SI 60 Q&A with John Ed Bradley: The story behind "The Best Years Of His Life"
In conjunction with the SI 60 series -- in which SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of Sports Illustrated's best stories from its first 60 years -- SI.com is running interviews with some of the writers of those pieces. Today, SI.com republished "The Best Years Of His Life" by John Ed Bradley, which ran in the Aug. 12, 2002 issue. It's a memoir about why Bradley, then 43, couldn't put away the memories of his days playing on the offensive line for LSU a quarter-century before and how he finally faced his fears and reconnected with the people who knew him as a Tiger.
In addition to his years as an outstanding newspaper and magazine writer, Bradley is a prominent novelist who is currently working on a young adult football series. The most recent volume, Call Me By My Name, was published in late May. (To purchase a copy, click here.) He spoke to SI.com associate editor Ted Keith about how "The Best Years Of His Life" came about, the incredible response it received and whether he finally has LSU football back in his life.
SI: The story is about how hard it was for you to leave football behind after your career with the Tigers ended in 1979. Did you have to give it up after college or could you have kept playing?
BRADLEY: I had letters from 15 or 16 pro teams and an agent in California contacted me, but I didn’t really want to play pro football. I didn’t think I was good enough for one thing, and I probably wasn’t big enough -- I had played at about 6-foot-4, 250 pounds; back then that was about average. So I would have needed to put on weight and I was beat up.
The scouts I spoke to were all saying they saw me as a tight end or a linebacker and I wasn’t really thrilled about that. I really wanted to be a writer, I was gung ho about that and I wasn’t going to be denied.
SI: There still exists the stereotype of the football player as dumb jock. That's clearly untrue in many cases but it's still unusual for a former football player to become a writer. How did you do it?
BRADLEY: I went to college to play football. The education was a secondary consideration. But I was fantasizing about being a writer when I was playing at LSU. A lot of the guys I played with were very bright, guys with ambition who have gone on to do great things with their life. That whole perception is dead wrong. I was an English major at LSU, but I started in zoology with a consideration for going to medical school. I was struggling to make the grade, though. I played enough to letter as a freshman so my grades suffered. As a result I started taking English classes to boost my GPA. I had some professors who said I should consider pursuing a degree in creative writing so I changed my major when I was a junior. I was determined to be the next Ernest Hemingway. That’s the truth. I wanted to be Hemingway.
After I graduated I wrote letters to 50 different publications -- magazines and newspapers -- around the country. The only one that expressed any interest at all was the Washington Post. They let me work as a stringer in the fall of 1982. The paper really liked the work so they offered me a staff job after six months and I was hired full-time in the spring of 1983. I wrote a lot about college football, general assignment, big feature stories and all the time I was writing fiction on the side. After a few years I was hearing from all the big magazines. I started writing for Esquire, wrote for them for years, wrote for GQ. Sports Illustrated was in touch with me through the years, and I finally started with SI in 1993.
SI: For someone who wanted to leave football behind it must have been hard to cover the sport at an early age.
BRADLEY: It was terrible. It was terrible. It was really hard. I'll tell you what was incredibly hard: When I was writing for the Washington Post I had to go into NFL locker rooms and there were guys I had played with and against. There were nose guards I had fought for two, two and a half hours in Tiger Stadium and I had to interview them. That was really difficult. There were guys I knew, coaches I played against ... that was very hard because you still have the jock ego. The body has changed -- in my case I lost a lot of weight -- but inside, in my head, I was still a football player. That was really hard.
I remember going to Auburn and Alabama that was really hard for me. See, I didn’t want to be a sportswriter. I was like the reluctant sportswriter because everyday it was served up in my face. [My playing experience] got me in the door. But after about three years of writing sports I started writing for the paper's style section and the Sunday magazine. After three years I went to my editors and demanded that I be traded to another section. They moved me to the Sunday magazine and I worked there with a lot of really good writers.
