WEST POINT, N.Y. — When Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw lines up to take a snap and get the team’s ground-gobbling triple option in gear, he squats so low that he seems to nearly disappear behind the center.
“That’s just his thing. That’s what benefits him,” Army defensive lineman John Voit said. “It kind of helps if no one can see you.”
Hard to see on the field maybe, difficult to ignore on paper. With two games left in the regular season, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior, a deceptively strong runner who can slither through the tiniest openings, needs just 112 yards to break Collin Mooney’s academy rushing record for a season of 1,339, set nine years ago by the hulking 247-pound fullback.
Most impressive of Bradshaw’s accomplishments this season might be his average of 7.58 yards per carry, fifth nationally, because he’s done it against teams that know he’s almost always going to run if he keeps the ball. Bradshaw is 11 for 36 for 232 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions passing on a team that ranks second in rushing (351.5) and last in passing by a long shot — 30.8 yards per game.
Heady stuff for a kid who escaped the mean streets of Chicago’s South Side.
Before he finished elementary school, Bradshaw’s mother, Kizzy Collins, moved the family to the Chicago suburbs “so he would not have to grow up watching or hearing people get killed,” she said. Then she steered him to football at age 8 at the urging of a family friend to keep him busy.
It was a struggle at first.
“I was telling my mother, ‘I don’t want to play. This is boring,'” recalled Bradshaw, who also ranks second among quarterbacks in West Point history with 10 100-yard rushing games, half of them this season. “She actually made me stay on the team. She forced me to go to practice when I didn’t want to.”
Bradshaw blossomed into a star dual-threat quarterback in high school, starting all four years at Gwendolyn Brooks Academy .
“He turned the program around,” said James Brown, his former coach there.
Offered a scholarship during his junior year by Army assistant Tucker Waugh, Bradshaw was reticent at first. He had never heard of West Point and, after doing some research, couldn’t imagine getting up at 5 a.m. every day to run and get yelled at incessantly. And mom wasn’t exactly enamored of the thought of her only son going into the Army after graduation.
“It took a lot of convincing,” she said.
One visit quickly changed Bradshaw’s mind.
“When I came in the locker room, the final decision that made me want to come here was the guys here are so different,” he said. “The guys just seemed like they cared more here. They cared about their brothers.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more complete leader for the brotherhood that fourth-year coach Jeff Monken preaches. When Bradshaw endeared himself to the Army faithful after scoring the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter against archrival Navy last December to snap the Midshipmen’s 14-game winning streak in the series, he deflected any praise: “I didn’t beat Navy. We beat Navy,” he said.
And when Army trailed Temple with 91 seconds left in last month’s game, even though he was an accomplished passer in high school with more than 70 touchdown passes, Bradshaw didn’t flinch when Monken replaced him with Kelvin Hopkins. The sophomore proceeded to rally the Black Knights, hitting the game-tying touchdown pass with one second remaining in regulation, and Army won in overtime on a field goal .
The pinnacle of the season so far came against service academy rival Air Force, which has dominated the series with Army. Bradshaw rushed for a career-high 265 yards in a 21-0 victory earlier this month, the most yards by an Army player on the road in program history, and he did not attempt a pass.
Those who know Bradshaw best are not surprised.
“What I liked about Ahmad more than anything was he’s a leader,” said Brown, who watched Bradshaw take charge and lead practices during a Chicago teachers’ strike when the coaches had to stay away. “He’s a born leader.”
Army (8-2), which already has accepted a bowl berth for the second straight year, has reached rarefied air behind Bradshaw just as it did with quarterback Ronnie McAda in 1996. The Black Knights finished unbeaten in six games at Michie Stadium, the first time that’s happened since 1996, and they can match the school record for wins in a season set by that 1996 team if they beat North Texas on Saturday and archrival Navy in the season finale.
“He’s a very confident football player and he’s a very poised leader,” Monken said. “Our whole team, I think, really believes in him as a leader and he really has a way that defines that trait.”
Added Voit: “Ahmad is always doing the right thing. He’s just so calm. When he’s out there on the field, he’s just got that presence. Everyone looks to him.”
Kekis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Greek1947