After six novels and more than a decade of acclaimed writing for prestigious national magazines like Sports Illustrated, Opelousas native and former LSU Tiger John Ed Bradley makes peace with his past and returns home to write a stunning and poignant memoir, It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium.
He wanted to flee and never come back. His hometown was going to be his death, suffocating him and his ambitious dreams. John Ed Bradley burned to be different, burned to be known as something more than the scrappy small-town kid who defied expectations by becoming an all-SEC center for the LSU Tigers from 1976-1979. When his playing career was over and he was back in Opelousas living in the shadow of his high school turf at Donald Gardner Stadium, the fresh-faced LSU grad endured cruel gossip and whispers when he fell head over heels in love with Connie, an older, divorced woman with children.
Bradley desperately wanted writing to be his ticket out. Even during his playing days at LSU, he would stay up at night in his dorm room pecking away at a manual typewriter, dreaming of writing novels like his hero Ernest Hemingway. After graduation, he took a job on the night shift at a local Texas Eastern compressor station, because his boss let him read novels and write during his shift. In the meantime, in a display of youthful naivete and optimism, he wrote cover letters during the day to some of the biggest, best newspapers in the country, despite having no practical experience as a journalist. The rejection letters piled up for months, until a reply from The Washington Post showed up in his mailbox one day.
A Post sports editor assigned Bradley a few stories, and six months and a few completed assignments later, 24-year-old Bradley was offered a job as a staff writer at The Post, working alongside other young, hungry talent like David Remnick, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, not to mention legendary Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who presided over The Post's Pulitzer-winning Watergate coverage.
The young Bradley covered Bear Bryant, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, Olympics and World Series stars. The Post sent him on assignments all over the country - New York, Miami Beach, Las Vegas, Daytona, Lake Tahoe, Boston.
Still, Bradley yearned to be a novelist. While working at the Post, he spent four years of early morning and late night hours writing a novel - about a former college football player who returns home, works the graveyard shift and falls in love with an older woman.
When his debut novel, Tupelo Nights, was bought by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1988 and the film rights were optioned, Bradley quit The Post.
He was going to become a famous author, marry Connie and bring her and her family to Washington, D.C., and never have to think about playing football for LSU.
It's been seven years since I last saw Bradley.
"I try at this point not to be a defeatist, but I've taken so many shots," he told me in a summer 2000 interview in New Orleans near the Magazine Street apartment where he'd moved to in 1997. I'd fully expected that day to meet a man on the top of the world - Bradley's fourth novel, My Juliet, had just been published to an early round of glowing reviews, and he was also working under contract for Sports Illustrated, writing superb literary journalism on the likes of NFL icons Donovan McNabb, Troy Aikman, Daunte Culpepper, Marshall Faulk and Archie and Peyton Manning. Bradley, however, seemed incapable of acknowledging his achievements and was consumed by disappointing sales of his books.
"I've never received a royalty check, ever, in my life," he said. "There was a time when I was a younger man that I pretended to be a great success ... but the publishers couldn't give my books away. It's hard to admit it, but it's the truth."
Bradley's life clearly informed the settings and characters of his novels. In addition to the ex-football player in Tupelo Nights, a former college football coach at a fictional Louisiana university clearly based on LSU is the protagonist of The Best There Ever Was; Love and Obits features a Washington Post reporter; and Opelousas permeates Smoke's tale of a Wal-Mart-esque chain store invading a small southern town.
Positive reviews in esteemed outlets like the New York Times Book Review greeted each work, but negative reviews stung Bradley deeply. He was particularly hurt by a Post review of Love and Obits that said the book's portrayal of African-American characters was racist.
"That was one of the low moments of my life," he said. "I felt betrayed by the paper ... To say that I'm a racist? It was unbelievable." He went on to say he hated Smoke - arguably his finest novel - and called it "too sentimental and hokey," and didn't want to revisit his other books.
"I remember the painful reviews, and the hours that I put into them, and how disappointing it was not to be able to sell the books."
At the end of our meeting that day, Bradley seemed unsure of his next step. "All my other novels took two years, and My Juliet took six.
Sports Illustrated gobbled up a lot of my time, and I was just exhausted. I'd written four novels in about seven years, and I was sick of living inside my own head. I don't know what I'm going to do next."
