What is it that feeds and fertilizes a man’s life? Where does it take root?
With the physical gifts from the grandfather who stood 7-foot-4 and weighed 460 pounds, or the mother who was a high school sprint champion? Or with the buried doubt left by a father mostly absent? Or the emptiness of all those tired houses left behind – from Hillyard to Cheney and back to Spokane’s North Side – where moving day came when the rent got jacked up? With couches crashed on? Addresses forgotten? Low-point epiphanies?
Bryan Braman remembers all of it, but also the day he first walked onto the football field at Shadle Park High School. So does the freshman coach at the time, Tim Gaebe, even if a few details differ. For instance, the shirt. Gaebe recalls him in a white tank top, Braman a cut-off Fila tee – because the coach was wearing one, too, and broke the ice by teasing him about it.
But the image is otherwise forever: “This tall, lanky kid,” Gaebe said, “hunched over, looking kind of like a lost soul.”
He had come in from Cheney – he and his mom were on the move again – and there was still paperwork to be turned in and practice had already started.
“Great to have you,” Gaebe assured him, steering him toward the registrar’s office and eyeballing that promising frame again. “You can play.”
He would prove it soon enough. And he’s still proving it.
Super Bowl LII arrives next Sunday, New England vs. Philadelphia – even if the participation of the Eagles seemed to be derailed six weeks ago when their wunderkind quarterback, Carson Wentz, shredded his left knee.
Whom did the Eagles sign to replace him? Bryan Braman.
Yes, it was Nick Foles taking the snaps for Wentz, but it was Braman taking his roster spot and serving as Philadelphia’s insurance policy for having to go with a backup quarterback. The Eagles’ special teams had been decidedly unspecial for weeks, and getting a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown in the same game against the Rams when Wentz was lost accented a shortcoming that the club could no longer afford. Braman had been the franchise’s heart and soul in that department – 1,214 special teams plays in three years, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound missile with a blond mane who often as not was the first man downfield – but the Eagles opted not to re-sign him last spring.
Then came a moment of mutual need.
“They knew I’d be able to step in immediately and produce – if I was in shape,” Braman said, “and if they needed me for 25 plays in special teams to run through somebody’s face, I was in shape.”
In shape, but unemployed. Braman signed with New Orleans in August, but was cut two weeks later. The Saints looked at him again during week 7 of the NFL season, but didn’t bite. He had a tryout with Oakland; Seattle strung him along for a while.
“I was definitely getting anxious,” he said. “There’s all this talk around the NFL about how short careers are. Being 30 years old, it could be as simple as just not getting a call. There are better-known guys – household names – who just didn’t receive a call and that was the end of them.”
Six years in the NFL had produced some highlights. Two playoff appearances in three years with Houston. He’d been a Pro Bowl alternate, and blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. A $3.15 million contract with the Eagles. And, of course, the YouTube sensation from his rookie year in 2011 when he rode Tennessee punt returner Mark Mariani out of bounds with a jarring, head-first hit – which couldn’t be ruled helmet-to-helmet because Braman had lost his headgear in a skirmish back at the line of scrimmage.
He’d had a good run. Or what his old high school counselor calls, “Better than expected moments.”
JuJu Predisik witnessed enough of those during Braman’s Shadle Park days, as did his teammates, coaches, classmates and their parents.
Many still insist he should have wound up on a Wheaties box wearing an Olympic decathlon gold medal – a 6-8 high jumper who was fast enough to run on the sprint relay in high school, and the California state junior college javelin champ with a best of nearly 215 feet.
“But he was always a football player,” Predisik said. “I think from the first chance he had to put on pads and a helmet and was told it was OK to hit – that sensation was the definition of his desire to play the game.”
There was always something else, too, that reached a boy in an itinerant existence.
“It’s the way you suffer together,” Braman said, “the pain and anguish you go through to reach that accomplishment when the clock hits :00 and your team wins. And the fact that you have to count on 10 other men at any given time to do their jobs.”
That’s as true at Shadle as it is in the NFL, but even in the best circumstances that journey is improbable – and Braman’s circumstances were hardly the best. Yet people always seemed to see the possible in him, whether it was because of his physique or his fire.
“If anybody was going to make it of all those I played with or against, it was going to be him,” said Josh Powell, Shadle’s quarterback at the time. “But my dad said it first. He saw him play freshman year and Bryan didn’t even have cleats. My dad bought him cleats and said, ‘This kid is going to play in the NFL.’
“If we were back in the Roman Empire, he would have been a gladiator.”
Sometimes it was difficult to believe what you were seeing. Powell remembers Highlanders players talking the coaching staff into letting this sculpted giant on the kick return team – and then watching him take one 78 yards for a touchdown against Gonzaga Prep.
