GREAT BEND — When Oliver Bradwell was locked away from the world, his mind would go to dark places. These places held more sway than you could possibly imagine.
You are a statistic. You are going to the penitentiary. You are just like your father.
He did not want to be a statistic. He did not want to go to the penitentiary. He did not want to be like his father. But the dark places had power over him.
He was just gonna cut down anybody that got in his way. He doesn't care that you're his son. Why do you think you're in here right now? Your father doesn't love you, straight up.
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When people told him he was a loser, he had to absorb it and move on. When they told him where he'd end up — dead or in a cage — he had to pretend like they were made of glass, so he could look right through them. Eventually, he stopped trusting. This was about survival, pure and simple.
They think you're a Blood. Or a Crip. Or a Gangster Disciple. You can't change their minds, no matter what you do. You're in the system now, and that's that.
He never wanted to be a hustler, like his father was. He wanted to play soccer. He wanted to run. He wanted to show people how fast he was.
If I get the ball on the wing, they're not gonna catch me. If I line up for a race, they're not gonna beat me. I ain't going to no penitentiary.
And he is so fast.
* * *
By the time he was in middle school, there were two truths about Oliver: He was an exceptionally gifted athlete, and he had a penchant for finding trouble.
One of four children born to Oliver Bradwell Sr. and Michelle Mitchell — Mitchell, a certified nursing assistant, added three more children from a later relationship — it would have been easy to become lost in the shuffle.
By the time he was 10, he'd already established himself as a junior track champion and star soccer player, running on the same circuit as future football stars Joseph Randle, Bryce Brown, Deveon Dinwiddie and Morgan Burns.
Around that time, he also made his first trip to the Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility. It wouldn't be his last.
Bradwell said he returned at least three more times, the last in the winter of this year. And over the course of that time, when things went wrong at one school he could just be sent to another. That's just how the system works.
Freshman year at Southeast. Sophomore year at East. Junior year at Junction City and then back to East.
Then, finally, some stability.
As a junior, he won the 100-meter dash at the City League meet with a time of 10.6 seconds and finished third in the 100 and the 200 at the Class 6A meet.
And, most importantly, he stayed at East.
"At some point, you've just got to wake yourself up," Bradwell said. "Anything about you is on you, it's your responsibility."
Last fall, Bradwell was the star for the East soccer team, scoring 15 goals and eight assists on his way to All-Metro honors. He hadn't played soccer since the eighth grade.
"It was a tremendous honor just to be even able to coach him for that one season," East coach Jim Griffis said. "Since he's primarily left-footed, a good defender that knew that already could push him out of space ... but still, odds are, eventually he was going to beat you."
Through the winter, he continued to train for track and participated in several indoor meets, posting top-20 times in the nation in the 200 and the 60 at the Jayhawk Classic and the Missouri All-Comers meet.
Stardom, it seemed, was right around the corner. But so was more trouble.
Bradwell said he was kicked out of East in early March following a fight with gang members after school, a continuation of a spat that began during the day when Bradwell believed one of the gang had disrespected a female cousin.
"It was some guy that popped off, and when I went out to catch the bus, him and a few of his friends started surrounding me," Bradwell said. "He wrapped his (bandana) around his hand and we fought. JDF detained me and I was in for one-and-a-half weeks. When I got out, I was expelled."
Bradwell insists he was never in a gang.
"I was friends with gang members, but I was never in a gang myself," Bradwell said. "And that was what people thought, that I was. But there's no way I could go talk to a bunch of Bloods, then go hang out with some Crips and then talk to GDs (Gangster Disciples) if I was in a gang. That's not how it works."
The expulsion came not only thanks to the fight, which may have been enough, but also because Bradwell said he had 209 unexcused absences — he blamed a car wreck earlier in the year where he missed more than two weeks of school — and that he was failing 6 of 7 classes.
"The reason Oliver couldn't stay at East was discipline problems, he wasn't paying attention to his school like he should have and, in all honesty, he was hanging out with a lot of questionable characters," East athletic director Kevin Hartley said. "Whether he was in a gang or not I can't say, but if you're hanging out with gang members, then that perception is going to be there. In most cases, you are who you hang out with.
"I talked to Oliver several times about getting his act together, and we would have loved for him to stay. I really hope he figures things out and I wish him the best."
Bradwell was sent to Metro-Midtown Alternative High School. There would be no high school track, no state championship glory.
And no high school diploma after a falling out with the principal at Metro-Midtown.
"I don't like disrespectful people," Bradwell said. "I'll shut down, and when I do that, nobody's getting in. I don't want anybody to bother me."
Bradwell continued to run, however, winning open/college races at Friends University in the 100 and 200 and placing fourth in both events in the college division at the Kansas Relays.
And in June, his masterpiece.
At the Great Southwest Classic in Albuquerque, he ran the 100 in 10.34, the fastest fully-automated time for any high school sprinter in the nation. His 200 time of 20.99 was among the fastest.
