2017-12-08 11:28:03
On College Football: Leading Army’s Running Game, Two Years After He Nearly Walked Away

11:28, December 08 296 0

WEST POINT, N.Y. — Like most Army football players this time of year, Ahmad Bradshaw looks like someone has let the air out of him. He’s at least 10 pounds lighter than the 205 he carried into the season. On Saturdays, Bradshaw, the Black Knights quarterback, triggers an option offense, an assignment that means he absorbs one punishing hit after another.

It’s the other six days a week, however, that really take a toll on him. The 6:30 a.m. formations. The 20 hours of classes, and the work for them that keeps Bradshaw at the books long after “Taps” echoes along the banks of the Hudson River at 11:30 p.m. every night. There is also the year-round military training that beats him up: the bivouacking at nearby Camp Buckner, the weapons training, the historic campaigns and state-of-the-art military strategies crammed into the heads of Bradshaw and his fellow cadets.

No, football hasn’t shrunk Bradshaw. He has found that to be the easiest, most fun and least important thing he has done during his 41 months as an officer in training.

To be clear, Bradshaw has done football well. He has run for an Army record 1,472 yards this season — a total that ranks 10th in the nation — and is 126 shy of breaking the single-season mark by a service academy player set by Navy’s Napoleon McCallum in 1983. His team is 8-3 and leads the nation in rushing with an average of 368.1 yards a game. When Army faces Navy (6-5) for the 118th time on Saturday in Philadelphia, Bradshaw and the Black Knights can return the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy here for the first time in 21 years.

But what is Bradshaw most proud of as his college football career nears an end?

“I’m proud I’m still here,” he said. “I’m proud that I was able to grow and adapt to West Point. I’m a different person than when I first got here.”

At Army, every cadet had to decide, after his or her sophomore year, if they will remain at West Point. It is a momentous decision, one that can have profound consequences on a cadet’s life and career, and two years ago, faced with it, Bradshaw almost walked away. In fact, he did not show for the commitment ceremony where cadets acknowledge that they want to be Army officers and will honor their five-year postgraduate obligation to serve.

Bradshaw had learned enough of the little things to keep afloat in the corps of cadets — tricks like sleeping atop a pre-made, held-in-place-by-bungee-cord bed in order to pass Saturday morning inspections — but he was drowning in the more important things, such as time management and respecting authority.

“When you take a kid off the streets of Chicago and bring him here, it’s like dropping him on Mars,” said Gaylord Greene, a former Army football player and retired lieutenant colonel who is now a senior associate athletic director at the academy.

Bradshaw had come farther than most. The son of a single mother, he had responded to the news that he had an offer to play football at Army by asking his high school coach, “What’s West Point?”

Greene, a mentor once Bradshaw arrived at West Point, knew he was struggling. But he also saw a poised and confident officer in the making. Army Coach Jeff Monken knew Bradshaw was wavering, too, but he saw a resilient quarterback who might win an awful lot of games for him. Yet neither felt they could strong arm Bradshaw into staying.

“To lead, to be in a position of leadership and influence, you have to put in the time,” Monken said. “You got to do what other people aren’t willing to do. You choose that.”

Both Greene and Monken knew Bradshaw had always owned up to his mistakes. He took his “hours,” the forced back-and-forth marching meted out as punishment and performed over weekends. Did he surpass more than 100 hours?

“I’m not going to say,” Bradshaw replied.

There was no epiphany for Bradshaw at Army, no magic path suddenly appearing that was easy to follow. He bought a white board where he wrote his school assignments each day, and chose a mission that he wanted to accomplish. He stopped questioning the rules he had to follow and instead did his best to follow them.

He asked himself, “Am I doing enough to prepare myself?”

Bradshaw has two more games to answer that on the football field, against Navy on Saturday and then against San Diego State (10-2) in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 23. Whether or not he beats the Midshipmen for a second consecutive year or breaks McCallum’s record will be duly noted in the rivalry’s history, and then fade into football memories.

But Bradshaw’s evolution as an officer continues. He has not shrunk from it. If anything, he has lifted his own expectations.

“West Point challenges you physically, mentally, emotionally,” he said. “If it’s too easy for you here, then somebody is not doing their job. One day I’m going to be in charge and the one giving orders. I’m confident I’m going to leave here knowing that West Point has prepared to me the best leader than I can be.”

When that day arrives, there will be more than a football team counting on him.