Prepare, Play, Recover, Repeat

James Bradberry wants to make Panthers fans forget Josh Norman. But first he had to survive his NFL debut.

By Tyler Dunne

SEPTEMBER 13, 2016

Bleacher Report

Jason E. Miczek / Special to Bleacher Report

DENVER — He supplies the assessment before being asked for an assessment.

His eyes are cold, his voice curt.

"I f--ked up. Simple as that. I f--ked up."

James Bradberry leaves it at that and continues to pack. He checks the cellphone in his locker and sets it back down. He tucks equipment into a duffel bag. Cracks his knuckles. Nobody along this row of defensive backs in the visitor's locker room speaks to each other for a good 10 minutes after a gut-punch 21-20 loss to the Broncos. Rather, they grab slices of oranges from a bucket nearby, shower and change in slow motion.

For veterans, memories of a Super Bowl loss—buried for seven months—return like a throbbing hangover.

For the rookie Bradberry, this was a grand premiere. A chance to introduce himself to the world. There were 76,843 in the crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High and another 25.4 million watching at home. The kid who played in front of 6,259 in his season opener last fall at Samford was now center stage...replacing the highest-paid cornerback in football...wearing the same No. 24...covering 6'3", 229-pound Demaryius Thomas.

So, was it as bad as he thinks? What did this all look like on TV?

In truth, it was not apocalyptic. Thomas had only four catches for 48 yards. But Bradberry's worst fear is letting his teammates down, so the worst plays replay in his mind.

Like C.J. Anderson's 25-yard touchdown on a screen pass. Bradberry grabs my elbows, shoves them together and pretends to push—that's how Thomas took him on a 5.5-second joyride in the fourth quarter.

No, Bradberry wasn't nervous. Really. He promises.

But it was loud. So loud he needed to shout to defensive backs sitting right next to him on the bench.

And his skull was pounding. Bradberry never played at an altitude close to this. At 5,280 feet above sea level, the padding inside his helmet inflated.

"My helmet," he says, "was squeezing my head."

And he rolled his ankle. When Anderson juked Bradberry silly in the first half for 28 yards, the rook knotted up. Upon hearing that word, "ankle," veteran Kurt Coleman shoots Bradberry a death stare from three lockers down. "No, no," he mouths, as if the innocuous detail is akin to disclosing nuclear codes.

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Jack Dempsey / AP Photo

"I'm just tired, for real," says Bradberry, falling in line. "It was just a long game."

The first act is over.

On Thursday night, Bradberry was thrust into a starting role on a Super Bowl contender. Not any starting role, either. Bradberry replaced Josh Norman, whose paycheck is now as large as his personality. Whereas Norman actively created his own brand, the second-rounder Bradberry would much rather camouflage in with 52 other players.

One problem: Cornerbacks cannot camouflage in. It's impossible.

You sink or you swim. You're paid or you're cut.

So what's life like for a quiet rookie thrown into this shark tank? Into this vacuum left behind by Norman? Bleacher Report followed Bradberry from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Denver to Charlotte to find out.

Down the hall, take a left into the home locker room and then a quick right and there's Bradberry's first NFL nemesis. Thomas pulls a Led Zeppelin T-shirt over his head, straps on a gold watch and laughs. OK, he admits, he's guilty as charged. Sure, he held Bradberry on that touchdown. A trick of the trade, he explains. Officials are so preoccupied with the back, they ignore the receivers upfield.

In Bradberry, however, he sensed something different.

"If he just sticks to what he knows—and keeps working—his potential is there," Thomas says. "It's just how hard will he work? I haven't been around many rookies who play like he does.

"He's going to be a great player."

The comment is relayed to Bradberry later, outside the team bus. He hardly reacts.

One down. Fifteen to go.


Sunday, Sept. 4, 4:15 p.m. ET

Bank of America Stadium

He emerges from the bathroom with a stack of towels so high it blocks his vision. One by one, Bradberry places a towel on each stool. He's the No. 1 key to the Panthers becoming the first Super Bowl loser to return to the big game since the Bills in 1994, but he's still a rookie.

Still an unknown.

As Bradberry explains, he's always been the unknown. Unwanted. The kid from Pleasant Grove, Alabama, who competed at the Boys and Girls Club from sunup to sundown—crushing peers in "war ball"—leans on a bin in the locker room and counts the ways.

Once, a Clemson coach visited Pleasant Grove High and the two watched film together. In Bradberry's mind, the date was flawless. The coach handed him a business card, left and never contacted him again.