But when Friday night’s lights are extinguished, there are always the classroom fluorescents switched on every Monday morning. Braman’s motor didn’t run as hot in school, and the concept of homework when you’re often homeless can seem, as Predisik points out, “crazy.” Only one college – Idaho – was willing to risk a ride to help him navigate the eligibility hoops.
He lasted two semesters, never playing a down.
“I threw it away – a $100,000 scholarship,” he said. “I let everyone down.”
Ashamed and depressed, he reverted to street life – first there, then back in Spokane. There was back-breaking work – 15-hour days laying concrete for CXT in the Valley – but there was also sleeping in his mom’s Buick, wasting away and drug bingeing with “people who didn’t care about my future, or their own,” he said.
Finally, there was rock bottom when he reached back to Predisik, who’d been trying to track him down. Braman’s thought was to enroll at the Community Colleges of Spokane in a technical program, get an A.A., maybe revive himself in track.
Predisik had one question.
“Do you still want to play football?” he asked, and it all but took Braman’s breath away.
“I didn’t know,” he said, “there were second chances.”
They don’t come easily. The year before, Predisik had steered Powell, who had flamed out at Eastern Washington, to an old friend, Jerry Jaso, the head coach at Long Beach City College. While Predisik made the phone call, Braman sought out Powell.
“It was spring break and I’m at my parents’ house up Indian Trail and my mom comes downstairs to tell me there’s someone outside asking for me,” Powell recalled. “She said, ‘He’s kind of freaky looking. I think it’s Bryan.’
“I think he weighed, generously, 185 pounds. He looked like death.”
But he followed Powell back to California, and spent the spring and summer eating “nothing but rice and chicken” and restored 25 or 30 pounds, even if the LBCC coaches still thought they’d been sold a ghost – until the games began.
“He just dominated,” Powell said. “Against El Camino, which was one of the best JC teams in the country, he had 17 tackles and three sacks – stupid numbers. There was a game against Saddleback – you know the Statue of Liberty play? Well, Bryan did it defensively. Came around the corner and caught the guy in the back of his motion, took the ball away and scored. He’d do things you didn’t think were possible.”
From there it was off to West Texas A&M, where he was an All-Lone Star Conference linebacker one year – and got suspended the next after being charged with manufacturing psilocybin. Eventually, the case was dismissed – the perp had been someone living in Braman’s house – but was another bad judgment pothole.
This time, there was serendipitous support. Bobby King, Braman’s coach at West Texas in 2009, had joined the staff of the NFL Texans. His coaxing got Braman what was likely the 90th roster spot for training camp.
After the final cutdown, he had the 53rd spot.
“I can still hear his voice cracking over the phone telling me, ‘I’m driving down the freeway to my first day at the office,’ ” Predisik said. “All those things that had haunted him had been put away.”
Braman has relocated his base from Houston to Austin now, where he hopes to get involved in a more vibrant real estate market. His mother, Tina Braman-Fields – she won a state track title with Rogers in 1986 – is there, too, and will be at the Super Bowl, along with his daughters Blakely, 4, and Marlowe Mae, 2, and their mother.
He is elated to share the moment – with his children who will fully appreciate it later, and with his mother, who scuffled and “gave up things she needed” to keep him in athletics.
“I try not to forget where I came from,” he said, “or all we went through, and all the people who stood by me and shared their wisdom and support and provided those chances.”
But that’s only half the equation.
“He’s a fighter, man,” Powell said. “Not many people go through the heat of it, put themselves through the worst and pull themselves out. Other people can only help so much. You either seize it or you don’t – and every time he was handed a second chance, he’s done more than seize it.”
The next one is just days ahead.
“I can’t tell you thousands and thousands of nights I’ve fallen asleep and this moment has been in my head,” Braman said.
Last week, Powell flew to Philadelphia and watched the Eagles crush Minnesota for the NFC Championship, and waited outside the locker room for Braman to emerge.
“He was the last one out,” Powell said, “and his eyes were all red and you knew he’d been crying. It’s something he’s wanted his entire life. The past few years he and I have gone to Super Bowl week and the parties and enjoyed the festivities, but he’d always sell his Super Bowl tickets. He’d say, ‘I’m not going to the Super Bowl until I’m playing.’
“Well, about midway through this season he said, ‘I may have screwed up. I should have gone to a Super Bowl when I had the chance.’ But after the game last week, we were laughing about it.
“It’s almost like this is how it was supposed to be.”
From the day he walked on that field at Shadle – a little late but right on time, a little lost but in the right place.
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