Welcome to the scene of disarray. One Bills Drive on a Wednesday in December.
Inside the fieldhouse, Rex Ryan speaks one-on-one to Mario Williams, the defensive end who’s been trashing his scheme. He chats with safety Corey Graham, the one critical of Williams’ rhetoric. Oh, hey, there’s Preston Brown, the linebacker who said calls are coming in late.
The team’s lone Pro Bowler, the one who’ll never, ever shake Chip Kelly’s hand? Sidelined with a knee injury.
Boobie Dixon says the team lacks togetherness. Sammy Watkins wants players calling each other out.
A Drake track vibes in the background.
“What a time … to be alive.”
Uh, something like that.
The sense of life leaving this team, this head coach, this fan base is palpable. At 6-8, the Bills stagger into the 15th round bloodied, beaten and bickering. Where does a player even find motivation?
Two hours later, inside linebacker Nigel Bradham is swarmed at his locker. He says he’s sick of the “finger pointing” – such a “blame game” accomplishes nothing. Three streams of sweat pour down the left side of his face. He answers directly. Honestly. And he’s hurting, too. Once the cameras leave, Bradham admits he still can’t move laterally on his high ankle sprain.
Talk about terrible timing. This is a contract year for the 6-foot-2, 241-pounder.
“I can’t cover anybody,” an exasperated Bradham says. “There’s no way I could cover anybody right now.”
He gets choked up. Anger fumes from his eyes.
“I hate not playing,” he said. “This is not for me. I have too much passion. I just want to be on the field for the boys. It’s just different.”
Through maddening times like this – season crumbling, millions on the line, a bad ankle ruling Bradham out a fourth straight game – he turns to his rock. All players have one. A mom, a dad, a best friend. It’s just that Bradham’s go-to source of motivation is incarcerated.
Homer Franklin has been behind bars since 2008 … and shuttled in and out of jail before that. Yet a close relationship has endured.
This part “brother,” part “father,” part “best friend” bond empowers Bradham day to day.
“He’s keeping me focused,” Bradham said of his older brother. “He says ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ He’s been keeping me humble with this whole contract year and the injury at the end of it. He’s been keeping me positive through this whole process – focused and hungry. Because it could’ve been a lot worse … ”
Much, much worse.
Franklin won’t be released from Wakulla Correctional Institution in Crawfordville, Fla., until Nov. 29, 2019. His last crime was violating his probation – “dirty urine,” Bradham says. Down in Crawfordville, about 30 minutes south of Tallahassee, he was a go-to drug dealer. No, he wasn’t quite a drug lord getting hounded by the feds. Yes, Bradham admits, his brother was a big deal.
Marijuana? Crack? “He sold all that stuff, man,” Bradham said. “It’s crazy.”
Officially, Franklin has done time for selling, manufacturing and delivering both cocaine and MDMA, (known as “ecstasy” or “molly”), per the Florida Department of Corrections.
Oh, Nigel has tried to free his brother. Like heck, he tried. Earlier this year, the linebacker was in talks with a lawyer to reduce Franklin’s sentencing. He wanted Homer to be there in the stands, Bills gear on, watching him play in person ASAP. Franklin hasn’t even seen Bradham play since Pop Warner. He was always behind bars.
But those hopes were soon squashed by a judge who said it was too late to appeal.
“We tried,” Bradham lamented. “That’s one of things you just can’t control – like my situation.”
So Homer lives through Nigel. Nigel listens to Homer. Bradham always has, as far back as he remembers.
‘I need to do this’
Growing up, Franklin was Bradham’s de facto father. His biological father had disappeared and his mother was always juggling two, three jobs at a time. So Franklin – eight years older – watched over Nigel when he wasn’t in jail. He introduced him to football. They played basketball. Went fishing. And when the sun went down, well, Franklin drifted into the streets.
He didn’t hide this lifestyle from Nigel; he was very up-front.
“I need to do this,” he’d say. “But you cannot.”
There’s no excuse for it – this all infuriated their mother, Rose.
But the family was poor, really poor, and he already had cousins and uncles in the drug game.
So as a result, Franklin never saw Bradham play in person beyond elementary school. Whenever Franklin was out of jail, Bradham was usually in his offseason. A month here. A month there. Franklin certainly tried to live a righteous 9-to-5 life. He worked at Sonic Drive-In and other fast-food restaurants, but the dirty money was always better money.
And when he was cuffed once, twice, three times, it became nearly impossible to get hired anywhere in town.
“He just got caught in that trap, man,” Bradham said. “And he felt like those little jobs weren’t enough money. That’s what it was for him – it wasn’t enough money. So he had to resort to that. He couldn’t get any other job.”
He’d repeat to Bradham – again and again – to stay away, that “I’m not doing this because I want to.”
Said Bradham, “He knew the risk he was taking. But he was like, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ He felt like he had to do something. And this was the route he chose, which wasn’t the greatest route, obviously.
“You never know. We could’ve lost everything.”
Which wasn’t much to begin with.
Franklin, Bradham and Mom lived in an old trailer made of wood. There were holes in the floor. Rats scattered everywhere. Cockroaches were constant tenants. And, no, it wasn’t because they didn’t clean the trailer, Bradham said. Rather the trailer was downright “terrible.”
He was usually the one clutching a broom, swinging away at rats. The key? Quickness. They’d zig, zag and escape through a hole. In time, Bradham could anticipate a rat’s every move. How many did he kill? He lost track.
Friends rarely would visit Bradham and, when they did, they were usually petrified.
