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Bradford. “He’s obviously had a lot of success as a pass rusher. He’s got relentless play. Inside, outside – I think that will be determined. But we think he has the ability to do both.”
Graham has seen that ability firsthand for the past two years.
“He is a pass rusher,” Graham emphasized. “There were times I dropped him into coverage, but I was asking myself why. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that dude was rushing the passer. He’s just very versatile, very athletic, very explosive. And I think the think they’ll pleasantly surprised with how smart of a football player he is.”
But Graham believes Bradford’s most important quality is his heart. Although Packers’ general manager Ted Thompson said he hadn’t talked to Bradford about his father, he does consider what a player has been through before reaching the NFL Draft when making selections.
“We try to look at a young man’s path on how they got to where they got,” Thompson said. “I think I do have a personal bias for those people that have the hardest track, and I think it’s very impressive on the part of these young men to get to where they get considering where they started and how they had to go through life.
“He is a look-you-in-the-eye, grown man. And we’re looking forward to adding him to our team.”
Sarah Barshop covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.