Now, Ahmad Bradshaw only acts out when he runs

Ahmad Bradshaw. (giants.com)
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“What’s the one thing you want people to know about Ahmad Bradshaw?” I asked the Giants running back during an interview at his practice facility locker nearly two weeks ago.

“That I’m friendly,” he said, and looked down as he flashed a wide smile.

He had been looking down for most of the interview. He had kept his hands occupied by doing busywork with his equipment, half-fixing and half-fidgeting. When that ran its course, he did the same with the goatee part of his chinstrap beard, tugging at the hairs hanging from his chin. None of this signaled disengagement or sullenness. It mostly seemed like an attempt by Bradshaw, who is just 24, to get more comfortable as he discussed his upbringing, his family, his controversial past and his play on the football field.

Less than a week after I talked to him, Bradshaw’s once-stellar season, his first as a starter, one in which he led the NFC in rushing yards seven weeks in, hit a low point: Head Coach Tom Coughlin took away his starting job because of his propensity to fumble. On a team Coughlin described as having a “careless disregard for the ball,” a team that leads the league in turnovers, Bradshaw was made an example of as the most egregious offender.

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It wasn’t by any means the first time Bradshaw has been in trouble, though in the past it has been for off-the-field behavior.

Since he was drafted, Bradshaw has been surrounded by a vague aura of delinquency that was never quite explainable by the known facts. For instance, his minor brushes with the law in college never seemed to justify the stigma he received as a “character risk” whose draft stock plummeted to the seventh round, who General Manager Jerry Reese said would be “on a short leash.” Then, in the off-seasons following his second and third seasons, he served two parts of a single prison sentence for violating his probation from a mysterious sealed conviction from his teenage days.

“Mistakes,” he calls them, and he and the Giants rightly point out that he has kept his nose clean since entering the league (aside from having had the misfortune of being out with Plaxico Burress the night the star receiver shot himself in the leg). Mistakes. When put like that, the fumbling problem is just another one he will have to overcome. He will go about making this improvement, as he has others, with a minimum of fuss. But now, having amassed some track record of solid citizenry, having patiently bided his time as a reserve before ascending to the starting position (the benching, Giants fans hope, is a temporary blip), having grown more comfortable with the New York press corps, he wants people to know: He’s friendly.

“HE’S SUCH A TOUGH GUY. YOU KNOW WHAT I’M SAYING?” said Bob Pruett, who coached Bradshaw at Marshall University, in a phone interview. “Ahmad is a great kid. He deserves everything he gets. He keeps his mouth shut, he works hard, and he’s so damn tough.”

Pruett, who speaks in a West Virginia twang, drew out the word “tough,” infusing it with a reverence befitting its exalted status in football. He was getting at what makes Bradshaw’s running style so appealing, aside from its effectiveness. Bradshaw isn’t one of those smooth, gliding runners who make the game look easy. Everything he does is hard. He runs with his knees pumping high, his feet crashing down and then driving off the ground, hard. When a bigger defender seemingly engulfs him, he furiously twists his torso, squirming to escape as if his survival depends on it. Everyone on the football field is trying hard. But with Bradshaw, the effort seems more palpable. Often, when he gets tripped up to short-circuit a promising run, he pounds the ground in frustration in an infectious moment of shared sentiment with the fans. He always thinks he should have had more.

The fact that he’s so small accentuates the predator-prey drama of his runs: At 5-foot-9, he is usually the shortest of the 22 players on the field. At an official weight of 198 pounds, only one of the league’s 32 current starting running backs—Tennessee’s Chris Johnson—is listed as lighter. He has a natural elusiveness and a nose for the open field, which is why he generates so many big plays despite not having elite top-end speed. (He’s more quick than fast, in scout-speak.) Giants fans will remember his 88-yard run against Buffalo in 2007, which galvanized a sputtering team and helped set the Giants on their Super Bowl course.

That run (shown in this YouTube clip), along with one against the Seahawks in 2008, show why Bradshaw is so much fun to watch: His is a schoolyard style in which scoring is the only goal and being tackled is a personal affront.