Vanderbilt would've been perfect. Bradberry carried a 3.8 GPA in high school, so the school's academic opportunities were appealing, too. He sent in a recruiting card, and it was sent back with a simple message: He wasn't fast enough for the SEC. Best of luck.

He liked Middle Tennessee State until even it ignored him. The school treated Bradberry like the fallback option before prom, calling him less than 48 hours before signing day. He was livid. He ignored the call.

So off to Arkansas State he went to play the position he always loved: cornerback. But even then, coaches quickly decided Bradberry should move to safety.

This whole week, Bradberry is yes-sir, no-sir stoic with dark eyebrows that never slant in anger. But then he thinks back to the 6 p.m. meeting he called with the Arkansas State defensive coordinator and safeties coach. He told them his plans to transfer, and Bradberry says the coaches tried to convince him to stay. In doing so, they told him he'd never amount to anything at cornerback.

"Off-the-wall stuff," he says. "I was actually starting to think, 'Maybe I'm making a bad decision. Maybe I should stay.' Then when they started talking like that, I'm like, 'Nah, I'm going to leave.'"

Bradberry transferred to Samford, started four seasons, and the Panthers drafted him 62nd overall. Never expecting to go that high, he was fixing his mother's toilet when he was picked. But he was big (6'1", 210 pounds), long (33 ⅜" arms) and, Carolina believes, tailor-made for its defense.

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Michael Conroy / AP Photo

Norman was out. Bradberry was in.

"A lot of people may say that because I come from a small school, I can't compete with the bigger-school guys and can't compete at the NFL level," Bradberry says. "I feel like I can do anything the next person can do."

One wave of reporters interrupts. Then, another.

Once everyone leaves, Bradberry looks like he just bit into a lemon.

"It gets frustrating," he says, "because the one thing they always ask about is Josh Norman. That's why I'm ready for Thursday night's game. Hopefully I can put it all to rest."


Monday, Sept. 5, 2:30 p.m. ET

Bank of America Stadium

Each towel is placed on each stool again. Bradberry saunters over to the same bin.

Today's topic? Fears.

He's terrified of heights. If Bradberry is on a roller coaster, he shuts his eyes the entire ride. If he's on an elevator with a window, he looks straight at the doors.

"You know how you're on an elevator and you shift from being inside to going outside?" he says. "I hate that. It makes me edgy."

Jason E. Miczek / Special to Bleacher Report

As a kid, he had nightmares of Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, of a shadow always lurking around his bed. Mom made him quit horror movies entirely.

Now, he's an adult and should be terrified of Thomas. Only he's not. Bradberry punches into the Panthers' facility at 7 a.m. each day, punches out at 6 p.m. and, back home, decompresses in an Epsom salt bath 45 minutes each night to the tune of Tevin Campbell, Mary J. Blige or Jodeci. Tonight, he will be snoring before the Florida State-Ole Miss thriller even begins.

He's shown video clips of Thomas on a Kindle Fire—each one more horrifying than the last—and doesn't flinch.

Thomas punks a Chiefs cornerback on a back-shoulder throw.

"I'll play his shoulders. As his shoulders turn, then you turn that way."

Thomas toasts the Lions' No. 1 corner, Darius Slay, for a 45-yard touchdown on 4th-and-1 with Slay caught peeking in the backfield.

"You cannot let him get behind you."

Thomas shreds the Packers across the middle of the field, then snares a one-hander against Oakland in traffic.

"He's not scared to get hit."

In the snow, against the Patriots, Thomas plucks a deep ball above Logan Ryan's head. "You just have to make a play." Against Pittsburgh, he stiff-arms a defensive back to the turf and trots into the end zone. "You've got to react to that hand and knock it down."

Bradberry calls himself a "precision" tackler who gets the ball-carrier down by any means and points to the eclectic mix of brawlers (Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess) and speedsters (Ted Ginn Jr., Philly Brown) here in Carolina as having prepared him for anything. He saw Thomas tweet a photo of his Super Bowl ring at Norman after Norman boasted about shutting the receiver down.

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"He's going to be a little angry and try to take it out on the first person he sees, who'll be me," Bradberry says.

But, no, he isn't up all night watching film. He's like you. He's glued to Narcos on Netflix. He's been sleeping like a baby.

Then, he's told 27.4 million people watched last season's opener between New England and Pittsburgh.

For the first time, his eyes widen.

"It didn't weigh on me until you said that right there," he says. "I didn't think about it. If things do go sour, I can always have my mom. She'll still love me. Hopefully, it'll go well. I'm going to come out on top.



Tuesday, Sept. 6, 1 p.m. ET

Bank of America Stadium

On the eve of a trip west to Denver, nobody here is concerned about Bradberry.

