Wichitan Marquis Bradley is a whale of a football player who dreams of playing in the NFL, a guy who works harder than almost anyone to make that dream come true, a defensive player of the year at Division III Grinnell College in Iowa, a hard- hitting linebacker with the nickname "Marquis the Beast."
But his story is more than football.
It's hopeful and uplifting. It involves a dynamic mother and male role models who couldn't resist Bradley's illuminating smile or his mother's strong work ethic and gave both the support they needed.
His mother, Jodee, says Marquis would have made it without anyone's help. He's that kind of person. He has a big heart and a warm spirit.
But to talk to Bradley — you have to keep reminding yourself he's only 22 — is to talk to a young man who, inspired by others, believes he can accomplish anything. There's not an ounce of ego in his assertiveness, either. Buoyed by goodwill and his own unflagging determination, Bradley is destined for something big.
His life started modestly; Bradley is the third of Jodee's three sons. He also has a younger sister, a stepsister and a stepbrother.
Jodee always had to work hard to provide for her family, but hard work is in her nature.
Bradley's father, Michael Bruner, came from a rough background and didn't have much to do with his sons. He was in and out of jail, Bradley said.
"People ask me if I'm mad at my father — am I upset?'' Bradley said. "I'm not, not at all, even though he's never been there for us. I am who I am today because he's not there. My whole mentality was that I wanted to be everything my father was not.''
While Bradley was in school, his mother worked as a waitress at a small diner at 17th and Mosley, taking extra shifts to support her family. Realizing she wanted to do more, she started taking training classes in 1997 at a new Cessna Aircraft facility on 21st Street for which she received no pay and no promise of a job.
"I actually took a cut in pay,'' Jodee Bradley said. "But I had to try and better myself.''
Eventually, against long odds, she was hired at Cessna to work in a plant. She even caught the eye of Russ Meyer, Cessna's chairman and CEO from 1975 to 2003, who noticed Jodee in training videos produced by the company. He admired her hard work so much that when President Bill Clinton visited the training facility in 1997 to honor Cessna's program that moved welfare recipients into the workforce, she was one of two graduates asked to introduce him and present him with a model of a Citation business jet.
Jodee was just the kind of employee the training center was designed to produce, and Meyer took a keen interest in her and her children.
Jodee Bradley's voicemail message includes the following: "Remember, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.''
It is obvious from whom Marquis gets his confidence and desire.
"He was a really good child,'' Jodee said. "I really didn't have any problems with him at all.''
But she wanted Marquis to be around men, good men with good moral fiber. She enrolled him in the Boys and Girls Club and in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. She found mentors for him; and in some cases mentors found Marquis. They saw in him what everybody saw — the promise of bigger things.
One mentor, William Polite, took Bradley with him to Milwaukee when he moved there before Bradley's first year of high school. He tried home schooling, but time was an issue. Eventually, Marquis enrolled in a private school in Milwaukee, but struggled to adapt. He fell way behind in his studies.
Eventually, he moved back to Wichita with the hope of enrolling at Independent, which has high academic standards. Encouraged by Meyer and others, Bradley fought hard to qualify, and eventually did. Private school was a big challenge, but he survived and became a standout wrestler and football player with the same smile that had always gotten him through hard times.
After Independent, Meyer encouraged Bradley to take a hard look at Grinnell College, just off of I-80 between Des Moines and Meyer's hometown of Davenport.
The early days at Grinnell were tough. Bradley, homesick, called his mother every day. He was in Iowa, of all places. But he was there with a foundation, thanks to Polite and Meyer and Chris Ashbrook, the former head of the upper school at Independent; and Alex Robinson, a former police officer and childhood mentor; and countless others who saw something special in Bradley.
"Everyone who is close to Marquis feels that connection,'' said Robinson, who first met him at the Boys and Girls Club when Bradley was 8 or 9. "That personality, that character, the way he carries himself is a win for anyone.''
Football is important to Bradley. He loves to play and wants to play for a long time.
Tell him he can't, that the odds are too stacked against him, and he'll politely disagree. He knows the value of hard work. He knows what he's doing to prepare himself for an opportunity to play in the NFL and he doubts there are many others doing the same.
He's almost 6-foot and weighs 218 pounds. He made 210 tackles for Grinnell the past two seasons while playing linebacker and finished his career with seven interceptions. He says he has 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash and can do 16 bench press repetitions of 225 pounds.
Bradley, his conference's defensive player of the year, will play in the Bowl of the Stars in Toluca, Mexico, next Saturday, a game in which a group of Division III all-stars plays an all-star team from Mexico.
"Since he's been here, no one has worked harder on the field and no one has been a better leader than Marquis,'' Grinnell coach Jeff Pedersen said. "I think he's talented enough to play at the next level, somewhere. There are enough different leagues out there that he could definitely fit in somewhere. I think when he goes to camps and combines and those kinds of things, people will definitely be excited to see him.''
At Grinnell, Bradley is known as "The Beast" because of the way he throws himself around. He goes for the big hit, sometimes to a fault. But when he zeroes in, the opponent is in for a jolt.
Bradley spent last summer running stairs and lifting weights in Wichita with Byron Sanders, Barry's brother and a former standout running back himself.
They met at Cessna Stadium while the stars were still shining, so early that the gates to the track hadn't been unlocked.
"We would have to jump the fence,'' Bradley said. "Wichita was so quiet and you just knew you were getting a little better and that nobody else was doing this right now.''
You think the NFL is a pipe dream for a Division III player? Yeah, probably for most.
"But I feel like I can do it,'' Bradley said. "I have the size, the work ethic and the dedication. I also have the heart to play. You can measure a lot of things in a player, but you can't measure someone's heart. You never know how badly someone wants something and what they're willing to do to get to where they want to go.''
Interviewing Bradley was a breeze. Ask a few questions, sit back and listen. He takes care of the rest.
An impressive guy.
He didn't miss a thing as a kid. He saw how his mother struggled to make a home for her family. He knew his father was never around. He saw it all and he decided then he was going to make something of himself.
"My mother,'' he said, "has been the most incredible person in the world. I can't describe how much she has done for me and motivated me to do great things in my life. You never give up on your goals and dreams and stay focused on what's important in life.''
When Jodee was laid off at Cessna in 2009 — a crushing blow — Bradley watched to see if she would crack. Instead, her resolve became stronger. Instead of wallowing, she opened up a small catering business that continues to grow.
While listening to Bradley, it occurred to me how many other kids in Wichita, and everywhere, never realize their potential because they're never given the chance.
That's not lost on Bradley, either. He's made a lifetime commitment to mentor kids in the same way he was mentored. He, more than anyone, knows how much ability is being wasted only because too often no one is there to pick a kid off the floor.
Bradley has backup plans in case football doesn't work out. He's prepared for whatever life brings.
He is interested in architecture, but I think his biggest contribution will come from outside what he does for a living. He's clued in in a way most people his age aren't, driven by a driven mother.
"My mom is my hero,'' Bradley said. "There were times when she didn't know how she was going to get the money and the bills would be coming but she never frowned. She never got upset. She would keep that smile on her face like everything was OK. That's another reason I smile as much as I do.''
Bradley gained his faith from his mother. There's no barrier too high.
"She always told me everything happened because of God,'' Bradley said. "She put her trust in Him with her heart. And every single time, she would make her way.
"Well, I want to call my mom one day and tell her she doesn't have to worry anymore about where the next meal might be coming from, about not having to go to work the next day. I don't want her to have to worry about anything.''