SI: Did players in the locker room ever recognize you?
BRADLEY: There was a player for the Redskins who had played at Rice, I think. He asked me, "Do I know you? Did we play against each other?" A couple of scouts came to talk to me and tell me that they had watched me play and there were some coaches who remembered me. Everyone was very gracious and kind. Nobody ever made a point of embarrassing me. I didn’t talk much about it. I wrote a few little essays about LSU just to fill in time when things were slow but I didn’t really advertise the fact that I had played at LSU. I wrote a lot of non-sports stories for Esquire and I wrote non-sports stories for GQ. I was trying to distance myself from sports.
I didn’t look the part anymore either. I was probably down to 215 pounds. One time I was with [then-Royals pitcher] David Cone and he said, "You look more like a baseball player than I do."
SI: The Cone piece, which ran in April 1993, was your first one for SI. How long did you contribute to the magazine?
BRADLEY: Around 14 years, and I was always on contract. Every year I would sign a contract that required me to write like five bonus stories. Each one would take from a month to three or four months to write, so it would eat up much of the year for me. There were times I would fulfill the contract early but I was never on staff. [Executive editor] Rob Fleder and [senior articles editor] Chris Hunt asked me a couple times if I was interested in being a staff writer but we never got there. I was pretty dedicated to writing books. I wanted to stay in book publishing. Sometimes I kick myself for not being on staff.
SI: How did "The Best Years Of His Life" happen?
BRADLEY: I had been writing these big bonus pieces and I never wrote for the magazine with the "I" voice, that first person point-of-view. I had expressed to Fleder and Hunt several times how much I missed football and how I was struggling with the loss of football in my life. We were in a contract and I had not fulfilled my obligation to the magazine. I owed them one more story on the year. Either Chris or Rob said, "You ought to write that story." I think I wrote like a page-long proposal, which they accepted. It took me four days to write that story. It had been in me. I feel like it was in my fingertips just waiting to come out at the keyboard.
I sent it in and then I didn’t hear from them so I started brooding over it. I thought "I’m embarrassing myself, this shouldn’t be published." I called Chris and I said, "I don’t want the story to run. I’ll do something else for you." And he said, "It’s running, you can’t have it back. Forget about it."
And they ran it and the response was unbelievable. I was shocked. I thought it was a little nothing story. The response was huge, just huge.
SI: In what way?
BRADLEY: The letters, the phone calls, just the attention paid to it. I had several publishing company editors call me and offer to have me write it as a book. There was movie interest. The thing I remembered most was that former teammates reached out and said, "This is my story." I heard that from guys all over the country. Guys who had played ball and had never really recovered from the experience. It wasn’t just football, I heard from Olympic athletes, I heard from baseball players, from coaches who got into it because that’s what they knew and they missed being a player. It was the most extraordinary experience I ever had as a writer.
Whoever handled the mail at SI at that time told me they received the most mail up to date in that year from that little story. The funny thing is I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to hear about it and so I said no to the book offers until two or three years later when ESPN contacted me and I said I’m ready to write it.
SI: Seems a shame that SI didn't get to publish that book.
BRADLEY: ESPN’s offer was three times the offer that SI’s was. I probably talked to seven or eight publishing companies and SI was one of them, but they just didn’t make the offer that ESPN did. ESPN made a huge offer. I was very happy with how it went, but I loved working with Fleder and Hunt.
SI: In the story you finally reach out to former teammates and your old head coach, Charles McClendon. Did you do that because you wanted to write about it?
BRADLEY: I had done those things independent of anything. I went to see my coach and I didn’t know I was going to write about that. I had no idea. I heard he was dying and several people contacted me and encouraged me to go see him. A couple people said he had asked about me. Seeing him was very hard. After the story came out, I saw more guys. I started to talk about it. These feelings about football were something I had suppressed for a long time.
SI: You write about how you had made a couple visits to Tiger Stadium after your playing days but always left as soon as you could. Most former players would have had to be dragged out of there.
