Bradley Bozeman was a short, doughy kid who did not know how to stand up for himself.
His future wife, Nikki, grew so quickly that she actually looked down on her male fifth-grade teacher. A nemesis named Travis led classmates in chants of “Gigantor” or “Man hands” every time she stepped onto the bus to school.
The Bozemans evolved into elite athletes — Bradley as the starting left guard for the Ravens and Nikki as a 6-foot-2 forward on the Alabama basketball team — but long before that, they understood the pain and terror inflicted by bullies.
For the past two years, they’ve told their story to more than 60 groups of schoolchildren. Now they’re taking this show on the road for a 17-state RV tour, all the way to San Francisco and back to Baltimore by the end of March. At each stop, the Bozemans will visit a school, just as they did for their kickoff appearance at Pikesville Middle on Friday morning.
Their message is simple: If a 6-5, 317-pound NFL lineman and a confident college basketball standout felt the sting of bullying, anyone can. And it’s OK to talk about it.
“You have a purpose, no matter how big or small it might be,” Bradley Bozeman told the crowd of students packing the bleachers at Pikesville Middle.
“Our message is find out what makes you, you,” his wife added.
After introducing themselves, the Bozemans asked everyone except students and teachers to vacate the Pikesville gym. They wanted kids to feel comfortable sharing their rawest experiences. It’s not always easy to get someone to speak out, but once the first hand goes up, the dam usually breaks.
“An event like this helps us do our job,” said Venetia Banks, the school’s counseling chair. “This is a way for kids to bring up what’s bothering them. They get the sense that it’s OK to open up and share.”
Bozeman, a jovial but soft-spoken presence in the Ravens locker room, never fancied himself much of a public speaker. But shortly before he was drafted, a school in his native Alabama reached out to ask whether he’d share a supportive message with a young girl who’d been bullied.
“The simple reason she was picked on is that she was Chinese,” he said. “She was a beautiful young lady, smart academically and talented in athletics. The color of her skin was the only thing she was getting picked on for. So I said, ‘You know what, we’re going to come down, and I’ll talk with her.' ”
When Bozeman got to the school, someone suggested he share his message with the entire student body. Nervous as he was, it felt right. He didn’t know it, but he and Nikki had found a calling to pair with his burgeoning NFL career.
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“It spoke to us,” he said. “Emotions started flowing, and kids were opening up, telling complete strangers everything they have going on in their lives. It was really brave on their part and humbling on our part. We got in the car and looked at each other and started bawling.”
Now, they’ll mix their cause with another passion: mobile living.
Last year, while Bozeman cemented himself as a starting lineman for one of the best teams in football, he and Nikki lived out of a 40-foot RV in Eldersburg. They’re proud products of country raising, so both felt at home in their mobile outpost on the edge of a quiet, wooded lot.
They’ve bought a house for next season. But they’ll spend the next two months living on the road out of a smaller, 27-foot unit pulled behind their black Ford pickup. They and their two dogs departed straight from the parking lot at Pikesville Middle. First stop: Nikki’s hometown of Kennesaw, Georgia.
For Ravens fans wondering about offseason conditioning, Bozeman said he’ll keep up. Lots of push-ups, body-weight squats and a carefully managed diet. “She’ll keep me straight,” he said, nodding toward Nikki.
The Bozemans look forward to visiting destinations such as New Orleans, Lake Tahoe and St. Louis but said they’re motivated more by school appearances than tourist itineraries.
“This is the drive for us,” Bradley Bozeman said Friday as he finished posing for photos and signing autographs.