"He's a great player," cornerback Bene Benwikere says. "He'll be focused and be in the right spot. I think he'll be better than most people expect him to."

Says Brown: "He's going to eat. He's one of the best rookies I've seen play corner in a while. He's a mature dude. I don't know if he knows everything, but on the field, it shows. He's playing fast. He's playing confident."

Benjamin: "There's not a size he's not comfortable with. It'll be a battle. As a young guy, his attention span will have to be very short. He'll have to move on to the next play."

Head coach Ron Rivera: "He has an air of confidence. ... He doesn't care who he's playing against. He's going to go out and compete."

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Jimmy Brevard / USA Today Sports

Earlier this week, one veteran took it a step further.

"If you look at him in his uniform, he kind of looks like Josh, without the long hair and a little darker skin," Ginn said. "His press game is amazing. To be a rook like that, he really has a good press game to him. I just think that if he stays patient and he plays to play—lets the game come to him—he's going to be a big player in this league."


Thursday, Sept. 8, 6:30 p.m. MT

Sports Authority Field at Mile High

Bradberry slept fine, again, but game day moves too fast for him. Way too fast.

"Time's not stopping," he tells himself. "I need it to pause for a second.'"

Mom texts "I Love You" in the a.m. and "I'm proud of you, no matter what" in the p.m. His sister checks in. Next thing he knows—bam!—he's in uniform. In that No. 24. No, Thomas never beats him deep. The smooth Bradberry is not overwhelmed in coverage.

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Jack Dempsey / AP Photo

But, yes, there are plays to be forgotten. Three in particular.

• As Anderson barrels down on him, one-on-one, Bradberry maintains outside containment but is twisted up when the 224-pounder uses a filthy out-and-back-in juke move. Bradberry catches air as Anderson rumbles ahead for 28 yards, and the Broncos score a touchdown three snaps later.

• On Anderson's 25-yard score, Bradberry can't escape Thomas' vice-like grip. He's bullied at the goal line, legal or not, and Denver closes the gap to 17-14.

• On the Broncos' next drive, safety Tre Boston tips a pass that Bradberry could pick off at the three-yard line but is unable to get because he can't redirect his momentum backward in time. Denver goes ahead 21-17 soon after.

He also is flagged twice. He says he could've picked off Trevor Siemian in the first quarter too.

Carolina loses.

Bradberry watches Graham Gano's last-second field-goal attempt sail wide left on the video board and then snakes his way through the mob of players on the field to find Thomas. They dap up, Thomas tells him to keep doing his thing and Bradberry is left wondering what might've been.

"I f--ked up."

Before boarding the team bus, around 10:30 p.m., Bradberry hangs out with his agent, Christopher Coy, in the family section outside the stadium. Headphones around his neck, Gatorade in hand, Bradberry has problems breathing. It feels like he smoked an entire pack of cigarettes. Oh, he once played up in the mountains of Appalachian State's Kidd Brewer Stadium at 3,280 feet above sea level. But Mile High was a different beast.

Benwikere nods in his direction a few feet away. They shake their heads.

"I was coughing out there!" Bradberry says. "That altitude, man. I was coughing and coughing. My chest hurts."

Bradberry doesn't say much else. He can't view this game in a positive light yet. Coy looks up the box score on his cellphone and recites Thomas' pedestrian stat line.

"You didn't get scorched!" he says. "You could've got scorched. That would've been real bad."

"Sir!" a young child, maybe six years old, shouts behind us. "Sir, excuse me!"

The kid doesn't know who Bradberry is yet. Nobody does with the 24 off his back. Bradberry turns, signs some autographs, turns back and pulls out his cellphone when asked how many messages he received.

He won't check them all yet. But on his lock screen, Bradberry thumbs through the endless string of texts, Facebook messages and tweets.

Coy knows the one opinion that matters most.

"Your mother called me," he tells him. "She said you played a really good game."

That brings the first smile to Bradberry's face. He boards the team bus, boards the team plane and sleeps on the three-hour flight back. When he lands in Charlotte around 5 a.m., he doesn't agonize. Doesn't pop in film. He heads to his apartment, falls asleep again and doesn't wake up until noon.


Friday, Sept. 9, 2:15 p.m. ET

Bradberry's Apartment

Everything hit Bradberry so hard, so fast the night before.

Everything at his apartment is so quiet, so peaceful the next day. A candle is lit. The shades are closed. When he finally wakes up, Bradberry flips on his massive 60-inch TV to watch Black Hawk Down.