“You can’t have everybody living in that type of environment,” he said. “I would never live in that again. I ain’t going back to that. That’s what I resolved to. There’s no way I’d go back to that style of living.
“I feel like that’s what made me. The way I am as a person, all of that made me who I am.”
Football became Bradham’s escape, a go route away from cocaine and “molly.” At Wakulla High School, he had 430-plus tackles in three seasons. He became a five-star recruit, drawing 40-plus scholarship offers from schools such as Ole Miss, Georgia and Florida.
And soon after Bradham chose Florida State – right on cue – Dad magically appeared.
Out of nowhere, after Bradham’s final high school football game, a stranger approached him. “I’m Fred,” the man said. “Your father.” It was the first time Nigel ever met him. He looked into his dad’s eye, saw the freaky resemblance and let him do all the talking.
Fred apologized for never being in his son’s life. He made his emotional plea. But as he rambled on and on, Bradham believed the only reason Dad was even here was to latch onto his success. To mooch. To ask for a future handout. This whole encounter, he said, was “awkward.”
After all, Franklin was more of a father, a right-or-wrong guide, than this stranger ever was.
He couldn’t shake that thought.
“For me – especially now that I have a son – it’s one of those things,” Bradham said. “I feel like how can you not want to be with your child? I think I always had that mentality. How could you not want to be with somebody that you helped create? I’m you. We’re the same person. So I never understood that out of him.
“So I couldn’t really forgive him for that. I tried. But I couldn’t. In my heart, it wasn’t right.”
No, he doesn’t expect Dad to come out of the woodwork again. He hasn’t heard from him since that night on his high school field.
Not that he cares. He has this special bond with Franklin, as unorthodox as it is.
Phone time weekly
Of course, the twisted irony is that Bradham now has enough money to put his family in an HGTV-worthy home and keep his brother off the streets forever … with a second contract on the way. But there’s Franklin in prison. Waiting.
“And it’s one of the things that keeps me motivated,” Bradham said. “Hey, the next time you get out, you don’t have to do anything like that and our family will be taken care of. It’s frustrating. But what could I say at the time? I was so young and he was my role model.”
So here’s how the two do interact.
Each Monday, they get 15 minutes on the phone, with Bradham jamming in as much information as he can – his good plays, bad plays, all statistics, the mood in the locker room, he’s basically an NFL analyst re-creating the scene. Franklin keeps a huge scrapbook album, full of photos and articles from Bradham’s high school days to Buffalo. Mom always has something to add on her visits.
He has a small TV in prison with basic cable, only catching Bradham’s games against the nearby Miami Dolphins.
One photo, one article, one convo, one fleeting visual at a time, Franklin pieces together Bradham’s life 1,200 miles north.
After Buffalo’s trip to London, Franklin wanted to hear all about Europe. What’s life like there? The culture? Both have sons – Nigel’s boy, Nazir, is 15 months old – so they discuss family and what they’ll all do together in three years.
“That helps keep his mind off of, ‘Damn, I’m stuck here,’ ” Bradham said. “So I try to keep it fresh and help him, pretty much, live through me. He really does. Even if I’m in Buffalo – doing nothing at all – he still wants to know what I’m doing. He wants to know how practice went and how my day is going.”
Bradham believes the judge was trying to make an example out of his brother. Everyone in town knew him.
He wasn’t able to pry him out of prison early, so the excruciating wait continues.
It’s been a rough month for Bradham. A nightmare, really. Rather than beef up his value in free agency with a strong finish, rather than lead his team to the playoffs, Bradham has been a spectator in throbbing pain. He’s powerless as teammates admit they’re often clueless in Ryan’s scheme.
This day, Bradham admits he’s OK with signing a “prove it”-type of contract before a lucrative multi-year deal.
Up close, teammates see the pain he’s in. Locker neighbor Brown had a high ankle sprain himself in high school – doctors told him this is often worse than breaking your leg. As he said, Bradham is hurting. Bad. And through the season, he’s been bringing up Franklin in conversation a lot, too.
“He talks about him and it’s definitely something he looks forward to,” Brown said. “His brother will get to see him play. So it’s something he always talks about. It’ll be a great day for all of them.
“It’s definitely tough. You can feel that. Not being able to have your brother, I’m sure it’s tough for all of them. They talk, have a good relationship and he knows all of the stats – he keeps up each week. They have a good relationship, just trying to get through it.”
This day, Bradham limps through the locker room, clutching a cup of strawberries. That sweat trickling down his face is wiped off. He finally smiles, exposing a mouthful of glistening braces. Joyful moments have been rare here. But, briefly, Bradham’s mind flashes forward to the day Franklin will see him play.
Live. In person.
“That’s going to be huge,” he said. “That’s going to be huge!”
The warden at the Wakulla Correctional Institution denied The News’ visitation request. But the love between these two is clear.
“It’ll be like that father coming home to see you play the first game,” Bradham said. “I have to ball out for him. That’s most definitely, for sure. That’s the main thing. He should get out and do well. He’ll be set up. I’ll make sure he’s set up nice.”
Hopefully, there’s no probation preventing Franklin from traveling. He wants him at all games, if possible.
That day he’s released – Nov. 29, 2019 – can’t come soon enough for Bradham.
His best friend – the No. 1 reason he’s here – can finally start a new life.
“It’s going to be an emotional day for sure,” Bradham said. “I don’t know how to describe it because it hasn’t happened yet. I’m just looking forward to it. I’m ready.”
With that, he nods his head and exits the locker room.
For some players, there still is something to play for.