EAGAN — Garrett Bradbury stared up into the sky as he tried to track the football. Surely, his days as a baseball player prepared him for this.
He fought the glare of the sun as he motored to his left.
Oh no, he’d overshot it.
Bradbury made a critical last-second adjustment and craned his entire body backward, hauling in the football like he was Willie Mays in center field. He’d done it.
His buddies went wild as Bradbury dismounted the jet ski.
The summer before his senior year, Bradbury and teammate A.J. Cole III, North Carolina State’s punter, went viral with a jet ski trick shot at Lake Wylie near Bradbury’s parents’ North Carolina home. Cole leapt off a dock and punted the football in mid-air while Bradbury tracked it on a jet ski, settling under it for an improbable catch that might make Vikings special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf do a double take.
It only took two attempts to complete.
“It was pretty crazy,” Bradbury told Zone Coverage after his final practice before making his preseason debut.
— AJ Cole III (@AJCole90) July 28, 2018
From jet ski shenanigans to more traditional athletic feats, things have typically come quickly to Bradbury, who will make his first appearance as the Vikings’ starting center Friday night in New Orleans.
Aside from getting ribbed about his sweating by quarterback Kirk Cousins on Wednesday, plaudits have willingly been thrown Bradbury’s way throughout camp, setting a high bar for his rookie season.
“Having to identify new defenses is a new challenge for him that could be a little unsettling,” said Cousins. “But I just keep going back to the fact that he’s a professional, and he’s the kind of person that seems to roll with it and handle it really well. I have high expectations for him as a result.”
Perhaps part of the reason Bradbury has made such an impression in camp is his background at N.C. State, where he was surrounded by NFL talent, especially on the defensive line, that readied him for the battles he’ll soon be facing in the NFL.
Head coach Mike Zimmer appeared on the radio recently and made this declaration about the rookie: “[Gary] Kubiak said to me the other day, ‘If we were voting for offensive captains I’m not sure he wouldn’t get some votes.'”
Over the last two drafts, N.C. State produced 11 NFL draft picks. Out of 14 ACC schools, only Miami can match that with 11 of their own — more than Florida State or Clemson. In 2018, only Alabama had more draft picks than N.C. State.
Bradbury’s skillset — first as a guard, then as a center — was enhanced as a junior by facing 2018 third-round picks B.J. Hill (Giants) and Justin Jones (Chargers), both of whom are on this year’s Vikings schedule.
“You could see the culture change throughout my five years there,” Bradbury said. “Any time you have talent on a team iron sharpens iron. We had a lot of good battles in practice and I think that’s why we won the games that we did. It was a good few years.”
One of Bradbury’s closest friends on the team was quarterback Ryan Finley, a fourth-round selection of the Cincinnati Bengals. He was the videographer for Bradbury and Cole’s jet ski stunt, as well as Bradbury’s roommate last year.
Finley, Cole, Bradbury and a handful of teammates formed a casual book club at N.C. State where they read self-help guru Tim Ferriss — a way to better themselves off the field.
“We’re obviously football players and that’s our job,” said Bradbury, “but we’re obviously a lot more than that.”
On the field, that camaraderie had its benefits. Bradbury says that being surrounded by professional-caliber talent had a positive effect that not only raised the tide of the program but gave its many NFL hopefuls a model for how to prepare in practice and, eventually, how to get ready for the draft.
In an interview with Zone Coverage following the draft, Wolfpack offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford — who is now a coordinator with Louisville — said Bradbury turned into “one of the best practice players that I’ve ever been around.”
“Their hard work paid off,” said Bradbury of his former teammates. “It wasn’t by chance or luck that they went and had the success that they did.”
Friday night in New Orleans, Bradbury will put to the test all his offseason work that included a trip to Duke Manyweather’s offensive line camp, plenty of give-and-take with center-turned-guard Pat Elflein and thousands of snaps to Cousins.
He was one of the Vikings’ primary targets in last spring’s draft, brought in specifically to anchor their revamped wide zone scheme with his athleticism.
“There’s just a little bit more detail [in the NFL versus college],” Bradbury said early in camp. “You need to understand defenses a bit more. I don’t know if it’s a leg up, but it’s a play I love running as an offensive lineman, and it’s a really good scheme.”
Bradbury just turned 24 years old, one of the older offensive linemen drafted. Cousins, though, sees a maturity from Bradbury not usually evident in rookies.
“He’s very mature,” said Cousins after a training camp walkthrough. “I just talked to him in the locker room, and I just feel I’m not talking to someone who’s right out of college. I feel like I’m talking to someone who’s about my age.”
Well-rounded from his N.C. State journey, Bradbury does not come across as easily fazed. But it doesn’t mean he’s immune to nerves. After all, not every day can be spent riding jet skis at Lake Wylie.
“I expect pregame jitters. I had those in college every year,” said Bradbury, “but as soon as you hit someone, as soon as that first ball is snapped, all that goes away and you just play football again.”