If you thought an NFL rookie spent the day after a game glued to film, in an ice bath or pounding weights to heavy metal, you'd be dead wrong. Bradberry couldn't stop time in Denver, so he stops time here at his place, about 10 minutes from downtown.

"A lot of chilling," he says. "A lot of relaxing, recovery."

He bought Guitar Hero Live for PS4 before flying to Denver, so he'll work in a jam session. The new Air Jordans he bought on just arrived, so he'll break those in. He'll do some yoga. He'll crack his back on the foam roller.

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Jason E. Miczek / Special to Bleacher Report

Above all, Bradberry resets his mind. He takes a more measured look at his performance.

That inflated padding suffocating his head hurt worst after his first tackle of Anderson, when Anderson steamrolled him at the end of a 13-yard run.

"Especially coming from the FCS," he says, "you don't face bowling-ball running backs like that."

His ankle's OK. Only sore from Anderson's juke later.

On his two flags, Bradberry still isn't sure what he did wrong. Step by step, he re-enacts his coverage inside his living room—"I'm supposed to knock him off his route," he says, shaking his head. As for Thomas' mauling block? That was the one element of Thomas' game he wasn't prepared for. Bradberry needs to shed his man, plain and simple.

All would be forgotten if he had picked off Siemian near the goal line. Such a play must become second nature. Ex-Panther Charles Tillman told the defensive backs this summer that he'd knock the ball out of everyone's hands during practice—players, coaches, equipment managers—so creating turnovers became a mindset.

Says Bradberry, "I'm trying to build that mentality of always finishing plays and always going 1,000 percent."

Overall, he's upbeat to an umpteenth degree.

"I didn't have anything to lose," he says. "I'm a rookie. I'm going against Demaryius Thomas; he's a great player. It's already set in stone, the stuff he's done in the league. I was going to give it all I had."

But if his mission was to escape Norman's shadow—as he said himself Day 1—he hasn't accomplished that yet. When Bradberry finally sifted through the messages on his cellphone, he saw dozens of encouraging notes from friends and family. On Twitter, he saw something else.

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And then one tweet is read aloud to him:

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He may be calm. He may recycle "turn negatives into positives" in Belichickian "On to Cincinnati" repetition. For a fleeting moment, Bradberry is again that kid at Arkansas State being told he's not good enough.

"Man, I don't know what to tell you," he says. "If you look at our stats overall as a defense, we played pretty well. We had more offensive yards than they did, and Thomas didn't beat me deep. I didn't give up any touchdowns to Thomas.

"At the end of the day, he didn't beat me deep."

He'll be in the spotlight again. And again. He'll be criticized again. And again. That's the nature of the cornerback position. The spotlight never tilts away.

So it's nice and dark here at his place. Bradberry prefers to live in total seclusion.

Jason E. Miczek / Special to Bleacher Report

Lounged on his couch, he explains his infatuation with outer space. If aliens wanted to kill us all, he says, they would've done it by now. Very soon, he plans on calling his friend at NASA for the inside dirt. He's enamored by the unknown. On Dec. 31 of every year, Bradberry binges on The Twilight Zone. And, yes, he's a Star Wars junkie.

"My dad or mom bought the whole first collection of the VC...what's it called?"


"Yeah! The VHS. I had the whole collection."

He's seen every second of every edition. His favorite character is Luke Skywalker.

Which begs the question: Must this breezy, calm, introverted Bradberry turn to his own dark side? So many at his position, including the star he's replacing, embrace their inner villain.

Relish it. Own it. Market it. Thrive off it.

Make millions off it.

Must he?


Friday, Sept. 9, 3:30 p.m. ET

Bradberry's Apartment

A day off with Bradberry isn't so much about physical recovery as mental discovery.

Who is the cornerback, the competitor, he must become?

He gets that being normal is quite abnormal at his position.

Richard Sherman will shout into receivers' earholes on Sundays while tackling taboo subjects head-on Monday through Saturday. Denver's cornerbacks are game-long parasites, and, oh, Aqib Talib might've shot himself over the offseason. Norman turned a matchup with Odell Beckham Jr. into a three-hour cagefight.

Marcus Peters was kicked off his college team. Patrick Peterson is always up for a Twitter feud.

The mano-a-mano nature of cornerback feeds egos. The best in the game seek conflict. Malcontents, not milquetoasts, flourish.

And here's Bradberry perfecting "Wastelands" by Linkin Park on Guitar Hero. He misses a few notes, and the video crowd boos. He strings together 20-plus straight notes, and it cheers.