I never saw him again after that interview but always looked for his byline and stories in Sports Illustrated, which appeared sporadically.
In the two years after Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, a random question kept popping up in my head: Where's John Ed Bradley, and is he OK?
Three months ago, I read that Bradley was about to publish his memoir. I dug up his old e-mail address and on the slim chance it was still valid, wrote him a note out of the blue. He wrote back, saying he'd returned to Opelousas. He was busy, but maybe we'd get together for coffee sometime.
It took two months of e-mailing back and forth to set up an interview to talk about his new book. Bradley only gave me his phone number and address the day before we were scheduled to meet.
"I'm very private and somewhat paranoid about my privacy," he says shortly after he lets me into his modest one-story house in Opelousas.
"I've always been sort of private, but I got private to the point of being kind of weird about my privacy. My big thing as a writer is doing it alone and getting everybody out of my head. I think I've been real selfish as a writer. I've always cut people out who placed themselves between myself and my goal and what I have to do as a writer. If somebody's sucking the creative life out of me, I will jettison them. I can probably be hard sometimes.
"But people don't bother me; I bother me," he continues. "People are nice to me; I'm not nice to me. I think a lot of my fear was that if they really knew me and knew what a simple mess I was, they would see through my writing and the artifice and I'd be exposed. And in the end, who outs me but me? I write my own exposé."
His exacting traits are evident in his living room. Bradley is an obsessive collector; at one point he had a sizable collection of first-edition Hemingway novels, which he sold when he plunged into art collecting. Oil paintings of New Orleans street scenes dominate a central wall, all hung in perfect symmetry. His bookcases are immaculately kept and filled with everything from Gauguin retrospectives to a first edition of Faulkner's The Wild Palms, and the whole room, from the furniture to the flat-screen TV, looks like it was arranged by a mathematician with a slide ruler. Not a single speck of dust in sight is further proof that Bradley is not the average 49-year-old bachelor.
Sitting in a wingchair while alternately looking down and fidgeting with the chair's fabric, Bradley sounds almost apologetic.
"It's so weird to talk about all these things," he says. "I never thought I would. I thought this was all behind me. Six years ago, had somebody told me that I'd be doing this and that I'd written this book, I would have said, no way."
When he was 21 years old and packed up his equipment after his final LSU season was over to leave the Tigers' locker room for the last time, Bradley shut the door behind him - literally and figuratively. "It's true that some men never recover from the loss of a game they played when they were boys," he writes in the opening chapter to It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. "It's also true that I was determined not to be one of them. You weren't going to catch me 20 years later boasting about the cheers I'd heard when I was a kid. I knew the type who couldn't give it up, and I refused to be him. He kept going to games and reminding anyone who'd listen how things used to be. His wife and kids rolled their eyes as he described big plays, quoted from halftime speeches, and embellished a 'career' that no one else remembered. To listen to him, he'd never blown a snap count or busted an assignment or had a coach chew him out for dogging it or getting beat. In his mind, he was forever young, forever strong, forever golden.
"Standing there in Tiger Stadium, I squeezed my eyes closed and lowered my head. Then I wept. 'Hell, no,' I said. 'That is not going to be me.'"
Bradley stuck to his promise with an almost pathological tunnel focus.
He shunned contact with all his former teammates and coaches, including his best friend on the offensive line, Big Ed Stanton, who prayed softly every night before going to sleep. When LSU convinced him to attend a game and accept an honorary captain award, Bradley snuck out of the stadium at halftime. If an LSU game came on the radio or TV, he turned it off. When he bumped into teammate and Baton Rouge tackle Charles McDuff - who gave everyone T-shirts during the 1979 season that said NOBODY WORKS HARDER THAN THE OFFENSIVE LINE - in a convenience store 14 years later, McDuff gave him his phone number. Bradley promised to call him so they could go fishing. He never called, and two years later McDuff died of a pulmonary embolism while vacationing with his three boys on the Gulf Coast.
"I tracked down information about the funeral arrangements, and I got dressed, intending to go," he writes in It Never Rains ... "I put on a dark suit and a necktie and my good shoes. I filled up the tank of my truck for the drive to Baton Rouge, and I stared down the road, rehearsing what I'd say to his widow and children, and what I'd tell my teammates to explain why I didn't come around anymore. 'Forgive me,' I planned to say. 'This might sound weird, but I truly believe I loved it too much.' I drove almost all the way there before turning around and heading home."
