For USC’s Clayton Bradley and his family, love is the name of the game
The cocktail waitress was not who she seemed, a 21-year-old with her life laid out in front of her, limitless.
The barfly was not who he seemed, a stocky and cocky former running back who loved the party life and was not ready for any real responsibility.
Behind the good looks and winning personality, Amy Johnston was a young woman who had never felt so alone. She had given up her dreams, leaving college in Washington, D.C., to return home to Orange County. Amy had been raised a devout Catholic, and now was her time to look to the sky and believe that a blessing could come when you least expected it.
A few drinks deep, all Kevin Bradley could see was Amy the pretty cocktail waitress. He asked her if she wanted to get breakfast sometime. She laughed.
“You want no part of me, I promise,” she said. “I have a 3-month-old at home. This is not what you’re looking for.”
Kevin left the bar in Newport Beach that night, dateless. Amy had been kind of right. He was not a guy who was driven to get married and have a family. He wasn’t against it, but he also wasn’t going to force it. Life as a 20-something bachelor was going just fine. And yet, two weeks later, Kevin found himself back at the same bar asking the same question to the same pretty cocktail waitress, although, this time, it was dinner. Her answer was different, too.
Three fun months went by, and Amy introduced Kevin to her son. Date nights became a party of three. One night, Amy brought baby Clayton to Kevin’s apartment.
“A full bachelor pad, with white carpet and everything,” Amy recalls.
Clayton was learning to pull himself up, and he eyed a potted plant and made his way over. By the time Amy and Kevin noticed, it was too late. Dirt was everywhere. Kevin had not been around kids before, and it shocked him. He sprinted to the vacuum, hoping to save that carpet.
After a few years, Kevin was not ready to marry Amy. It made her nervous, not for herself but for Clayton. They had become pals. Kevin and Clayton would disappear for hours sometimes. He’d take the boy to the barbershop and they would just hang out there, which baffled Amy. She couldn’t bear the thought of Clayton having to deal with losing Kevin.
So the cocktail waitress challenged the barfly. Was he sure about this? If she was going to shelve her hopes of getting married, he better be.
“Whether we make it or not,” Kevin told her, “Clayton and I will make it.”
When Kevin made that promise, there was so much he did not know about the future. He did not know that Clayton was going to become a better athlete than he ever was, that the boy would play tackle football for the first time as a freshman in high school and four years later earn a scholarship offer to play for the USC Trojans. All he knew then was that he needed to be there for this kid.
“I love Clayton to death,” Amy would say, “but Kevin has been in awe of him since they met.”
From the moment Clayton Johnston could form words, he has called Kevin Bradley “Dad.” It was Kevin who taught Clayton how to ride a bike, who always phoned him when he was traveling for work as a salesman for surgical equipment, who tried not to miss a game, whatever the sport.
“When I started dating Amy and got involved with Clayton, I started to see how cool it really was,” Kevin says. “I’ve never looked at Clayton as a stepson, and he doesn’t call me a stepfather, because we’ve always been in each other’s life.”
Clayton’s biological father was a family friend whomAmy had been dating off and on when she was attending Trinity Washington University in D.C., studying to be an English teacher. Ironically, one of the reasons she chose the field was that she would have summers off to be with the family she imagined in her head, one that wouldn’t exist for a number of years.
When she got pregnant, the young man was honest with her. He would not be involved. On the day Clayton was born, he was at the hospital with Amy, but that was the last time he would see his son.
“It was a hard time in my life,” Amy says, “but Clayton does not know that or feel that. That’s the only part that Kevin wasn’t there for. We were all lucky for it, because there was no drama, no weekends apart kind of thing with Clayton. Dads have a huge role in kids’ lives, but if you’re not ready to be a father, then it’s best you know that so you don’t do the back and forth.”
Kevin was there, and he did not ask for anything in return. There were times over the years when Amy wished he would. When her frustrations at not being married boiled over, they would hit a rough patch and take a break from their relationship.
“You know, the 27-, 28-year-old, you think, my friends are getting married, I’ve been the bridesmaid 20 times, I want to be the bride,” Amy says. “You break up for a minute, but Kevin never missed a beat. He stayed true to the promise that he made, and that spoke volumes.”
When Clayton was 12, Dad finally moved in with him and Mom. A few years passed, and Kevin came to the boy with a question: Would he be OK with him marrying his mother? Kevin gave Clayton approval rights on the engagement ring, and the teenager signed off. Kevin asked Clayton to keep it quiet; Amy certainly wasn’t expecting anything.
Every year, Kevin would take Amy for a trip on her birthday, so she wasn’t suspicious when they drove up to Malibu. Usually, Kevin’s birthday present was a massage or something that would help her relax during their weekend. When they got to the Malibu Beach Inn, he asked her if she wanted her gift. She said she wanted to wait until the next day, but when she turned around, Kevin was down on one knee.
She cried out years of happy tears.
They called Clayton, who was laughing on the other end. He had learned how to keep a big family secret, a skill that would serve him well.
