Nigel Bradham noticed the attention that came his way after a 10-tackle performance against the Carolina Panthers in Week 6 and wondered: Why now? What about the last five seasons?
It's not just from fans and reporters. Even players on the Carolina Panthers confessed they didn't know about Bradham until he swarmed all over the field last Thursday, with two pass breakups and a tackle for a loss. To which Bradham would say: Where have you been?
"I played like that last year," Bradham said. "That's what's funny to me."
Bradham believes he has been one of the NFL's most talented linebackers dating back to his four years in Buffalo. But Bradham's never received that type of recognition, whether in awards (no Pro Bowls) or contract status (as a free agent last year, he signed a two-year, $7 million deal). So even if he showed flashes in the past, it wasn't to the level that was apparent against Carolina. That's why the attention is reaching a crescendo for the 28-year-old who plays linebacker in a fashion that would have appealed to the 700 level at Veterans Stadium.
"He plays tough, he plays mean," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "He plays with a lot of spirit. Players feed off of him. He feeds off of the guys. He's sort of stuck with it through some tough times. But we never really lost our belief in him. That game he played against Carolina was big-time."
The "tough times" haven't been about Bradham's performance on third downs, though. Bradham had an inauspicious introduction to Philadelphia. He was charged with aggravated assault two days before his first training camp for striking a hotel worker in Miami. (He has since accepted a deferred prosecution program to keep the case out of the courts.) He said at the time that it was not the first impression he wanted to make.
Then early in the season he was charged with a misdemeanor for bringing a weapon to the Miami airport.
It wasn't a good start. Schwartz said at the time that the "most disappointing thing for me is it takes away from the Nigel that we see every day, a good teammate, a hard worker, a trustworthy player on the field." Schwartz also pointed out that if you "do dumb ass things, pretty soon you're going to be labeled a dumb ass." Bradham wanted to change his reputation.
So what should be known?
Start in Crawfordville, Fla., a town of fewer than 4,000 residents about 30 minutes south of Tallahassee. Bradham described it as a "one hospital, one middle school" type of existence. If you want to know why he plays as he does, he said it's because of Crawfordville.
He grew up in a wooden trailer with his mother and older brother, fending off rats and cockroaches and dealing with a leaky roof.
"We didn't have much," Bradham said, "but we had each other."
When he went to middle school, his mother moved to a different trailer. She remains there, even though Bradham has urged her to move. She wants to stay where she planted the roots.
His brother, with whom Bradham is close, has been in prison since 2008 for drug-related offenses. Bradham declined to discuss their relationship this past week, but a 2015 Buffalo News article said his brother serves as Bradham's motivation, as does leaving behind the life he had in Crawfordville.
Bradham, who has a 3-year-old son, often mentions fatherhood unprompted. He never had a father in his life. His biological father appeared when Bradham became a high school football prospect, one of the nation's best players in 2007. Bradham didn't know if his father tried latching out to him because of his success, but it was not the relationship he envisioned.
"I was just trying to give him a shot, give him the opportunity, but things didn't work out how I wanted them to and we didn't end up getting that father-son relationship like I thought we'd be able to have," Bradham said.
He wants a different life now. Football has provided a ticket. Fatherhood has lent perspective. He started a foundation to help kids who grew up as he did in single-mother households. He hosted an event in May at the team facility for children from Northern Children's Services in Northwest Philadelphia. He proudly digs through his locker for a thank-you sign that kids made him. It's even framed.
"Focusing on doing things like that, helping make a difference in that aspect," Bradham said.
What helps that effort is having success on the field. Bradham is excelling in that department. What should you know about Bradham? Watch the way he plays.
Bradham's No. 53 was visible all over the field last week, except for the third quarter, when he went to the ground with an upper-body injury. It appeared it could be serious until cornerback Patrick Robinson saw Bradham sprinting onto the field a few minutes later, ready to return to the game.
"It was going to have to be something that wouldn't allow him to walk for him not to be in that game," Schwartz said. "I think the players felt that."
Teammates laugh about the energy Bradham plays with, a frightening combination with his sculpted 6-2, 241-pound frame. Robinson, Bradham's teammate at Florida State, remembers Bradham's looking the same way in college. It was as if he was engineered to play linebacker.
"Like a man-child," Robinson said. "Naturally just strong, fast. … Hit hard, tackled. Sideline to sideline."
The first sentence of his predraft scouting report on NFL.com describes him as "an impressive specimen at the linebacker position." He still wonders how he slipped to the fourth round in 2012. The Bills started him by the sixth game.
"There was a reason for that," Bradham said.
The Bills altered their lineup the next season and Bradham didn't start. He's still dumbfounded. By 2014, when Schwartz went to Buffalo, Bradham totaled 104 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 14 games. He appeared poised for a sizable contract. Schwartz left the following year, Bradham missed time with injuries, and he still went searching for respect.
Schwartz, who Bradham said shares a similarly aggressive personality, resurfaced in Philadelphia and knew what Bradham could offer. So when Bradham played 97 percent of the defensive snaps last season and led the team with 102 tackles, it didn't surprise him. This was why Schwartz wanted him in the first place.
Now, he's starting to hear his name more often. He said part of it is the Eagles' success, which offers a brighter spotlight. He has never played in a postseason game. But he points out he has also never played with a quarterback like Carson Wentz.
"It's great to be able to come here and see Wentz every day and know we have a quarterback," Bradham said.
This is coming at a good time for him, too. Bradham is again in a contract year. He's still at a point in his career when a lucrative contract could await. Bradham sees no reason he can't be considered among the NFL's best linebackers. But he also doesn't think the contract is connected to the way he's playing. Six years in the NFL, coming from where he came from, he's already living well.
"Everybody's like contract year, all that," Bradham said. "I don't care about that. I just want to win, dominate on defense."
But there's something else that Bradham wants. When he heard that Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins was asked about Bradham on a conference call, Bradham was curious what Cousins said. Cousins answered that he thinks "highly of Nigel," calling him an "every-down player" who is a "very productive player, very athletic." Bradham heard this and smiled. The newfound attention is good, but he believes he has already earned it. Players should know who he is. And they should know that performances like the one against the Panthers have happened before and can happen again.
"Respect. That's what we're playing for. That's all I want," Bradham said. "At the end of the day, I want my peers to see me on film and say, 'I want to play with that guy' or 'I respect that guy.'