Then in the winter of 2001, Bradley saw a television news report that former LSU coach Mac was dying of cancer.
Charlie McClendon, LSU's coach from 1962-1979, was a lot like Bradley's father, a football coach at Opelousas High. They were both old-school men and old-school coaches who stressed similar values: humility, hard work, teamwork, respect for others. Bradley had already lost his father to a heart attack in 1987, and now he had to face saying goodbye to McClendon. He contacted McClendon's wife to arrange a visit with his coach. "I didn't want to go," says Bradley. "It was almost like going to my execution, and it was like that, because a part of me died that day.
I had put up that fight; I had resisted for years, I'm in his house and I'm in his bedroom, and he's looking at me, and there's no hiding there.
I was just so happy that he remembered me, and so happy that he forgave me. He remembered the USC game." (In Bradley's senior year, the Tigers nearly beat then-No. 1 USC in a game that turned on a questionable penalty against LSU.) "I kept wanting to say, 'I love you coach, and I love you for what you did for me,' but we talked about football. While I was sitting there, I was thinking, we're talking about football and things that don't matter and he's dying. But in our story, that's what mattered most."
Coach Mac died two days later.
Bradley was still distraught the next time he talked to two of his longtime editors at Sports Illustrated. "They said to me, 'You need to write that piece. Write that thing that's in you. Get rid of it, do it.'
I had never written about playing at LSU or written a first-person piece for them." Bradley purged two decades of anguish - and reconnected with the pride and joy of his playing days and the camaraderie of his teammates - in a four-day writing spree. He titled the story "The Best Years of His Life," and Sports Illustrated made the story the centerpiece of its 2002 College Football Preview Issue. The story generated as much mail from readers as any other story in the magazine that year. It was later included in two anthologies, Sports Illustrated:
50 Years of Great Writing and The Greatest Football Stories Ever Told:
Twenty Tales of Gridiron Glory. With each reprinting, it generated more letters and acclaim, and book publishers started calling to see if there was more to the story, enough for a book. Bradley ultimately signed the most lucrative deal of his career to write the book with sports giant ESPN's new publishing imprint.
He knew, however, that writing the book would take him into extremely painful emotional territory. "I tried to be honest and tried to be naked that I hadn't been before," he says. "When you write a novel, it's sort of playtime in a way. You bring all your skills and you can play with the language and the story and there are no fences. With this book, I was in my own prison and the prison was my own life story, and I was limited to the walls around me. I just thought if I could get it down honestly and write about how I loved my father and how I loved him despite the fact that he never let me grow up to be a full man in his lifetime - I was still his boy, in a way. I wanted to be able to write how much I loved Connie and loved her desperately, and I didn't want to disguise it in a fictitious story as I did in the past. I wanted to be able to say her name and describe what it was like when I kissed her. I wanted to write honestly about all this stuff and my coaches, so it was hard to write. There were times of incredible sorrow and embarrassment.
I didn't enjoy writing this book; there were moments I just wanted to run away from it."
It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium chronicles Bradley's reunions with his teammates with unflinching, affecting prose. He's stunned to learn that fellow lineman Marty Dufrene was paralyzed in a freak swimming pool accident and humbled by Dufrene's resolve. Maximum security prison Hunt Correctional in St. Gabriel is the site of Bradley's meeting with Ramsey Dardar, who's now serving a prison sentence after committing a string of burglaries while addicted to crack. And when Bradley finally sees his former best friend Big Ed Stanton again, he sees that Stanton owns a golf cart even though he's never hit a tee shot in his life; Stanton bought it because it reminds him of the one time Coach Mac gave Stanton a ride on his cart during practice.
"What I learned in the course of writing and living the story is that [players] who did settle down young and get married and had children, they weren't immune to the kind of suffering that I experienced," says Bradley. "In some cases, it made them all the more aware of who they were and what they had and what they lost. They have their moments too. Big Ed lives out in Texas, and he hasn't been back. He didn't seem like a candidate for a guy who would stay clear of something that meant so much to him."
