Neither words nor tears flow openly for UL's Bradley
At first, you might think he’s simply shy.
But once you know why, you understand there is nothing simple about it whatsoever.
Ja’Marcus Bradley hasn’t had it easy, and that’s what drives the junior receiver for a UL football team that visits No. 16 Mississippi State on Saturday night in Starkville.
Back home in Ackerman, Mississippi — 25 miles or so down the road from Starkville — is where it began for Bradley, who endured tragedy no one should have to but survived on the supportive love of those closest to him.
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Family, that is, who remember Bradley as the kid who hardly said a peep.
“He always has been quiet,” said Dominique Bradley, an older cousin raised in the same home since Ja’Marcus’ arrival. “I mean, even when he was a baby-baby.
“You would have to go looking for him — because he was just that quiet. … He would need his Pamper changed or something, he wouldn’t say nothing. He’d just sit there. … Even since he was a newborn baby, he never cried much or nothing.”
There was a time, though, when the tears flowed for most in the family — and it’s then that Bradley grew even more introverted than he already was.
Bradley — raised for the longest while by a great-grandmother who was a rock, Ora Lee Bradley — remembers the day like he’s still in it.
“My mom passed when I was in fourth grade,” he said.
Pamela Bradley was 33 when she died giving birth via C-section to Ja’Marcus’ younger brother, Cody.
“When she went to the hospital,” the Cajuns receiver said, “she said goodbye, (that) she loved us, before we went to school.
“And then, a couple hours later, my uncle and my grandma came to pick us up, and right then I knew something was wrong.
“Then we got to the hospital,” added Bradley, who considered his great-grandmother his grandmother. “My momma’s brother, he’s the toughest guy I know, he went to the back, and when he came back crying, I knew my momma was gone.”
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'HE ALWAYS HAD A FOOTBALL'
Football is king in Ackerman, a town of fewer than 2,000 located half-an-hour down Mississippi 12 southwest of Starkville, off an edge of the Tombigbee National Forest.
Bradley played baseball. He played basketball. He ran track.
“Sports is just his thing,” cousin Dominique said. “That’s what he lives for.”
Football, though, mattered most.
“Every time you (saw) him as a kid, he always had a football — no matter whether it was a foam football, or (a real one),” Dominique Bradley said. “If it was even shaped like a football, he’d walk around with it.”
Ultimately, it was the sport that helped Ja’Marcus Bradley — who had a game-high six catches for a game-high 70 yards and two touchdowns in the 1-0 Ragin’ Cajuns’ season-opening 49-17 win over Grambling — the work ethic for which he’s best known at UL.
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“You don’t have to get on him and tell him to work out or whatever," Dominique Bradley said.
“He’ll just do it on his own, like it just comes natural to him. He’s been like that ever since he was a kid, playing pee-wee ball.”
There is much more to Bradley’s workaholic ways, though, than pigskin and laces.
It’s really rooted with how he was raised, and by whom, in Ackerman, where pennies are stretched and dollars are well-earned.
“He knows what he’s got to do in life to keep from going back to what we come from,” said Dominique Bradley, who at 30 is about nine years older than Ja’Marcus. “Because we were always working, in the garden, trying to make ends meet.
“You know, we just couldn’t go to the grocery store … every day. So he knows what he’s got to do to keep from going back there.
“And we didn’t have, you know, the lifestyle like other kids did — go out and play with other kids, and all that,” Dominique added. “I mean, we had our little, small portion of it. But most of the time we (were) working — in the garden, cutting grass, trying to do stuff to make ends meet.”
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'THE REAL DEAL'
Over a four-year high school career, two at Ackerman High prior to consolidation and two at Choctaw County High, Bradley rushed for 4,636 yards and 76 touchdowns.
Playing quarterback, he also passed for 1,437 yards and nine TDs as senior.
When he arrived at UL in 2015, tackling the new position of receiver, Bradley quickly earned a reputation.
“Just from the standpoint of him being a quarterback in high school, and kind of not really knowing how to be a receiver at first, and just seeing him — it shows the patience he has, and the work ethic he has, to just be diligent and persevere,” UL senior receiver Keenan Barnes said.
“He’s the real deal when it comes to that. It’s just a testament to him, and how he works for it.”
But it wasn’t just his willingness to do things the right way, and toil for all that came his way, for which Bradley became synonymous.
He also was tabbed as the quiet one.
The really, really quiet one.
The one who tries his darndest to answer questions from behind a podium, but whose polite yet abbreviated answers make it apparent the process pains him.
“You can tell that football means everything to him,” said assistant coach Michael Desormeaux, who coached Bradley and other Cajun receivers in 2016 under ex-head coach Mark Hudspeth and now coaches tight ends under new head coach Billy Napier.
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“Now, he won’t tell you that. It’s hard to get it out of him. You guys (reporters) have talked to him — you know, he’s pretty shut down a little bit.
“But his approach, and everything that he does, to me, is a direct reflection of that: It matters to him,” added Desormeaux, a former Cajuns QB. “Football is why he’s over here getting an education, and football is gonna be his future. And he works like it every day.”
Like Hudspeth, Napier noticed that right away.
