Nigel Bradham, bleary-eyed in a gray sweat suit, tossed his extra T-shirts and sneakers into a box near his locker at the practice facility and smiled a wry smile. He knew he’d probably never see this locker again. He knew the Eagles would cut him soon, but still, he was going to miss this space.
This is the locker where he’d spent four years of great joy and almost constant pain — thumb, toe, ankle, and shoulder. And those are just the injuries he acknowledges.
This was Jan. 6, the day after the Eagles lost their playoff game to the Seattle Seahawks. For the second time in six weeks, Bradham had played a central role in holding Russell Wilson, the best and most dangerous quarterback in the NFC, to 17 points. Both times Bradham had been hurting, head to toe.
You think Alshon Jeffery was tough for playing through a torn labrum in the Super Bowl season? You admire Jason Kelce’s pain threshold after his collection of ailments? Then you should adore Nigel Bradham. Consider what he went through to stay on the field for a team he knew would trash him sometime this winter.
“I wasn’t healthy this whole season," Bradham said. “First game of the season I tore my labrum in my right shoulder, at Washington. I couldn’t even lift up my damn arm.”
He raised his arm. His elbow made it no higher than his ear.
“Still can’t,” he said. “First game of the season. It’s crazy.”
It got crazier.
Bradham shredded his left ankle in Minnesota in Game 6. That cost him the next four games. He should have sat out longer. It was the middle of what he correctly predicted would be his last season as an Eagle, and the team was never better than mediocre, but he refused to rest.
“The ankle’s still jacked up. I couldn’t rest it. I ain’t got no ligaments in it,” Bradham told me. “It would’ve healed if I’d stayed off it, but I had to practice. I had to rehab. I had to get to where I could tolerate it, and go from there.”
He saw an Eagles team with deficits in leadership and defense. He could provide both. So, he played. This grit, this courage, will be his legacy. His Philadelphia story had a less promising beginning.
Bradham hit Philly in 2016, a gifted outside linebacker from the Buffalo Bills with a talent for finding trouble off the field. He punched a cabana boy before the 2016 season, which eventually cost him the 2018 opener. Later that season, when returning from the bye week, he was arrested for trying to get a gun through Miami airport security. That prompted this assessment from defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, his chief sponsor:
Bradham turned out to be brilliant — at least, he was brilliant on the field. In both 2017 and 2018, injuries to middle linebacker Jordan Hicks forced Bradham to take over that position. He quarterbacked the defense that won Super Bowl LII after the 2017 season.
In 2018, after breaking his left thumb in three places in Game 11 — he didn’t miss a snap, had surgery the next day and played the rest of the season — he helped the Eagles earn a wild-card spot and beat the Bears in a road playoff game before losing in New Orleans.
Nobody should compare Bradham to decorated tackle Fletcher Cox or accomplished safety Malcolm Jenkins. Bradham has never sniffed a Pro Bowl, and he never will. But you can make the argument that, considering how well he played in the void created by Hicks’ absence, Bradham was the Eagles’ most valuable player in 2017 and 2018.
And you can make the argument he was the toughest of a very tough bunch of Birds.
An injury in that New Orleans loss ensured that he wouldn’t be the MVP in 2019. He tore ligaments in his right big toe. He needed surgery to reattach the ligaments. Still recovering, Bradham was unable to fully participate in training camp. The toe hindered him into November. As a matter of fact, recovering from the ankle injury is what finally resolved the toe problem: He finally got off his feet.
“Probably around Game 8 or 9, it got back to normal,” Bradham said in January. “It’s pretty good now.”
The ankle was not.
“When you don’t have ligaments, you’re steady grinding,” Bradham said.
And when you have torn cartilage in your shoulder?
“Just weak, man,” he said. “No strength.”
It showed. In his first three seasons with the Eagles, he averaged 95 tackles, had 16 tackles for loss, hit the quarterback 10 times and logged five sacks. Last season Bradham made 61 tackles, one for loss, and hit the quarterback once. He had no sacks for the first time since 2013, when he was trying to justify his roster spot as a second-year, fourth-round pick of the Bills.
This was his eighth season. His odometer rolled over the cursed 30-year mark four days before the season opener, which, he was certain, would be his last as an Eagle. He was due to make $8 million in 2021. The Eagles had developed younger, cheaper linebackers, and they don’t prioritize the position, so, he said, he knew he’d be cut if he didn’t renegotiate his deal.
“That’s the business,” he told me, shrugging his weakened shoulder.
It’s an even colder business than he believed. A league source said the Eagles didn’t bother to renegotiate. They had until March 18 to decline his option, but they cut him a full month early. He harbored no ill will, tweeting thanks to fans and teammates.
Actually, by cutting Bradham so early, the Eagles helped his cause. Other teams interested in him would know for certain that he’d be available when the legal tampering window opens March 16.
But how will other teams view him? He told me he would not pursue surgery on either his ankle or his shoulder. A league source said he is healthy.
Still, he’ll be 31 when the 2020 season begins. How will teams know what they’re getting?
Here’s what they’ll be getting:
They’ll be getting a versatile and valuable football player.