BRADLEY: I loved it so much and I missed it so much that it was overwhelming to be there again. It was a very emotional thing. It took me days to get over going there again. I had kind of buried it because I knew that in order to survive in the world I had to get past it. I describe it like being with someone you love, when you break up you don’t want to see her again. My way of coping with the loss was to get it out of my life. Hiding the trophies, hiding the old jerseys ... I buried it all.
But a lot of guys do this. When I was growing up in Louisiana I had a friend whose dad had played at LSU during the war years whose name was Al Robichaux. I could never understand why he didn’t advertise the fact that he had played at LSU. You went in the house and there was no evidence that he had played at LSU, there wasn’t a flag out front, never a jersey framed in the house, he wouldn’t go to the games. Now I know why he was that way.
I was kind of a shy guy, an introverted person and this was how I dealt with it. It was something I decided to do. I stuck with it and all of a sudden all these years had piled up.
SI: Was there much editing of the story?
BRADLEY: It was the rare story that ran pretty much as I wrote it. The line edit was pretty typical of how they edit at SI, bringing their style to it, but it pretty much ran as I wrote it.
SI: What do you think of seeing the story now?
BRADLEY: I always have a hard time looking at my stories once they run. I’m very self-critical. I’ll see a sentence that I wished I had written differently or just the byline will spook me a little so I won’t look at them. It was probably a year or two before I ever looked at it. I still haven’t read it in the magazine. It turns up every now and then in a book, which is wonderful and it always surprises me when it does. I didn’t want to look at it.
SI: Have you read the entire thing?
BRADLEY: I have not read it since I wrote it. I wrote it and turned it in, we went through the editing and I read it then but there were no big changes. I have not read it since.
SI: The story opens with a full-page photo of your old helmet, all beat up. Had you kept that all those years?
BRADLEY: All the things I kept were in a corner of a closet under a quilt, or several quilts, where they had been forever. Occasionally I would take the helmet out. I remember going to a school one day and I brought the helmet because I knew the kids would like it. It spooked me a little bit to see these things. But when they were putting the story together they asked me if I had the helmet and the shirt that I wrote about and so I sent them up to New York as I recall. I think they were in offices at SI for awhile.
Actually, I stole that helmet. That’s property of the university. We weren’t supposed to take them but I took it anyway. I had cracked it against Florida State. I hit a guy and I think I laid some dude out and cracked that helmet. I took the interior padding and put it into the shell of another helmet and played the rest of that season in that new helmet. The other one had been my good luck helmet and all of a sudden it was cracked.
I’ll tell you something: After I got it back from the magazine I bought a glass box and put the helmet in there. I tried to live with it as an art object but I couldn’t so now it’s back in the closet.
SI: Do you watch LSU now?
BRADLEY: I can watch it with some detachment where it doesn’t require me to feel so much. And I'm grateful for that. I haven’t played football for 35 years so that’s helped me. Being a father has really helped me. I became a father when I was 48 years old so I was an old man but it really helped me understand that it’s their time. It’s my daughter’s time. It’s somebody else’s turn. And I’m happy for them. I realize how incredibly blessed I am to have had that experience. What an incredible thing, to be a starter at LSU and be a captain. I don’t mourn losing it anymore. Now I’m looking back with joy.
SI: Do you think you'll ever read the story again?
BRADLEY: Maybe. Once I finish a story I’m not looking at it, I’m not buying copies of it. I wouldn’t save stories for along time.
I'll tell you a quick story. I was writing for the Washington Post when my dad died of a heart attack at 54. I was 28 years old, and at that point Id’ been published quite a bit and I didn’t save a thing. When I came home to bury my dad I went to his office and in his desk the drawers were just packed with my stories. That’s really all he had in his desk were my stories. I don’t know where he got them because he was down in a small town in Louisiana. I didn’t have a one of them. He was just proud of me and what I had done. It was awesome.