Freddie Bradley has made some great runs in his football career. He scored three weeks ago on a 93-yard kickoff return the first time he touched the ball for Moorpark College, and as a Hueneme High senior he single-handedly engineered a 14-13 upset of Hawthorne with touchdown runs of 60 and 42 yards.
Bradley's best breakaway, however, didn't come on the football field, but instead occurred before his junior year of high school when he gathered his worldly possessions in a pair of garbage bags, approached Hueneme Coach George Machado and asked for a home.
In moving in with the Machado family, Bradley put a head fake on a checkered past and began running not for the goal line but for a set of goals that have changed his life.
"I started off on the wrong foot," Bradley said. "I didn't go to school, hung out with the wrong guys. . . . Now I want to go to school and college."
Bradley was living with his sister in Oxnard when she decided to return to the family's native Arkansas the summer before Bradley's junior year. Machado had never taken in an athlete before, but Bradley had no place to go and wasn't enthusiastic about returning to Helena, Ark., a small town on the Mississippi River.
"I just came home and said, 'Guess who's coming to dinner,' and he's stayed three years," said Machado, who lives with his wife, Dianne, and 11-year-old daughter, Lindsay. "Freddie's brought a lot of love to our family."
Critics said Machado was more interested in the talents Bradley brought to the Hueneme backfield.
"I'm not going to say that football wasn't part of the motive, but that was secondary to his needs," Machado said of his decision to take in Bradley and keep his talented running back on the team. "He needed a family. Basically, we're supplying the family he doesn't have. He's never had a stable role model."
The Machados moved from Camarillo to Port Hueneme in order to keep Bradley within Hueneme High boundaries. Bradley still lives with the Machado family although he now attends Moorpark.
"If it was just for football, when I got hurt he could have said, 'Go home,' " said Bradley, who suffered an Achilles' tendon injury against Hawthorne that hindered him throughout his senior season. "They're like a father and mother really. They take care of me."
Bradley's real mother died when he was an infant, and he seldom saw his father. Bradley became the football in a sort of human triple reverse, being handed off from one relative to another.
Living with his sister and her six children, Bradley was basically on his own, and he showed the lack of discipline.
"When I first got to Hueneme, Freddie Bradley was a freshman, and most people would have said he was an . . . ," Machado said.
They probably didn't say it to his face, though. Bradley was a fighter, who didn't need much of an excuse to start pummeling someone.
"I was one of those guys who always come to school to start trouble," said Bradley, who skipped school so frequently as a freshman that he had at least 40 absences in every class. "No one liked me. I hung out with the wrong crowd. I'd hang out with guys who'd drink, smoke weed, that kind of stuff."
Bradley was also smoking marijuana and drinking as a freshman "because my friends did it. We didn't go to class. That's probably where I picked up my speed, running from hall monitors," he said.
Living with Machado, Bradley could run but he couldn't hide.
"The way he talks, you have to listen to him," Bradley said of his coach.
Machado told Bradley his athletic talent could earn him a college education, a foreign idea for a kid who spent all his time trying to get away from school rather than into school, but Machado was one of the few people telling Bradley he could make something of his life.
Now, Bradley only runs wild on the football field. He says he no longer smokes, drinks or does drugs, and he carries 198 adamantine pounds on his 6-foot frame.
"He's certainly going to be a force on our team," Moorpark Coach Jim Bittner said. "He has the speed to go outside, but he's also a strong inside runner."
With a best of 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash and a top bench press in excess of 360 pounds, Bradley could be a junior college version of his idol, Herschel Walker. He was nonetheless held to 10 yards in seven carries in Moorpark's opener against East L.A., although he did catch a pass for a touchdown and return a kickoff for a touchdown.
Every week Bittner expands the offensive package and gives Bradley more options. In his second game, Bradley exploded against Valley College with 132 yards in 23 carries. Last week against Compton College, Bradley ripped off a 61-yard touchdown and gained 83 yards while playing little more than two quarters in a 55-0 blowout.
"I'm kind of more of a power runner," Bradley said. "I can break arm tackles. I like to run straight up and down. I've got to get down lower."
Bittner says Bradley could try to avoid tackles more and try to run over tacklers less. He played tailback for Hueneme, but plays fullback for Moorpark and will likely be moved back to halfback if he accomplishes his goal of playing Division I football.
Machado has pledged to provide for Bradley's college education regardless of football, but Bradley hopes to pay his own way with a scholarship. "I think there's not a doubt he's a player with Division I potential," Bittner said. "I think he got overlooked a little. We were very pleased to get him, but we weren't surprised."
College recruiters came calling during his senior year at Hueneme but quickly backed off when they saw Bradley's grades. He improved his high school grades after an abysmal freshman year, but he still stands a better chance of winning a Heisman than a Nobel.
"I'm still not even sure he knows what a library is," said Machado, who rides herd on Bradley's study habits. "Freddie is not by any means stupid, but educationally he's been deprived."
Like any great back, though, Bradley has seen a glimpse of daylight and is breaking for it. Machado, a former Moorpark star himself, has created the opening, and athletics has provided the impetus to succeed. Bradley now knows what he can be and what he could have been had the Machado family not shown they cared.
"I'd probably still be hanging out with those same guys," Bradley said. "I'd probably be in trouble. I'd probably be in jail. I'd probably be selling drugs."