His was the kind of story that could have led him to live vicariously through Clayton’s athletic endeavors, but Kevin did not push him toward any particular sport. He was a regular at water polo matches and basketball games, and Kevin agreed with Amy that Clayton should not play tackle football until high school. For his entire adolescence, Clayton played flag.
Entering his freshman year at Servite High in Anaheim, Clayton was already 6 feet 3. He wanted to play wide receiver, and so Kevin had him running different routes all summer long. Clayton got in the car after the first day of practice his freshman year and told Kevin the coaches had moved him to offensive tackle. They had seen enough tall 14-year-olds to know he was going to outgrow his preferred position.
“I was concerned,” Kevin says. “I thought maybe he wasn’t going to want to do that.”
But Clayton stuck with it and took pride in being a part of the Servite program and learning the fundamentals of a new position. Entering his senior year, it paid off with his first scholarship offer, to San Diego State. Later, Pac-12 schools like Arizona State and California got in the mix as well as USC.
Clayton could not deny the chance to be a Trojan and play at such a prestigious program close to home. And when he signed his financial aid agreement to cement his choice, as he had done every other time in his life, he scribbled Clayton Johnston.
It was around this time that being a Johnston had started to feel a little odd. His parents had shared the last name Bradley for a few years now. It was just a name, but still: Did Johnston, his mother’s maiden surname, fully represent him anymore?
“We had always talked about Kevin adopting him,” Amy says, “but then life just gets busy, and we didn’t really have issues. There was never a pinnacle point of, ‘Do you want to change your name, too?’ He did bring it up to me one time when we were driving, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s your decision.’ I know it was a challenge at 39 to change my last name. It is your identity.”
Kevin had never needed any official acknowledgement of his relationship to Clayton. Being “Dad” was enough. And he had never wanted to have a child of his own with Amy because he always felt like Clayton was his son just as much as if the genes had spelled it out.
Last Christmas, the family gathered at Amy’s parents’ house to open gifts. Clayton had always remembered to give Mom and Dad a gift, but this year, he was so busy with football and school, Amy wasn’t sure if he remembered. He hadn’t asked for any suggestions.
Turned out, he had something for them. He handed them an envelope. Inside sat a photograph of the three of them Clayton had developed from a recent Christmas party. Amy thought that was thoughtful enough, and then she turned over the picture. He had written a message and signed it:
Amy began to cry.
“It’s a great picture,” Kevin said, “but why the tears?”
“You didn’t read it,” she said.
Kevin looked again.
“I realized it was Bradley,” he says. “I just burst into tears.”
He may have felt like Clayton Bradley, but he still had to complete the paperwork. Kevin and Amy did not know what his timeline was, but they also just trusted that any delay was the product of a 21-year-old making the time. On Aug. 3, the first day of USC’s fall camp, the redshirt junior posted to his Twitter account (@ClaytonJ76) for the first time in well over a year. It was a picture of him and Kevin with a message:
“I will officially be changing my name to honor my Stepdad. He stepped up to be a part of my life at a young age and has made a huge impact on my life. Thank you for everything you do for my mom and I on a daily basis. My new name will be Clayton Henry Bradley.”
On the phone with Amy, Clayton asked if Kevin was mad that he had called him “Stepdad.” Clayton said that he felt like there was no other way to explain to the outside world just how unique Kevin’s role had been throughout his life.
Kevin was not mad. He was crying again.
“He’s been a huge part of my life,” Clayton says. “It just was time to honor his last name and take it on. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but also it was, I had been a Johnston for so long, so that was the hardest part, the respect also for my grandfather’s family who also helped raise me.”
For three years, as he moved his way up the depth chart to a competitor for real playing time at offensive tackle this year, his teammates and coaches called him “CJ.” Senior center Toa Lobendahn saw Clayton’s tweet on one of the TV screens at the McKay Center.
“I respected it,” Lobendahn said. “I think I messed up the first day and called him Johnston and then he corrected me, and I haven’t messed up since.”
Good thing young people are adaptable. Now, he’s “C-B” or “C-Breezy.”
“It definitely takes a little bit of getting used to,” Clayton says.
Thing is, Kevin Bradley doesn’t feel all that different.
“If his name was Jackson or Williams, it wouldn’t change how he and I both feel about each other,” Kevin says. “It’s definitely an honor. I’m not trying to downplay it. It’s special, that’s for sure.”
USC is one of the only major programs left in college football that does not feature players’ names on the back of their jerseys. So, when Clayton takes the field Sept. 1 in the Coliseum, there will be no “Bradley” to be seen.
“No, I won’t see it now,” Kevin says. “So I’ll have to wait until the next level for that one.”
Spoken like a true dad. Of course Kevin Bradley is already thinking about the NFL.
“I hope he gets to have that opportunity,” Kevin says. “I’ve always told him, ‘If you don’t think you’re the best, why should anyone else think you’re the best?’ ”
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