“Use your left foot.”
Those were the words of a skinny, grinning Englishman who towered over my little four-year-old frame. Below my knees was a miniature soccer ball. Above me was Gordon Bradley.
This is my first memory of the Mason coach. My father worked in the university’s Sports Information Department at the time, and it was not a rare occasion when he would bring me to work with him. For the next few moments, Coach Bradley passed the ball with me, encouraging my toddling left foot. After a while my dad ushered me from the coach but not before Coach Bradley called out, “He has a spot on the roster when he’s ready.”
Bradley was clairvoyant. Fifteen years later, that moment may very well have defined my existence as a soccer player. Now, I play for Mason and am one of the few naturally left-footed players on the team. It has been a long and tumultuous journey up the soccer ladder for me, but through it all, Bradley followed me directly and indirectly.
As a seven-year-old, I enjoyed my best offensive performance of my career: 57 goals in six games. Coach Bradley was on hand to witness my final match where I netted 10 of those 57. After the game, Coach Bradley walked over to me. “You sure know how to dribble, Michael,” he said. “But soccer isn’t always about scoring goals. Pele was the greatest passer of the ball I have ever seen.” I stopped drinking my post-match Hi-C to listen to him. “The greatest players are also the greatest passers.” Coach Bradley grinned.
On his advice I began to pass. With each pass, I moved further away from the goal and closer to becoming the high-level player Coach Bradley wanted and expected me to be.
When I committed to Mason in March 2007, the first thing my mother said to me was “Gordon Bradley will be so proud.” But unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease had crept into his mind, and my parents never had the chance to tell him his advice to that blond-haired four-year-old panned out.
This past spring, the men’s soccer team held our annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony where we honored Coach Bradley’s son, Doug, for his contribution to Mason soccer. Former players mingled with current players, and every conversation I had with my predecessors always related back to Bradley, who had recently moved to a care center to better fight his battle with Alzheimer’s. Each player told me of the impact Coach Bradley had on him. How competitive he was, how passionately and professionally he lived every second. Each player was adamant that while Alzheimer’s had claimed the man’s mind, nothing could overcome his soul. One alumnus told me, “You should visit him. Let him know you’re there. He needs us now.”
I promised to visit Coach Bradley but never did. Then this morning my father called me. “Gordon Bradley died,” he said.
When I got that phone call, I was getting dressed in the locker room after lifting weights with my teammate Rich Stone. Instead of getting my books and leaving, I put my practice gear back on and tied my cleats.
“Where are you going?” Stone asked.
“I’m using my left foot,” I replied as I walked onto the field.
Soccer fans will lament the loss of one of the game’s finest coaches and players. The Bradley family will mourn the loss of a husband, a father, and a grandfather. Former teammates will grieve over the loss of their mentor and coach. I will cry for the loss of an inspiration and a friend. But tomorrow I will smile as I step back onto the field.
It’s what Gordon would do.
—Mike Foss, sophomore communication major and a defender on the Mason men’s soccer team. This essay was originally published on Mason Connect in a slightly different form.
The Bradley family has established a Gordon Bradley Scholarship Endowment. For information about the endowment, contact Jen Montgomery of the Patriot Club at 703-993-3217.