Hurricane Katrina compounded Bradley's emotional rollercoaster of writing the book; the storm hit shortly after he signed his deal with ESPN. Bradley didn't return to his Crescent City apartment until six weeks after the storm, grateful to find it largely unscathed. But as he tried to settle back in to work, he was struck with a paralyzing case of writer's block. "I couldn't even write a sentence," he says.
He had one place he could go - the house in Opelousas next door to where he grew up, and where his mother still lives. Bradley bought the home five years ago after the elderly owner passed away and had been using it as a getaway he calls his camp. He could look out his front window and see the front yard where he used to throw spirals with his father, or go next door and be in the back kitchen where he wrote his letter to the Washington Post more than two decades ago. And it was only a short drive past Connie's old house, where the couple used to meet at night after the rest of the town had gone to sleep.
Connie's reaction to the novel was Bradley's biggest fear. Their relationship had ended for good almost 10 years ago, and they were mostly estranged, going months at a time with no contact. She was the first person he sent the finished manuscript, and her initial reaction - a phone call filled with tears and anger - confirmed his anxiety. She hated his candor and didn't want to be in the book. After a cooling-off period, she gave him her blessing. "She called me back and said, 'I want you to know that I'm real proud of you and I think it's a great book,'"
He's received a similar reaction from neighbors, friends and acquaintances in Opelousas. "One thing that's been nice lately is the people I grew up with, one thing they like about the book is that I'm sharing these secrets, these little private moments," says Bradley. "I never gave up on Opelousas or the people here. I've lived away for a long, long time. When I was a reporter for The Washington Post, if somebody asked me where you from, I'd say, Opelousas. I always said where I was from and was always proud of that. I'll probably be buried here. In a way, it's been my muse. A lot of my best work has been inspired by this town."
It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium has justifiably earned Bradley some of the best reviews of his career - and the book has been selling well, too. It's been the No. 1-selling sports book in the country at various points this autumn, and Amazon.com ranked it No. 3 on its list of Top 10 sports books of 2007. Bradley is nearing the end of a three-month promotional campaign for the book that's included regional and national booksignings as well as television appearance during halftime of the nationally televised LSU/Auburn game on ESPN. By confronting and coming to terms with his past in It Never Rains ..., Bradley has felt a professional validation that's previously eluded him.
"I've had some nice reviews, been published in seven languages, been published all over the world, and that's great, and I made some money doing it," says Bradley. "But I always felt that I came up far short of my ambitions as a writer. That has changed with this book, and it's changed because I can tell from how people have responded to it that it hit home and struck a chord and struck deep. I'm sure there are people that hate me and hate the book, but I've heard such incredible comments from people that it's been overwhelming - the letters and the e-mails and the calls. It's been an incredible thing. In the past, I'd go out and do a signing someplace and if I signed 20 books, I'd just be overjoyed. Now, it's been extraordinary to go to a store and get there 20 minutes early and see that there's already a line. And I'll sign multiple copies for people - five copies, 10 copies, 12 copies, sometimes for every male member of the family. That kind of thing has been exciting."
It's also enabled Bradley to bury some of his old habits and embrace the present; he's followed the Tigers closely this season. On a Saturday night inside his Opelousas home two weekends ago, Bradley turned on his television and watched the Arkansas Razorbacks beat the Tigers on Senior Day. And he felt the kinship with seniors like quarterback Matt Flynn, who sat despondent and alone in the center of the field after his final pass in Tiger Stadium was intercepted in triple overtime.
"I know what they feel," says Bradley. "They're gonna get past that they lost. What they won't recover from is the experience of playing in Tiger Stadium. They'll never recover from it. I don't care what they do. I don't care if they have beautiful wives and perfect children or they're making millions of dollars. Whatever they do in the future, it'll be great and they'll love their lives, but they'll never forget what it's like. They're going to dream about it when they're in their 40s. They're going to be 49 years old and they're going to come in from a hard day of work and fall asleep on the sofa, and all of a sudden, they're somewhere else. They're in the stadium again and they're boys again and they're with their buddies again and the coaches they love and they will be haunted and inspired by that experience. That's part of the deal."
John Ed Bradley Booksignings for It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium
6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, Books-a-Million
5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14, Cypress City Antiques, Arnaudville