A Post sports editor assigned Bradley a few stories. Six months and a few completed assignments later, 24-year-old Bradley was offered a job as a staff writer at The Post, working alongside other young, hungry writers like David Remnick, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, not to mention legendary Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who presided over The Post's Pulitzer-winning Watergate coverage.
The young Bradley covered Bear Bryant, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, Olympics and World Series stars. The Post sent him on assignments all over the country " New York, Miami Beach, Las Vegas, Daytona, Lake Tahoe, Boston.
Still, Bradley yearned to be a novelist. While working at The Post, he spent four years of early mornings and late nights writing a novel about a former college football player who returns home, works the graveyard shift and falls in love with an older woman.
When his debut novel, Tupelo Nights, was bought by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1988 and the film rights were optioned, Bradley quit The Post. He was going to become a famous author, marry Connie, bring her and her family to Washington, D.C., and never have to think about playing football for LSU.
'I try at this point not to be a defeatist, but I've taken so many shots," he told me in a summer 2000 interview in New Orleans near the Magazine Street apartment he rented in 1997. I'd fully expected that day to meet a man on the top of the world " Bradley's fourth novel, My Juliet, had just been published to an early round of glowing reviews, and he was working under contract for Sports Illustrated, writing superb literary journalism on the likes of NFL icons Donovan McNabb, Troy Aikman, Daunte Culpepper, Marshall Faulk and Archie and Peyton Manning. Bradley, however, seemed incapable of acknowledging his achievements. Instead, he was consumed by the disappointing sales of his books.
'I've never received a royalty check, ever, in my life," he said then. 'There was a time when I was a younger man that I pretended to be a great success ... but the publishers couldn't give my books away. It's hard to admit it, but it's the truth."
Bradley's life clearly informed the settings and characters of his novels. In addition to the ex-football player in Tupelo Nights, the protagonist of The Best There Ever Was is a former college football coach at a fictional Louisiana university (clearly based on LSU). Love and Obits features a Washington Post reporter. And Opelousas permeates his tale of a Wal-Martesque chain store invading a small southern town in Smoke.
Positive reviews in esteemed outlets like the New York Times Book Review greeted each work, but negative reviews stung Bradley deeply.
'I remember the painful reviews, and the hours that I put into them, and how disappointing it was not to be able to sell the books," he said.
At the end of our meeting that day, Bradley seemed unsure of his next step. 'All my other novels took two years, and My Juliet took six.
'Sports Illustrated gobbled up a lot of my time, and I was just exhausted. I'd written four novels in about seven years, and I was sick of living inside my own head. I don't know what I'm going to do next."
Three months ago, I read that Bradley was about to publish his memoir. I dug up his old email address and on the slim chance it was still valid, wrote him a note out of the blue. He wrote back, saying he'd returned to Opelousas. He was busy, but maybe we'd get together for coffee sometime.
It took two months of emailing back and forth to set up an interview to talk about his new book. Bradley only gave me his phone number and address the day before we were scheduled to meet.
'I'm very private and somewhat paranoid about my privacy," he said shortly after he let me into his modest one-story house in Opelousas.
'I've always been sort of private, but I got private to the point of being kind of weird about my privacy. My big thing as a writer is doing it alone and getting everybody out of my head. I think I've been real selfish as a writer. I've always cut people out who placed themselves between myself and my goal and what I have to do as a writer. ... But people don't bother me; I bother me. People are nice to me; I'm not nice to me. I think a lot of my fear was that if they really knew me and knew what a simple mess I was, they would see through my writing and the artifice and I'd be exposed. And in the end, who outs me but me? I write my own exposé."
When he was 21 years old and packed up his equipment after his final LSU season was over to leave the Tigers' locker room for the last time, Bradley shut the door behind him " literally and figuratively. In the opening chapter to It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium he writes:
It's true that some men never recover from the loss of a game they played when they were boys. It's also true that I was determined not to be one of them. You weren't going to catch me 20 years later boasting about the cheers I'd heard when I was a kid. I knew the type who couldn't give it up, and I refused to be him. He kept going to games and reminding anyone who'd listen how things used to be. His wife and kids rolled their eyes as he described big plays, quoted from halftime speeches, and embellished a 'career' that no one else remembered. To listen to him, he'd never blown a snap count or busted an assignment or had a coach chew him out for dogging it or getting beat. In his mind, he was forever young, forever strong, forever golden.