He punctuates his touchdown runs with a unique old-school celebration: Upon scoring, he takes a running start and does a twisting leap in the air, allowing himself leverage to ferociously spike the ball straight down to the ground.

“I just thought about it one day before the game and did it,” he explained to me. “I liked it. Got some good pics out of it. Now I’m signaturizing it.”

When all escape routes are exhausted, he relishes the inevitable physical confrontation at the end of his runs. Giants fans fondly remember his first quarter run in Super Bowl XLII, when he dragged New England defensive lineman Ty Warren for several yards despite giving up more than 100 pounds in bulk. The image of Bradshaw churning his legs and moving forward with Warren’s massive arms around his neck was the perfect David vs. Goliath metaphor for the Giants’ upset of the undefeated Patriots.

“He was so physical, probably the only kid we ever had where we never saw him flinch,” said Doug Marrs, the current head coach at Graham High School, Bradshaw’s alma mater, who was an assistant when Bradshaw was there. “Ahmad never, I don’t know, respected his body. Regardless of anything. He was always banged up, banged around. It was always full-bore all the time.”

“The guy has no conscience,” added Jerald Ingram, the Giants running backs coach. By that he meant that Bradshaw isn’t concerned with certain things he ought to be concerned about, like his physical well-being.

But this uber-competitiveness, this unwillingness to settle for anything less than the best possible outcome for every run, is also his undoing. Bradshaw’s six fumbles this year are tops in the league. Too often, as he forges ahead for every last scrap of yardage at the end of a run, he neglects to secure the ball against his body. In these moments, pride is at stake, and calculations about the value of a few extra yards versus that of a catastrophic turnover take a backseat.

Ingram, speaking to reporters earlier this year, mentioned Bradshaw’s habit of using his non-carrying hand to stave off defenders instead of covering up the ball.

“He runs mean and angry and he’s ready to fight everybody off with his hands and whoever is in the way. Now he has to learn how to be smarter and still be the same guy,” he said. “He really has to put his energy towards, ‘Hey, I can really run with my legs and my legs are strong enough, I don’t need to fight with my hands.’”

The ability and willingness to “run hard” is lauded in running backs, but it has other consequences. Bradshaw’s style puts considerable strain on his ankles and feet, which are chronically troubled. Last offseason, he had three surgeries: one on each foot to repair cracked metatarsal bones, as well as one on bone spurs in his right ankle that have bothered him since college.

We are in the age of the disposable running back. They have the shortest career expectancy of any position, and are typically cast aside after a few short years of effectiveness. Taken together with his small stature and declining production as this year has worn on, it’s reasonable to wonder how much longer Giants fans will get to enjoy Bradshaw.

Earlier this year, Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride told reporters, “The injury concern is something that has to be taken into account, there’s no question. It’s still there. He’s as tough as they come to overcome the problems that he’s had with the two surgeries on his ankles and feet from last year. I’m still holding my breath hopefully that he’s going to be able to last the entire year.”

“ACROSS THE TRACKS, MAN, THAT’S WHERE IT’S AT. BLUEFIELD, Virginia!” Bradshaw said to me when we discussed the especially impoverished section of the impoverished Appalachian town in which he grew up. He said the “Bluefield, Virginia” part in the sing-songy hip-hop cadence used to rep a place. He added, “Not a lot of wealthy people live over there.”

This was certainly true of the Bradshaws and the many other black families who lived north of the Norfolk and Western Railroad tracks. Bradshaw spent his early childhood in public housing living with both parents, then moved to North Carolina for his sixth grade year after his parents separated. But he missed his friends and large family in Bluefield, so he returned after just one year. During high school, he lived with his grandmother to be closer to school. All the while, his mother, a nurse who worked three jobs, sent checks to support him financially.

“That’s the reason I’m so hard-working, because she was so hard-working,” Bradshaw told me. “She worked hard for me to have what I wanted whenever I wanted when I was younger.”

He was sweetly effusive in his praise of all of his relatives. His father, who died last June at 57, was “the best father ever.” His grandmother is “the definition of the greatest grandmother. Her and my mom would do anything. They always had a meal on the table. I mean, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”