EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings would welcome rookie center Garrett Bradbury playing every offensive snap in 2019.
For him, that won’t be a stretch.
Bradbury, taken with the No. 18 pick in April’s draft out of North Carolina State, was in for 679 snaps last season as a college senior. He sat out only 13 offensive plays, all in the fourth quarter of a rout over Louisville.
And that was nothing compared to much of Bradbury’s high school career at Charlotte (N.C.) Christian School. He played tight end and defensive end and was on most of the special teams.
“That dude didn’t want to come out of games,” Charlotte Christian coach Jason Estep said. “The only time he wasn’t on the field was on the kickoff team or unless it was a blowout situation and we took him out. He was a long snapper, and on kickoff returns he was an up back. By the end of the game, he was exhausted, but his thing was, ‘Hey, I’m here to play and I don’t want to come out of the game.’ “
The Knights won the North Carolina private school state championships in each of Bradbury’s three varsity seasons. But he actually did miss the final regular-season game and three playoff games as a junior in 2012 when he broke his foot making a diving catch on a two-point conversion against Raleigh’s Ravenscroft School.
The break wasn’t diagnosed until X-rays were taken after the game. After he went to the sideline, Bradbury tried to return to the field but wasn’t allowed.
“He was trying to loosen up on the sideline,” remembered Kevin Donnalley, an NFL guard from 1991-2003 who was then Charlotte Christian’s offensive line coach. “He was like, ‘Maybe I can go back in. I think it’s OK.’ It wasn’t a typical reaction from a player that had just had a very serious injury. He’s a throwback, blue-collar guy.”
That’s one of the reasons the Vikings drafted Bradbury and then moved him into the expected starting center role on the first day of organized team activities in the spring. Pat Elflein, the starting center the past two seasons, was shifted to left guard.
Bradbury, Minnesota’s other rookies and select other players will report for training camp Monday at the TCO Performance Center and take the field Tuesday for the first practice. All others will report Thursday, with the first full-squad workout Friday.
The 6-foot-3, 306-pound Bradbury has been fired up for every practice since arriving in Minnesota in May for a rookie minicamp.
“Growing up, every kid wants to play professionally,” Bradbury said. “That’s every kid’s dream. Football is my passion.”
Actually, baseball was Bradbury’s first passion. Growing up in Charlotte, he began playing the sport in kindergarten.
Even after Bradbury made his football debut in seventh grade, he continued to play baseball through his senior year of high school. During summers, he hooked on with local all-star teams instead of going to football camps.
“He always wanted to play multiple sports in high school,” Tim Bradbury said of his son, whose only football offer from a major college program was from North Carolina State. “It might have cost him some notoriety coming out of high school (as a football recruit) because he wasn’t going to the summer camps, but he wanted to play baseball.”
Bradbury was a shortstop when very young before playing catcher in high school. Charlotte Christian baseball coach Greg Simmons said it’s too hard to say if Bradbury could have made the major leagues had he stuck with baseball, but has no doubt he would have “played in college at a very high level.”
You wouldn’t get any argument from those who saw Bradbury’s home run as a junior against Piedmont High School in Monroe, N.C.
“To this day, they say it’s the farthest ball they’ve ever seen hit there,” Simmons said. “He hit it every bit of 450 feet. It didn’t just clear the fence, it went over the street. If you ask their coach and everybody there, they’ll say it was just amazing.”
Growing up, Bradbury was was an avid New York Yankees fan, and Derek Jeter his favorite player. He had a Fathead wall graphic of the shortstop in his bedroom; his father said “the world revolved around Jeter” for him.
“He was the GOAT (greatest of all time) at his position, and he was such a leader on that team and they won a lot of games with him, so it was fun to follow him as a young kid,” Bradbury said.
Tim Bradbury said the leadership Jeter displayed influenced his son.
“Throughout his athletic career, he’s always gravitated toward the leadership role, and Jeter was the leader, and he emulated those guys,” he said.
