Jack Bradford looked at the cumbersome brace covering his left knee and sighed in frustration. And as he thought about the game he has played for more than half his life, Bradford wondered if his days as a football player were over.
It had been an exciting summer for Bradford. After impressing several National Football League teams at a scouting combine in April, he was in the middle of an encouraging tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles, who had signed him to a free agent contract. Encouraging, that is, until every player's nightmare -- a knee injury -- felled him during an exhibition game in Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
"This is the worst injury I've ever had. Two weeks is the most I've ever had to miss," said Bradford, 25, who suffered a ruptured patella tendon and will miss the season. "I was working hard, and I think they [the Eagles] were starting to notice I was a good linebacker. Now I don't know where I stand with them. I don't know if it [football] is in the cards for me."
Perhaps six months of rehabilitation will tell. Perhaps the knee won't respond the way it must for Bradford to compete against the world's top players. Perhaps Bradford, after terrorizing opponents for three years at Wilde Lake High School and enjoying a fine career at the University of Maryland, will lose his hunger for the game.
He may look back on that play at Three Rivers Stadium as the moment his dream of playing in the NFL ended.
Bradford had been performing mostly on special teams, where he expected to stay if the Eagles kept him. When Philadelphia kicked off to start the second half, he sprinted down the field and prepared to run by his opposing blocker and tackle Pittsburgh's kick returner. Then, it happened.
"His [the blocker's] knee hit mine. It was a freak play," Bradford said. "I knew it [the knee] was messed up, because I heard it pop."
An X-ray at the stadium revealed the damage. Doctors reattached the tendon during successful surgery the following morning. For one depressing week, Bradford lay in his Columbia apartment wearing a leg cast.
The cast is gone now. But the frustration has doubled for Bradford.
He is only a year removed from his first setback in his quest to play in the NFL. In the spring of 1991, while he sat by the phone hoping to be drafted, the Washington Redskins called Bradford during the ninth round and invited him to their spring rookie camp for a tryout. But after two scrimmages, the Redskins cut Bradford.
Last winter, Bradford put football aside and got on with his life. Having graduated from Maryland with a degree in business, he started a construction business with his father in January. A month later, he got married.
All along, though, Bradford continued to stay in shape. In April, he decided to go to a scouting combine at Rutgers (N.J.) University. There, the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder put on an impressive show. He bench-pressed his body weight 22 times, ran the 40-yard -- in 4.68 seconds and demonstrated a 37-inch vertical leap.
Pittsburgh, Chicago and Philadelphia expressed interest. Bradford decided to sign with the Eagles, and he reported to their rookie camp on June 1. On July 6, he reported to their voluntary camp.
"I came to camp in excellent shape, stronger than ever," he said. "I had thought about giving it [football] up, but I realized I still had to get it out of my system."
Football has been in Bradford's blood since he was 11, his first year of recreation ball. He graduated from Wilde Lake in 1985, the year he led the Wildecats to their first state title.
He started at inside linebacker at Wilde Lake for three years, and also played fullback his last two seasons. As a senior, Bradford scored 26 touchdowns and made 107 tackles, both team highs. He remains the school's all-time leading tackler.
Bradford went on to have a distinguished career at Maryland, where he made 211 tackles in four years and had a terrific senior season. That year, he made 81 tackles and led the Terps in sacks (10) and tackles for losses (16).
Bradford said he plans to go all-out in his comeback attempt. He already is back in the weight room, working to sustain his muscular upper body. But if the comeback doesn't pan out, Bradford said this time he is prepared to walk away.
"I can't cry about it," Bradford said. "I've got a nice apartment, I've started a business, and I married a good woman. The Lord has blessed me in many ways. I've accomplished a lot."