By Mike Baker
Mike Bradley was always the underdog.
That may be hard to believe given he, arguably, holds claim to being Haliburton’s most successful athlete, after racking up 100 games over six seasons with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos (now the Edmonton Elks) and winning two Grey Cups, but Bradley’s football career was borne out of humble beginnings.
Speaking to the Echo last week, the retired CFLer, who was recently inducted into the inaugural class of the Haliburton Highlands Sports Hall of Fame, remembers his first dalliance with a sport he grew to love.
“My first memory of football would be back at [Haliburton Highlands Secondary School], when they put out an announcement for anyone interested in playing football, telling them to head down [to the gym] and get some equipment. I remember I was passed over, I didn’t even get any equipment for that first week of practice,” Bradley chuckled.
A lesser person may have folded and quit. As an undersized freshman, Bradley was assigned to the high school’s ‘burger team,’ scrimmaging with other rookies. But for all that Bradley gave up in size and strength at the time, he more than made up for with heart. He quickly became a fixture on the team, impressing coaches Gary Brohman, Paul Morrisette, Tim Davies and Derek Little.
Following a successful first year, and in the summer between his Grade 9 and Grade 10 years, Bradley had a bit of a growth spurt. He spent considerable time in the gym training, aiming to become faster and stronger to help with his football aspirations. He returned to school that fall almost unrecognizable from the kid who was barely given a chance 12 months prior.
Through five years of high school football, Bradley set several records – both in football and track and field. In one game in 1995, he set records that will likely never be eclipsed, racking up 379 rushing yards and a 110 yard punt return. On the track, Bradley set a school record that still stands today, running the 100 metres in 10.84 seconds. In 1997, his victory lap year, he was recognized as HHSS Athlete of the Year.
By then, Bradley had already signed on to play football with the University of Waterloo. While he had several offers on the table, Bradley picked Waterloo after researching their criminology program. The plan, at the time, was to complete his degree and go on to law school.
Moving away from home for the first time, coupled with the pressures of juggling both an athletic and academic schedule was a shock to the system.
“I was on the field at Waterloo seven days a week, we had film study prior to practice, and then we also have to try to manage some time to get into the gym as well, to see the physio. But the number one priority was always your classes, because if you’re not passing then you’re not playing,” Bradley recalls.
By this point, Bradley thought he had established himself at both ends of the football field – as a running back on the attacking end and as a free safety on defense at HHSS. When he first hit the field at Waterloo, however, he found himself on the outside looking in yet again.
“I don’t think they really knew what to do with me [in my first year at Waterloo]… It was a big step up for sure. The best way I can describe it is everybody that was a star on their high school football team was eligible to move on to play at university. In high school, when I played the Lindsay and Peterborough schools there was maybe one or two standout players on the field, but when you get to university every player on the field is a standout player,” Bradley said. “Everybody is that much faster, that much stronger, that much bigger and has much more understanding of the game.”
Similar to his time in Haliburton, Bradley was a member of the team, but didn’t quite excel until year two. In his second year with the Warriors, Bradley won the starting tailback position and made second team All-Canadian. It was during this spell that professional teams started sniffing around.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders were the first to register an interest. More followed. That only pushed Bradley on to further improve his game.
In his third year with Waterloo, Bradley rushed for 1,162 yards, earning him the league MVP award. Bradley was also recognized as a finalist for the Hec Crighton Trophy, awarded annually to the top university football player in Canada.
Going into his senior year, Bradley appeared to be a lock to be a top pick in the 2002 CFL Draft. He then picked up an injury that saw miss almost the entire season, falling off the radar of pro teams and going undrafted.
Then, the day after the draft, he got a call.
“Getting hurt in my draft year hurt my stock big time. I went from having lots of teams interested to not being drafted. Then I got the call from the Eskimos and at that point I was happy to sign any sort of contract, so there really wasn’t much of a discussion. It was ‘do I want to go and play for the Eskimos?’ and the answer was absolutely yes,” Bradley said.
The step-up to the pro game was unbelievable, Bradley remembers.
“I was used to, when you start practicing for the first time in high school or university, everything being slowed down, kinda giving people the chance to learn the system, but when I went to Edmonton they had sent me a playbook prior to arriving. I was expected to know everything in that book on my first day, and be ready to practice at full speed from day one,” Bradley said.
Having made his name at Waterloo as a running back, he was given the chance to play the position during his first training camp. He would lock the position down for the next six years, making 100 appearances, including three in Grey Cup championship games. He was on the winning side in two of them – in 2003 and 2005. He cites bringing the Grey Cup home to Haliburton to celebrate with his friends and family, not once but twice, as, perhaps, his crowning achievement.
When he called time on his career in 2007, he did so with no regrets. Instead he revelled in the memories – a Labour Day classic between the Eskimos and rivals the Calgary Stampeders, on a day when 66,000 people crammed themselves into Commonweath Stadium in Edmonton, and Bradley could feel the ground reverberate beneath him as fans cheered his team on.
And then there’s his first game as a professional back in Ontario, when the Eskimos took on the Toronto Argonauts at Rogers Centre (then the Skydome) in 2002.
“The support that day was incredible. It was a little overwhelming to me how many people from Haliburton made the trip to watch that game. That’s something I will never, ever forget,” Bradley said.
Now, almost 15 years retired, Bradley spends his days as a police officer with Durham Regional Police. He lives in Oshawa with his wife, Kim, and two children, Hannah and Macey.
When he first got word that Scotty LaRue was working on putting together a Sports Hall of Fame in Haliburton, Bradley thought of the likes of Bernie Nicholls and Ron Stackhouse, true NHL greats who enjoyed long and successful careers. Such is the modesty of the man, he never once considered that he would find his name immortalized up there too.
“It’s just such an honour to be recognized. There are so many good athletes to come out of our community. When I saw some of the names that were inducted, to be included next to the Bernie Nicholls and Ron Stackhouses of the world is pretty surreal,” Bradley said. “I’m just a kid from Haliburton who worked hard and happened to make a decent go of playing football.”