Although just a rookie, Bradbury is being counted on to be one of the Vikings’ leaders. The center, after all, is in charge of adjustments on the offensive line and works with the quarterback.
It’s somewhat similar to a leadership role a catcher has in working with a pitcher. And Donnalley sees something else Bradbury got from playing that position.
“He was used to squatting down and being low to the ground, so it might have helped with flexibility and quickness and all the things you’ve got to do at center,” said Donnalley, now a broadcaster for the Carolina Panthers, the team he played for from 2001-03, including starting in Super Bowl XXXVIII against New England in his final NFL game.
Although Bradbury wasn’t an offensive lineman in high school, Donnalley dealt with him in his role as a blocking tight end. Charlotte Christian used two tight ends, the other being Jeb Blazevich, a star receiver who went on to play at Georgia.
In his three varsity seasons, Bradbury caught a modest 53 passes for 918 yards. But what helped him eventually get to the NFL was his blocking.
“He gave me a signed ball after he won the Rimington Trophy, and it’s in my office,” Estep said of last year’s award for being the nation’s top college center. “It’s kind of like a punch at me, saying, ‘Thanks, coach, for everything you did to help me get to this point, even the days you called Wide Stay,’ which were the plays we would call when we needed him to stay in and block as opposed to (running) a route.”
Bradbury was a tight end while redshirting as a Wolfpack freshman in 2014. He first played the offensive line in 2015, then broke into the starting lineup at guard in 2016. He wasn’t the starting center until his final two years of college, but quickly made up for lost time.
“This past year, at the beginning of the year, my goal was to be the best I could be,” Bradbury said. “I wanted to be the best center in the country.”
The athletic Bradbury was the highest-rated center entering the draft, and the Vikings were quick to snatch him up when they saw he still was available.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins said he hopes to have Bradbury as the starting center for “the next decade.” If that happens, he could become yet another fine long-term center for a team that has had many of them.
Mick Tingelhoff never missed a game as Minnesota’s starter from 1962-78, and was inducted in 2015 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dennis Swilley, Kirk Lowdermilk, Jeff Christy, Matt Birk and John Sullivan later had notable Vikings stints of seven or more seasons. Birk represented Minnesota in six Pro Bowls and Christy in two.
“I spent a little bit of time with him prior to the draft and just watching him on film, I thought (Bradbury) could do some things that we want to do here and would fit with the guys just the way our guys play hard,” said Rick Dennison, in his first year as Minnesota’s offensive line coach and run game coordinator. “He’s looked great. He’s learning, but he’s really receptive to coaching. ... He’s got good quick feet, he plays with a sense of urgency, and if he makes a mistake, he adjusts and never makes it again.”
Dennison sees Bradbury evolving as a leader. Bradbury said during spring drills that his first priority was to learn the playbook before he becomes as vocal as he expects to be eventually.
Considering the respect Bradbury commanded in college, it might not take long to assert himself as a team leader in the pros.
“One of his goals going into (last) season was he wanted to make sure he knew everyone on the team,” said former NFL center Dwayne Ledford, who was Bradbury’s offensive line coach at North Carolina State and is now offensive coordinator at Louisville. “He didn’t feel like he knew some of his teammates as well as he would like, so he made a point of sitting down and talking to everybody on the team. I would walk into the training table and I would see Garrett migrate to different tables.”
Bradbury’s reasoning was simple.
“If you want to step up and be a leader of the team, you’ve got to know everybody and everybody needs to respect you,” he said. “I think respect is huge for anyone who wants to try and be a leader.”
Rarely coming out of games, despite having nagging injuries, has helped in that regard.
“He’s tough and has a great work ethic,” Donnalley said. “He’s a guy who loves to get his hand in the dirt. From a guy who played 13 years (in the NFL), I think this will be one of those picks (the Vikings) look back on and say what a difference-maker he was.”