Five years later, Bradley is going to get that chance as the 6-foot, 195-pound running back from Bellevue (Neb.) West signed with the Huskers on national signing day.
Nebraska is “getting a great kid, a happy smiler, a kid that really, really loves playing football. He’s going to do what he’s told to do, and he’s going to do it as hard as he can,” Bellevue West head coach Michael Huffman said.
The road was not easy, and Bradley’s biggest obstacle came not on the football field but in the classroom. However, he persevered and will fulfill his dream of wearing the Scarlet and Cream come the fall.
Bradley arrived at Bellevue West in 2013, the same year the school hired Huffman to fill the coaching position. The following season, Bradley won the starting running back job, and the coaches knew they had a special player.
“I was excited,” Bellevue West running backs coach Adam Heuertz said about his first impression of Bradley. “He was raw for sure, but he was a good athlete. I knew he had been a quarterback . . . In terms of the style of running back we like to incorporate into our spread offense, he was definitely potentially an awesome fit for that.”
Bradley put together a respectable sophomore season, carrying the ball 103 times for 671 yards and 11 touchdowns for a pass-heavy team. The Thunderbirds went 6-4 in 2013 and 2014.
The following year proved to be a breakout season for both Bellevue West and Bradley. In year three under Huffman and with a senior quarterback to go with a dynamic group of receivers, the Thunderbirds blossomed into one of the best offensive teams in the state and ran the table all the way until the semifinals.
It was during that season that Bradley – who carried the ball 195 times for 1712 yards and 19 touchdowns – realized he had what it takes to play at the next level.
“Huffman sat me down and had a one-on-one talk and said ‘I think you can go big-time. All you have to do is take care of business in the classroom,’” Bradley said.
Bradley was still more focused on football, however. Though he put up some big numbers, the offense still centered on quarterback Jadyn Kowalski and the passing attack. With Kowalski and his top two wide receivers graduating, Bradley knew the Thunderbirds would need him more than ever as a senior. He made sure during the offseason that he would be ready for the added responsibility.
“During the summer, Huffman came up to me and was like, ‘You know we’re going to have to rely on you a lot this year? You’re going to play a big part and we’re going to need you. You’re probably going to get the ball like 30, 25 times per game, so your legs are going to have to be prepared for that,’” Bradley said. “I started doing a bunch of extra workouts, doing hills and doing a lot more squats, squatting heavier to get my legs used to being tired. That way it wouldn’t be such a shock when I got like 30 carries every game.”
Bradley returned to the field bigger, faster, stronger and quicker as a senior, and he flourished with his new workload. He carried the ball 324 times for 2,915 yards and 50 touchdowns and turned himself into a receiving threat as well with 19 catches for 238 yards and another score.
As Bradley tore it up on the field, Nebraska was in constant communication with Huffman, tracking Bradley’s progress in the classroom.
“It got to the semifinal game against Creighton Prep,” Bradley said. “(Huffman) was like ‘Nebraska’s been hassling me all this whole season and Coach (Mike) Riley said if you get everything taken care of, they’ll have a spot for you, so you have to finish strong and take care of business.’”
The following week, Bradley led the Thunderbirds to a state championship on the Memorial Stadium turf, rushing 36 times for 249 yards and five touchdowns.
“It just felt amazing, something I’d been working towards since I was a little kid,” Bradley said about the state championship. “It showed that all my hard work paid off.”
But the hard work in the classroom had just begun. Bradley still did not have the grades or the test score needed to qualify to play at Nebraska. He had to hit the books hard, and Huffman and Heuertz were right there pushing him just as they had on the gridiron.
“At times I wanted to give up, just stop trying,” Bradley said. “Huffman was like ‘I know you’ve got it in you; you just have to dig a little deeper. You need to put your football work ethic into the classroom.’ He pushed me and just played a big part in my life.”
That’s exactly what he did according to Heuertz, who also teaches English at Bellevue West and spent many days staying after school to help Bradley study.
“The academics are easy for some kids; they don’t really have to work at it,” Heuertz said. “This is something that Jaylin knew in order to be where he wanted to be, where he’s at right now, that was something he was really going to have to work at. I think what was sort of best about that is . . . he not only took the time, but he got competitive about it. With all the help he was getting, it was still something he was going to have to do and he’s going to have to continue to do.”
Quite some time passed after his last attempt at taking the ACT before he finally mustered up the courage to go online and check the results. What he found left him speechless; he had earned the score he needed.
“I checked, and I didn’t think it was real at first,” Bradley said. “I thought I was dreaming.”
So much so that he thought there had to be a mistake and refreshed the page to check one more time. After taking a few minutes to process what had happened and calm himself down, he called Huffman, who in turn “freaked out over the phone.”
The next day, Huffman sent the score to Nebraska. Shortly after, Riley called Bradley with a scholarship offer, which he accepted that same day.
Bradley made it official on national signing day, which became a celebration not only of Bradley’s athletic prowess, but of his determination and work ethic as a whole. Heuertz said Nebraska is getting the total package in Bradley.
“He is obviously gifted. I think he understands his strengths and he knows how to use them,” Heuertz said. “Like the really good ones, he works at his craft; he took pride in every drill.”
Growing up, Bradley watched the likes of Marlon Lucky and Ameer Abdullah carry the ball for the Huskers. Now, because of his perseverance, he’ll get a chance to follow in their footsteps.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.