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Welcome back, Nate

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003

NEW PORT RICHEY -- Nate Bradley didn't believe.

The doctor, that is.

Sitting in his hospital bed in early September, the Ridgewood senior receiver's right leg broken when a vehicle plowed over him in a restaurant parking lot after a football victory, Bradley listened to a doctor tell him his athletic career was over.

"He said I would never be able to play again," Bradley said. "I wouldn't be able to run or play any sports. When he said it, it kind of just hit me.

"Then I just kind of blew it off."

That's because Bradley believed in something else: in himself, in his ability to rebound from a catastrophic injury, in his dream of returning to his first love, basketball, for his senior season.

Monday night, that belief was rewarded. Ridgewood locked horns with Durant in the final of the 14th annual William G. Hulton Jr. Rotary Ram Classic, and the Rams needed a spark, an extra edge.

That's when coach Gary Anders turned to the bench ... and sent in Bradley.

Welcome back, Nate.

"I'm as happy as I can be just to get back on the court," he said. "I just wanted to get back in. I had to get back in. I just couldn't leave the guys hanging."

It was his third game back. But he only played 10 ceremonial seconds in his first, and put in a good five minutes in the second. Monday, Ridgewood needed everything Bradley had to give.

He rebounded, he ran the floor, he took shots, he hustled on offense and defense for 10 minutes. He scored eight points and took the last, desperate shot in that first loss of the season.

He wasn't as fast as he once was. His vertical leap is not as great. His lateral movement is still lacking. His defense needs polish. But in nearly every way possible, Bradley is back.

Anders didn't hesitate to call on Bradley when he was needed.

Yes, Bradley hadn't practiced with the team since the summer, had been out of athletics since the accident, and hadn't even participated in a full practice when he was cleared to play just before the tourney.

But Bradley had worked so hard to come back -- lifting weights with the cast on, riding the exercise bike when the cast came off, begging to jump in on drills, motivating the team from the bench -- that Anders knew he could rely on the senior.

"You can look at it two ways," Anders said. "Well, if he hasn't practiced, then why is he playing? It's a feel that I've got. I think he is so headstrong, he has done what he can to get himself into shape, and I'm looking for the toughness and attitude that he brings us.

"Then the other thing is, why wouldn't I hold him back a little bit? Because he was an integral part of this team (last season) and up through the summer.

"I think we all know what he brings to us. I'm not afraid to throw him into certain situations just because of how he thinks upstairs.

"I think his whole mindset, his whole attitude, is why he's back so soon when initially they told him he would never play basketball again. Knowing how he is, that's why I was willing to throw him back in there."

As soon as Bradley arrived home in the wheelchair he would spend the next few weeks in, he planned his comeback. Returning to football was out of the question. But basketball season was not.

The severity of his injury -- a clean break of the tibula -- didn't concern him.

"I didn't even feel it," he said. "I've played hurt before. A broken bone doesn't really scare me."

Once the cast came off, Bradley was instructed to wear a protective boot but refused, instead beginning his own rehabilitation.

When trainer Brian Hooker of the Florida Joint Replacement and Sports Medicine Center looked at how well Bradley was doing, he referred him to Dr. Henry Hanff, the center's founding orthopedic surgeon.

After testing Bradley (one of the tests required the senior to tippy-toe) Hanff cleared Bradley to attend a sports rehabilitation center. For three weeks before the Rotary Classic, Bradley put in four days a week there.

He had his doubts in the early days.

"There were times I would come home from therapy and say, 'I need to stop,' " Bradley said. " 'I'm pushing it too hard and my legs are hurting me.' But I kept going back. I would say I'm going to stop, but I never did."

Meanwhile, Ridgewood began its season with Bradley at every practice. When he could, he would jump in on drills, but he still could not practice or play.

On Dec. 26, he was cleared to play. The doctor tested the range of motion in his ankle, then made Bradley jump up and down on his right leg 50 times, then made him run two miles in 15 minutes. He passed every test before the Dec. 27 Rotary Classic opener.

To say Bradley was hungry to return would be an understatement. Bradley was, to be blunt, a pain.

"Oh yeah, especially to (coach)," he said. "As soon as he cleared me (for rehabilitation), I tried to jump in on practice drills."

Said Anders: "That's a good pain to have, that you've got somebody who has that attitude, that 'I want to do it,' that 'I want to get out there.' I think that's what he brings to the team. He brings that whole attitude."

Bradley's biggest concerns are his conditioning and his leg strength: "My calves are two different sizes," he said, "and my thighs are two different sizes."

But Bradley returns to an 11-1 Ridgewood squad that has done pretty well without him. Bradley said he isn't concerned with playing time or whether he will start.

"I just want to help out," he said. "When I was sitting on the bench, when the team needed to be pumped up, I would hype them up. Now they need a physical player, and that's the way I am."

As for Anders, he must deftly bring Bradley back into a locker room that has accomplished much in his absence.

"(I said), 'Look guys, I know that Nate hasn't practiced and hasn't sweated the same amount that you have sweated the last two months,' " Anders said. " 'But (I'm putting him in) and if that's a problem, let's talk about it right now.' I didn't have to play him, but, truthfully, I thought it was the right time to do it."

With Bradley, the Rams will undoubtedly be better.

They will be bigger up front, better on the boards and have yet another scoring option on a team that doesn't need one with point guard Chris Halkitis and center Andrew Reed already in the lineup.

"They were 10-0 without me," Bradley said. "I'm just going to help out that much more."

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