Standing there in Tiger Stadium, I squeezed my eyes closed and lowered my head. Then I wept. "Hell, no," I said. "That is not going to be me."
Bradley stuck to his promise with an almost pathological tunnel focus.
He shunned contact with all his former teammates and coaches, including his best friend on the offensive line, Big Ed Stanton. When LSU convinced him to attend a game and accept an honorary captain award, Bradley snuck out of the stadium at halftime. If an LSU game came on the radio or TV, he turned it off. When he bumped into teammate and Baton Rouge tackle Charles McDuff in a convenience store 14 years later, McDuff gave him his phone number. Bradley promised to call him so they could go fishing. He never called, and two years later McDuff died of a pulmonary embolism while vacationing with his three boys on the Gulf Coast.
Then in the winter of 2001, Bradley saw a television news report that former LSU coach Mac was dying of cancer.
Charlie McClendon, LSU's coach from 1962-1979, was a lot like Bradley's father, a football coach at Opelousas High. They were both old-school men and old-school coaches who stressed similar values: humility, hard work, teamwork, respect for others. Bradley had already lost his father to a heart attack in 1987, and now he had to face saying goodbye to McClendon. He contacted McClendon's wife to arrange a visit. 'I didn't want to go," says Bradley. 'It was almost like going to my execution, and it was like that, because a part of me died that day. I was just so happy that he remembered me, and so happy that he forgave me. He remembered the USC game." (In Bradley's senior year, the Tigers nearly beat then-No. 1 USC in a game that turned on a questionable penalty against LSU.) 'I kept wanting to say, "I love you coach, and I love you for what you did for me,' but we talked about football. While I was sitting there, I was thinking, we're talking about football and things that don't matter and he's dying. But in our story, that's what mattered most."
Coach Mac died two days later.
Bradley was still distraught the next time he talked to two of his longtime editors at Sports Illustrated. 'They said to me, "You need to write that piece. Write that thing that's in you. Get rid of it, do it.' I had never written about playing at LSU or written a first-person piece for them."
Bradley purged two decades of anguish " and reconnected with the pride and joy of his playing days and the camaraderie of his teammates " in a four-day writing spree. He titled the story 'The Best Years of His Life," and Sports Illustrated made the story the centerpiece of its 2002 College Football Preview Issue. The story generated as much mail from readers as any other story in the magazine that year. It was later included in two anthologies, Sports Illustrated: 50 Years of Great Writing, and The Greatest Football Stories Ever Told: Twenty Tales of Gridiron Glory. With each reprinting, it generated more letters and acclaim, and book publishers started calling to see if there was more to the story, enough for a book. Bradley ultimately signed the most lucrative deal of his career to write the book with sports giant ESPN's new publishing imprint.
He knew, however, that writing the book would take him into extremely painful emotional territory. 'I tried to be honest and tried to be naked like I hadn't been before," he says. 'When you write a novel, it's sort of playtime in a way. You bring all your skills and you can play with the language and the story and there are no fences. With this book, I was in my own prison and the prison was my own life story, and I was limited to the walls around me. I just thought if I could get it down honestly and write about how I loved my father and how I loved him despite the fact that he never let me grow up to be a full man in his lifetime " I was still his boy, in a way. I wanted to be able to write how much I loved Connie and loved her desperately, and I didn't want to disguise it in a fictitious story as I did in the past. I wanted to be able to say her name and describe what it was like when I kissed her. I wanted to write honestly about all this stuff and my coaches, so it was hard to write. There were times of incredible sorrow and embarrassment.
'I didn't enjoy writing this book; there were moments I just wanted to run away from it."
It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium chronicles Bradley's reunions with his teammates with unflinching, affecting prose. He's stunned to learn that fellow lineman Marty Dufrene was paralyzed in a freak swimming pool accident and humbled by Dufrene's resolve. Maximum-security prison Hunt Correctional in St. Gabriel is the site of Bradley's meeting with Ramsey Dardar, who's now serving a prison sentence after committing a string of burglaries while addicted to crack. And when Bradley finally sees his former best friend Big Ed Stanton again, he sees that Stanton owns a golf cart even though he's never hit a tee shot in his life; Stanton bought it because it reminds him of the one time Coach Mac gave Stanton a ride on his cart during practice.