He knows the Normans, the Shermans, the Petersons thrive on the dark side. Make a mistake as a defensive tackle, he says, and nobody notices. Make a mistake at cornerback and you're the goat.

"So playing at that position, you're going to have that—I don't want to say 'selfish' mentality—but you're going to have that one-dimensional mentality," he says, "where all you think about is yourself really and how people portray you and how you want to discredit those people criticizing you. Some people are more outspoken sometimes."

He sets the plastic guitar down and pulls off his Panthers hoodie.

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Jason E. Miczek / Special to Bleacher Report

Underneath is a T-shirt featuring the iconic photo of Muhammad Ali flexing over Sonny Liston. He loves Ali. He'll be pinning an Ali poster on these empty walls soon. But he's in no rush to make any Ali-esque proclamations. He's a Mike Tyson fan too. In studying Tyson, Bradberry learned the "fear of being beat, the fear of losing" drove him.

Yet Bradberry doesn't operate that way himself. When he gets fearful, he gets nervous. He makes mistakes.

Sometimes, he uses criticism. Sometimes, he ignores it.

He'll need to learn how to knife through a downfield block, sure, but he'll also need to deal with this sudden celebrity. With the pressure. Rivera was drawn instantly to Bradberry's demeanor, the fact that nothing fazed this 23-year-old in training camp. But that was training camp. Now, the season has begun, and pressure mounts.

On a green yoga mat, Bradberry twists into a trikonasana pose with his left arm sticking straight up into the air. Ali died this year, but Michael Jordan lives only a few miles away. Bradberry imagines a meeting with the living legend.

"I'll ask him, 'What were the little things you did that made you who you are as an NBA player?'"

Jordan took the dark side to an unparalleled level. He invited people who doubted him to his Hall of Fame induction ceremony and called them out, one by one, with meme-worthy tears streaming from his eyes.

After a short walk outside, all the snubs replay in Bradberry's head again. Vanderbilt? "That hurt." Clemson? "Never heard back." Middle Tennessee State? "I was mad." Arkansas State? "Said I couldn't play corner." Somewhere inside lurks a drop of MJ, a pinch of Ali.

Jason E. Miczek / Special to Bleacher Report

"People have been criticizing me my whole football career," he says. "It's nothing new."

No, he didn't seek 24. Bradberry simply didn't want a number in the 30s and was no fan of 26. Maybe, he thinks aloud, maybe he'll change it up after the season. Start fresh. Maybe one of those other numbers in the 20s becomes available.

Then, it hits him.

He still has a full season ahead. By February, there's a chance nobody in Charlotte even remembers Josh Norman was here.

"That's the goal."


Friday, Sept. 9, 5:30 p.m. ET

Queen City Q

No heads turn as Bradberry walks through one of Charlotte's finest barbecue establishments. He takes a seat and eats pulled pork without interruption. The further he inches away from Thursday night, the more certain he is he'll bounce back.

Highlights of last night's game, aka Cam Newton being treated like a human pinata, loop overhead.

Bradberry is asked a question everyone who's seen the dabbin' and sulkin' league MVP wonders: Who's the real Cam Newton? Genuine, Bradberry assures. Teammates gravitate toward him. Love him.

"Everything isn't what people think on the outside," he continues. "Like any given play. People don't know what goes into it and who was doing what."

The same could be said about Bradberry. Nobody knows the real James Bradberry. His first impression might've fed doubts. His demeanor might leave you wondering if he's malicious enough. But there are no doubts over dinner. Mere hours after the loss, he speaks with conviction. The cornerback he envisions becoming? Easy. Darrelle Revis.

"He hasn't been the most outspoken guy," Bradberry said. "He's been able to sit back and chill and be himself."

Maybe fans were sent into a Googling frenzy when Carolina drafted Bradberry. He can name every defensive back who went ahead of him.

He also knows where these Panthers will wind up this season.

"My prediction is that we're going back to the Super Bowl."

Bradberry is mostly anonymous now. But with each pass breakup, each missed tackle, he'll introduce himself to everyone. Quarterbacks will test him. Drew Brees, Jameis Winston and Matt Ryan will attack the new No. 24 in ways Siemian didn't. Bradberry expects, for now, to be pegged the weak link in this cutthroat defense each week.

"Myself," he says, "I'm ready for the challenge."

With that, he stands up and heads toward the exit. One TV near the bar is showing highlights of the Panthers-Broncos game. At first, it grabs Bradberry's attention. He stops his stride to watch.

Three seconds later, he keeps walking.

No need for a fourth second. Bradberry has moved on.

He heads out the door, through the parking garage, into his rented Dodge Challenger and drives away.


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @TyDunne.