From Chicago’s South Side to West Point: Ahmad Bradshaw found his calling as Army’s quarterback
By TEDDY GREENSTEIN | Chicago Tribune | Published: December 8, 2017
CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — While Ahmad Bradshaw was in elementary school on the South Side of Chicago, his mother, Kizzy Collins, was taking classes toward a degree at DeVry University.
“He’d bring home his report card,” she recalled, “and we’d compete for grades.”
The two shared a desire to be educated — and to be safe.
A single mom with a lone child, Collins moved with Ahmad from 63rd and King Drive to 76th and Colfax to 47th and Champlain to 44th and Prairie. The motive was grim: to stay a step ahead of the gun-violence epidemic that would claim Ahmad’s friend Jamiere Brown and a cousin, Dequan Barnett.
Bradshaw’s biggest move, though, came after a college football coach stopped in to see him at Brooks College Prep.
“I want to offer you a spot at West Point,” the man said.
“Thank you,” Bradshaw replied before whispering to his high school coach: “What’s West Point?”
Fast-forward a few years and Bradshaw is immersed in what his college coach, Peoria native Jeff Monken, calls “the greatest rivalry in college sports” — Army-Navy.
The only game on Saturday’s college football docket features the service academies that have been dueling on the gridiron since 1890. Navy won every year from 2002 to 2015.
The streak ended last year largely because of Bradshaw, whom Monken described as “the perfect quarterback for our football team.”
Bradshaw is a chess enthusiast, using an app on his phone whenever he gets a break from the hyperdemanding schedule of a cadet.
In chess, he thinks several moves ahead. In football, he anticipates the next play. Watch for a smile Saturday after the play call comes in from the sideline. That means he predicted it correctly.
Army runs a triple-option offense. Bradshaw has a split-second to decide whether to hand the ball to his fullback, tuck it and run or pitch to the slotback. Like military training, it demands precision.
“The ability to make the right decisions separates the good ones from those who are exceptional,” said Monken, a Cubs fan who played at Joliet East (shuttered in 1983) and Joliet Central. “Ahmad is extremely talented, athletic and powerful. If you lined ’em up in a race, I’ve had faster guys. But he is a really strong inside runner who breaks a lot of tackles.
“He’s not a great passer, and he’ll tell you that. But he has completed some really important passes for us.”
Army’s offense, like those of Air Force and Navy, doesn’t resemble the splashy ones you’re accustomed to seeing on fall Saturdays. It’s like comparing a textbook to the internet.
The Black Knights (8-3) have attempted 60 passes all season, none in their 21-0 victory over Air Force. Washington State threw it 84 times in one game.
Bradshaw said he’s “pretty good” at passing (12 of 39 on the season), but there’s no debating his skill as a runner.
The 5-foot-11, 198-pound senior carved up Air Force for a school-record 265 yards. He also has broken Army’s single-season rushing record and can tack on to his tally of 1,472 on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia (2 p.m., CBS-2). His 7.8 yards per carry ranks fourth nationally, and his 133.8 yards per game ranks seventh.
Navy (6-5) has an inferior record to Army’s but is a three-point favorite. Having defeated Air Force, the Black Knights can earn the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy — which goes to the winner of the series between the three service academies — for the first time since 1996.
“We pour everything we’ve got,” Monken said, “into the greatest rivalry in college football.”
Bradshaw knew nothing of the history while growing up in Chicago, which he loves mainly for the food. He adds honey mustard to his Italian beef at Portillo’s.
“The secret sauce,” he said.
Bradshaw played quarterback at Brooks, organizing team practices when Chicago Public Schools teachers went on strike for seven days in September 2012.
Illinois, Northwestern and Michigan State inquired about his willingness to switch to cornerback.
“My personality is to be more of a quarterback,” Bradshaw said. “I like being vocal. And I like having the ball in my hands.”
Kizzy, named after a character in the 1977 TV miniseries “Roots,” initially balked at the scholarship offer from West Point, located on the Hudson River 50 miles north of Manhattan.
“He is my only child, and you think about West Point and the Army being affiliated with war,” she said. “It definitely took some convincing.”
Mother and son moved to suburban Glenwood when Ahmad was 12.
“It’s peaceful and quiet,” said Collins, who is looking for work after being laid off as a clerk at Lavizzo Elementary School. “There’s no gun violence.”
Bradshaw already has seen too much. His friend Brown died in the early hours of Oct. 14, 2012 — a night on which two were killed and 24 wounded across Chicago.
Police told the Chicago Tribune that Brown, 18, was shot during a dice game and died at 5 a.m. at Stroger Hospital.
“I was supposed to be with him that night, but we played at Harper and it was raining out, so I stayed in,” Bradshaw said.
His cousin Barnett was killed last year over Thanksgiving weekend, with police reporting that two men opened fire at a house party. Barnett, 18, was fatally shot in the chest, and five others were wounded.
“I’ve lost a bunch of cousins,” Bradshaw said, “too many to talk about right now.”
Life as a cadet offered its own challenges. Bradshaw arrived at West Point knowing little about rules and ranks.
During basic training, he recalled, “I was not mentally prepared to be standing in the sun all day listening to people yell at me.”
Football practices were just as grueling.
“You’re around all these seniors, these big linemen,” he said, “and as a quarterback you step in the huddle and have to know what everyone is doing, including the defense. My head was spinning.”
He leaned on his mother. The two are close enough in age — he’s 23, she’s 40 — that Collins said the two “grew up together. He is my BFF.”
A BFF with whom she compared grades.
“I’ve always been an A student,” she said proudly. “We were about tied.”
©2017 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.