'What I learned in the course of writing and living the story is that [players] who did settle down young and get married and had children, they weren't immune to the kind of suffering that I experienced," says Bradley. 'In some cases, it made them all the more aware of who they were and what they had and what they lost. They have their moments, too."
Hurricane Katrina compounded Bradley's emotional rollercoaster of writing the book; the storm hit shortly after he signed his deal with ESPN. Bradley didn't return to his Crescent City apartment until six weeks after the storm, grateful to find it largely unscathed. But as he tried to settle back in to work, he was struck with a paralyzing case of writer's block. 'I couldn't even write a sentence," he says.
He had one place he could go " the house in Opelousas next door to where he grew up, and where his mother still lives. Bradley bought the home five years ago and had been using it as a getaway. He could look out his front window and see the front yard where he used to throw spirals with his father, or go next door and be in the back kitchen where he wrote his letter to The Washington Post more than two decades ago. And it was only a short drive past Connie's old house, where the couple used to meet at night after the rest of the town had gone to sleep.
Connie's reaction to the book was Bradley's biggest fear. Their relationship had ended for good almost 10 years ago, and they were mostly estranged. She was the first person he sent the finished manuscript, and her initial reaction " a phone call filled with tears and anger " confirmed his anxiety. She hated his candor and didn't want to be in the book. After a cooling-off period, she gave him her blessing. 'She called me back and said, "I want you to know that I'm real proud of you and I think it's a great book,'" says Bradley. He's received a similar reaction from neighbors, friends and acquaintances in Opelousas.
It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium has justifiably earned Bradley some of the best reviews of his career, and the book has been selling well, too. It's been the No. 1-selling sports book in the country at various points in the past few months, and Amazon.com ranked it No. 3 on its list of Top 10 sports books of 2007. By confronting and coming to terms with his past in It Never Rains, Bradley has felt a professional validation that previously eluded him.
'I've had some nice reviews, been published in seven languages, been published all over the world, and that's great, and I made some money doing it," says Bradley. 'But I always felt that I came up far short of my ambitions as a writer. That has changed with this book, and it's changed because I can tell from how people have responded to it that it hit home and struck a chord and struck deep. ... It's been an incredible thing. "
It's also enabled Bradley to bury some of his old habits and embrace the present; he's followed the Tigers closely this season. On a Saturday night inside his Opelousas home recently, Bradley watched the Arkansas Razorbacks beat the Tigers on Senior Day. He felt the kinship with seniors like quarterback Matt Flynn, who sat despondent and alone in the center of the field after his final pass in Tiger Stadium was intercepted in triple overtime.
'I know what they feel," says Bradley. 'They're gonna get past that they lost. What they won't recover from is the experience of playing in Tiger Stadium. They'll never recover from it. ... Whatever they do in the future, it'll be great and they'll love their lives, but they'll never forget what it's like. They're going to dream about it when they're in their 40s. They're going to be 49 years old and they're going to come in from a hard day of work and fall asleep on the sofa, and all of a sudden, they're somewhere else. They're in the stadium again and they're boys again and they're with their buddies again and the coaches they love and they will be haunted and inspired by that experience. That's part of the deal."
John Ed Bradley will sign It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium: Football and the Game of Life at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4, at Barnes & Noble (3721 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie). Scott Jordan is editor of The Independent Weekly in Lafayette and a former Gambit Weekly music editor. Addendum The Dec. 25 issue of Gambit Weekly included a round-up of memorial pieces about New Orleanians lost in 2007 ('Requiescat in Pace," p. 34). We neglected to mention John T. Scott. A prominent modern artist, Scott leaves behind a strong legacy represented in museums, private collections and public works. He died in September at the age of 67 in Houston where he has lived since Katrina. Growing up in Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward, Scott developed an early interest in art and studied at Xavier and Michigan State (MFA '65) universities. He returned to Xavier to teach and became a mentor to generations of local artists. He was the first African-American artist accepted into the Orleans Gallery.
His kinetic and large-scale sculpture was inspired by jazz, New Orleans street culture and African and Caribbean traditions. His work was recognized by a 1992 'Genius Grant" from the MacArthur foundation as well as a retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art (2005). He is survived by wife Anna Rita Scott and five children. Correction A painting that appeared on page 28 of the January issue of CUE was incorrectly identified as a work by Ida Kohlmeyer. The artwork was painted by artist Chuck Huttel of Destin, Fla. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.