The best high school sprinter in the country in 2010 neither ran for his high school nor graduated from it.
* * *
In late July, USA Today put Bradwell on its All-America team, crediting him as a senior at East. Two days later, Bradwell anchored the U.S. 400 relay team at the World Junior Championships in Moncton, New Brunswick.
The other three legs of the relay were run by sprinters who'd just completed their freshman years of college; Charles Silmon at Texas Christian, Eric Harris at Georgia and Michael Granger at Mississippi.
The Americans won gold, finishing in 38.93 seconds, the third-fastest time in the history of the meet. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound phenom from Wichita made his mark on the international scene.
Bradwell, however, wouldn't be joining his compatriots on their way back to their big-time programs.
He was headed to Great Bend and Barton Community College.
"You just have to do what you have to do, to get away from the system, to get away from whatever's holding you back," Bradwell said. "In this case, that's Wichita."
Since 1999, Barton has won five indoor NJCAA national titles and three outdoor. Future Olympian Tyson Gay ran there in 2002.
More importantly, Bradwell can go to school there — and compete —without his high school diploma. It's the last year that the Jayhawk Conference will have a rule in place letting athletes compete without a GED or high school diploma as long as they can complete 12 hours of class work before the season starts.
Barton runs in its first indoor meet Jan. 14-15 at Nebraska's Holiday Inn Invitational. Bradwell will likely run the 60 and the 200 during indoor season, and the 100 and 200 in outdoor. He'll likely also run relays in both seasons. In order to move on to a Division I school, he'll have to graduate with a two-year Associate's Degree. He says he wants to go to Baylor, having bonded with Bears assistant coach Michael Ford last summer.
"I just like (Ford) a lot," Bradwell said. "He's so laid-back, which is just my style. And he's easy to talk to."
More importantly, at his last grade check, Bradwell had two Bs and two Cs in 15 hours of classwork, Barton sprints coach Nigel Bigbee said. Next fall, Bradwell says, he wants to try to play soccer.
"He's done everything we've asked of him since he's been here," Bigbee said. "We think he's a good kid and I'm definitely not one who is going to deal with character issues. I think he could be one of the best that's ever come to run here, and that's saying a lot.
"As far as the trust issues, well, we're still working on that."
* * *
Oliver Warren Bradwell is scheduled to be released from the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth on June 8, 2015, the end of a 100-month sentence for trafficking in crack cocaine. Bradwell pled guilty in December 2008 to one count of possession with intent to distribute after being arrested in Salina in March 2008, along with three others. When investigators served a search warrant at Oliver Sr.' s apartment, they found 39.56 grams of cocaine base and 3.71 grams of cocaine powder.
And when he gets out of prison, his son will not be waiting for him.
If all goes well, by 2015 Oliver Jr. will be training for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. London in 2012 is a longshot.
"I think he'll definitely run in the Olympic trials in two years," Bigbee said. "And I feel very confident about 2016."
Not as confident as Bradwell.
"I'd have to really train hard to run in 2012," he said. "But I'll be there in 2016. Just got to stick to the training."
But a training regimen is not the reason why he won't be around for his father.
"I don't care to talk about him, but just this one time, sure," he said. "There's no relationship. I hate everything about him. Anybody that gets in his way, he cuts them down. He's done it to me, he's done it to my sisters, he's done it to my mom.
"That man put us through a lot. I believe in God, and I believe that everything I've been through — good and bad — is going to help me be successful. But as far as my father goes, we're done."
Bradwell's relationship with his mother, though rocky at times, has survived. Today, he says they're on good terms.
Mitchell initially told The Eagle she'd be interviewed for this story, but then declined.
"I love her and she loves me, that's where we're at right now," Bradwell said. "As a single mom, with seven kids, she did what she had to do. I don't blame her for anything."
* * *
It's a beautiful fall day in Great Bend, and Bradwell is walking out to the soccer fields with Bigbee and his girlfriend, Arian Tipton, a fellow Wichitan who runs track at Barton.
His right hamstring is tight today, and he is doing a short warmup and asking questions about the women's soccer team.
"What's that drama all about with them?" Bradwell wants to know.
They've got three girls from Paraguay who left the team to go home and play for their national team before the Region VI playoffs.
"Oh, man," Oliver says. "All starters? They're done."
He's asked about his future, aside from track and the Olympics.
"I might want to play soccer, you know, professionally," Bradwell says. "Maybe play football. Make a million dollars that way. "
After his workout, he dribbles a soccer ball back up the path toward the campus, holding hands with Tipton. Bigbee follows.
Before leaving, he has one last thought. A question, really.
"There's lots of things you can do that could be considered successful, right?" he asks. "Like, for me, it doesn't necessarily have to be not becoming a statistic or not going to the penitentiary. It could be getting my education, getting a degree, having a wife and kids and a nice house, right? I mean, who can say what success really is?"
He is outrunning his past. Anything is possible.