Photo: Ahmad Bradshaw is bidding for the starting quarterback job. Below, Mike Krzyzewski and Army head coach Bob Knight.
Captain Mike Krzyzewski (U.S. Army retired) and Army West Point plebe Ahmad Bradshaw are separated by a couple generations and wars spanning decades, but the past and present Black Knights share more in common than their Chicago roots.
Someone convinced them as a high school senior of the life-altering path West Point offered. The future Coach K says it despite graduating in 1969 during Vietnam. Bradshaw believes it despite his five-year military commitment following graduation and no end in sight to Middle East terrorism. The mission of the U.S. Military Academy, developing leaders, never changes with time
“The more I learned about it, the more I thought it was the perfect fit for me,” said Bradshaw, competing for Army’s quarterback job in the fall as a sophomore. “It’s a place that challenges you constantly, but I like a challenge. I decided that’s exactly the atmosphere I wanted to be in.”
Krzyzewski, growing up on Chicago’s North Side as the son of Polish immigrants, had to be provoked by his parents to commit to West Point. Coach K, college basketball's all-time winningest coach, describes the push and pull with his parents this way in his book, “Leading with the Heart:”
“You’re going. We’ve always wanted you to have a formal education. We never had such an opportunity. This is a great opportunity for you.”
“I don’t want to do it.”
“We don’t have any money. And you can go to West Point? You better go to West Point.”
Krzyzewski gave in, playing point guard for Bob Knight. He led Army to two wins in the 1969 NIT tournament back when the NIT field meant something. He doesn't have to be prodded to admit his parents were right.
Bradshaw grew up on Chicago’s South Side in violent neighborhoods – the kind that makes network news for gangs, crime and teen-age death. Or maybe it could have been a scene from upcoming Spike Lee movie "Chiraq." Bradshaw played quarterback at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep for a coach he considers a mentor, former Eagles coach James Brown.
“Army is taking a kid from the inner-city of Chicago, a rough place, and molding him to be a man,” said Brown. “My hat is off to Army for the chance they give kids like Ahmad. Sometimes, when I think about it, I want to cry.”
It’s more than sentimental emotion for Brown. Bradshaw and other players Brown has sent off to college provide a successful contrast to the anguish that stays with him for the kids he couldn’t save from Chicago’s South Side.
“I’ve been coaching 19 years in Chicago public schools, and when people ask me my won-loss record, I say, ‘35-10,’ ” Brown said. “People ask me how I could have only coached that many games in all those years. I say, ‘It’s 35 incarcerated and 10 killed.’ ”
The future that Brown long ago saw in Bradshaw also was spotted by veteran Army assistant coach Tucker Waugh. He identified Bradshaw’s talent along with his strong academics and leadership qualities. The 5-foot-11, 196-pounder also fit Army’s triple-option offense, having directed spread and option offenses at Brooks. Brown welcomed Waugh's recruiting pitch.
“Ahmad is a great leader; he has attributes you can’t see,” Brown said. “He has a sparkle in his eyes. If he is Army’s quarterback, they can beat Navy. He is that kind of leader. The Army recruiter did a good job. Ahmad could have gone to other schools, but we sat down and weighed his options.”
Included in the discussion was Bradshaw’s mother, Kizzy Collins. She had established a foundation despite struggling as a working single mother raising a son in a tough neighborhood.
“His mom is the best,” Brown said. “She’s done a great job with him.”
That included unwittingly preparing the future officer for the challenges he would face to survive a challenging military academy lifestyle.
“My mother trained me to respect my elders and wake up early; I didn’t have a problem with that,” Bradshaw said. “As long as you’re mentally tough, you can get through the academy. They put you through a lot, but it’s not to break you down but to make you stronger. If you can take that in and have a positive mindset, you can get through it. A lot of people don’t want to deal with it, but I see it as way of making me better.”
He believes he's on a path to becoming a West Point leader, drawing on the example of his high school coach.
“He’s more than a coach, and I look up to him a lot,” Bradshaw said. “He’s like a father figure, a mentor. He helped me in the classroom. He always wants to help people. He’s always helping at school at things he doesn’t get paid for. He’s selfless.”
That made it easier for Bradshaw to accept Brown’s advice when he saw West Point provided a promising future.
“My coach told me I made a great choice,” he said. “”He had the same mindset as me about what West Point offered.”
--- Tom Shanahan has featured Army, Navy and Air Force athletes for nearly 30 years in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rivals.com and the Raleigh News and Observer. He attended his first Army-Navy Game after John Feinstein wrote in his book on the rivalry, “A Civil War,” that everyone should attend the Army-Navy Game at least once.