“Coach Napier talked to the guys about it the other day: Football has got to be (a) top-three priority in your life if you really want to be great at it, and Ja’Marcus is that example,” Desormeaux said back in the spring.
“Obviously he’s got a bunch of ability. But his work ethic — everyone on this team will tell you that his work ethic is second to none.”
That much has been obvious since the starting wideout began at UL.
But the rest hasn’t always been so apparent.
“I think at first he was more reserved … but once he found teammates that really care for him and coaches that really understood him, I think he opened up,” Barnes said. “We broke into that shell. You know, me and him are like brothers.”
Like brothers — real, or imagined — who know when to leave certain things mostly unsaid.
“He takes it with a grain of salt,” Barnes said of the circumstances overcome by Bradley, who had a combined 60 catches for 845 yards and three TDs in his first two seasons as a Cajun.
“We really don’t speak much on it, but you can kind of tell — the way he works, the way he’s focused — that he put that on his shoulder.”
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'I JUST LISTEN'
At family gatherings, Bradley said, relatives “do most of the talking.”
That’s partly because they know he won’t.
“I just listen,” Bradley said.
“So just to know they’re there for me, it’s very important for me.
Pamela Bradley was “quiet” as well, son Ja’Marcus said.
And after she died?
“If (Ja’Marcus) got to talk, it would take a lot out of him. I mean, he’s just always been quiet like that,” cousin Dominique said. “But as he started going through things, it got a little worse.”
At Pamela’s goodbye, Ja’Marcus Bradley said, “I just tried to be strong” for sisters Bre and Penny.
“I handled it real well,” he said, “and everybody told me that I was so strong in the way I handled it.
“I don’t know how I did it. I knew I had to do it for my sisters, because I knew it was gonna be hard for them and I didn’t want them to look at me and see me down and not know what to do.”
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But it was Ora Lee Bradley — the great-grandmother Bradley calls his grandmother — who really kept it together.
Like work in the family garden, that was no easy chore.
“She just stayed calm,” Ja’Marcus Bradley said, “and just showed how strong she was.
“On the funeral day, everybody was crying and stuff. And I looked at my grandma, and said, ‘Grandma, why are you not crying?’ And she said, ‘No, matter how hard it is, don’t let the people on the outside see how panicked you are. Wait until you get behind closed doors, and then cry alone.’
“That kind of stuck with me, so I’m not too quick to show my emotions and stuff. And I’m really closed off,” Bradley added. “So people say, ‘Why are you not talking? Why don’t you interact with people?’ ”
With Ja’Marcus’ mother gone, Ora Lee picked up the pieces.
Ja’Marcus, Dominque and other family members had been living under her roof as it was, but now the rock was even more of a compass for Pamela’s oldest son and her other children.
“We (were) already staying with my grandma,” Ja’Marcus said, “so she just kept us all together for a little bit.
“Then, after a while, she got old and we had to split up. My sister went with her grandma on her daddy’s side, and my little sister stayed with my grandma, and I stayed with my uncle (actually great-uncle), because she didn’t want me to leave — she wanted me to stay in school and play football.”
Younger brother Cody went to the sister of Ja’Marcus’ mother.
With his own father not in the picture, Jerry Bradley — Dominque’s father, Pamela’s uncle, Ora Lee’s son — became Ja’Marcus’ legal guardians along with his wife, Lianell.
“They looked after me real well,” said Bradley, who considers Domique and Dominque’s actual brother, Xavier, to be “brothers” of his own.
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Ja’Marcus was in the seventh grade at the time.
“She (Ora Lee) just couldn’t keep up with stuff she needed to keep up with and do things on her own,” Dominque said, “so they moved her (elsewhere in Mississippi) with my auntie.”
Staying in Ackerman allowed Ja’Marcus not only to stay in the football program that would filter him into Ackerman High, but also much-needed stability.
“She (Ora Lee) just felt like I was at home, and I knew everything (about the school), and how well I was playing,” Ja’Marcus said, “and she didn’t want me to leave and start over again.
“It was very important, to know everybody in that town — I could count on them, and if I needed something they were always there and they were behind me 100 percent.”
'I CAN HANDLE ANYTHING'
When Ja’Marcus was a junior in high school, great-grandma Ora Lee passed, too.
Another blow to the gut.
“It was really hard to handle that one,” Bradley said, “because the two most-important women I cared about (were) gone.
“But I had to be strong again, because I knew my little sisters (were) looking at me once again. So I just had to do the same thing I did when my mom passed away.”
As Dominique sees it, though, Ora Lee Bradley really hasn’t left at all.
He can tell that whenever sees Bradley play, which is what relatives from parts near and far — Ackerman, Jackson, Memphis — will do when the Cajuns visit the Bulldogs on Saturday.
He can tell that, perhaps it would be worded better, whenever he sees Ja’Marcus work.
“Even though Grandma’s not here,” Dominique said, “she’s still watching — and he knows what he’s got to do to make her happy.
“To be honest, I think it made him a whole lot stronger because he knows how Grandma raised us and how his momma raised him also.”
Ja’Marcus does, without a doubt.
Like so much, though, he conveys it in his own quiet sort of way.
“I think my past made me a stronger person,” Bradley said, “so I feel like I can handle anything that’s put in front of me.”
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