Anyone who followed Miami Springs football this season knows that it was a rough ride.
First-year coach Mario Montoya had to deal with a few obstacles, most notably lost players to graduation and transfers over the summer that depleted the roster.
The Golden Hawks dropped seven of 10 games, some of those by big scores.
But if there was one clear-cut shining light on the Hawks roster this season, it came in the form of a very special player. One who has looked adversity right in the face since the day.
Heaven Bradley plays defensive end for the Golden Hawks.
After the Hawks concluded their season last week on a high note, a dramatic 25-22 win against Braddock with a touchdown on the game’s final play, the junior finished as the team leader in sacks (7), unassisted tackles (41) and tackles for losses (9). He is also the team captain.
And he did it all — with just one normal hand.
Watch him play and you barely notice. But since birth, Bradley has had to deal with something called Syndactyly, a condition where two or more fingers are fused together.
From his days playing pee-wee football for the Northside Park Panthers as a 4-year-old to today at Springs High, Bradley has refused to ever let the condition slow him down.
“When I was inside my mom’s womb, I would ball up my fist and lean on it,” said Bradley. “It got so bad that my mother would go to the doctor to check on me because it got to the point where I wouldn’t move from that one spot and she wanted to make sure my heart was still beating. The doctor would say, ‘Yeah, he’s alive but just huddled up in the corner.’ ”
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Bradley said when he was born, his left hand was all clumped up with webbed fingers. Doctors performed several surgical procedures, taking some skin from his toes and other parts of his body to at least create some kind of separation, but the fingers themselves were still left severely deformed and crooked.
Ultimately, Bradley would have to confront the inevitable — elementary school and the possibility of bullying and being made fun of by classmates.
“Yeah, that was a little tough in the early years,” said Bradley. “In elementary school, they would mention it to me all the time about ‘your hand is messed up’ and even nicknamed me ‘crab hand.’ ”
“One of the first things I did when Heaven entered school was I went to his teachers and told them not to treat him any differently,” said Heaven’s mother, Melia Bradley. “I told him from his earliest days that he would need to be strong and that he could overcome anything. That God had a plan for him. When I was pregnant with him, I placed my hand on my stomach and thanked the Lord for this gift and thus decided to name the baby Heaven regardless of whether it was a girl or a boy.”
By the time he reached middle school, Heaven Bradley said the bullying and the teasing started to subside.
“They started getting more familiar with it and actually curious about it,” Heaven said. “Instead of making fun of me, they started asking about how it happened and how did I deal with it.”
It got to the point where even Heaven himself stopped thinking about it.
“I just started thinking about it as a regular hand,” said Heaven Bradley. “I wouldn’t let it bring me down. It became a normal thing for me. I could still grab and move. I just let my skills take over where football was concerned.”
Bradley’s condition is one that Shaquem Griffin, who plays for the Seattle Seahawks, knows all too well.
Griffin eventually had surgery removing the fingers, forming a nub which he has never allowed to slow down his remarkable football career, one that went from high school in St. Petersburg to college at the University of Central Florida to today with the Seahawks in the NFL.
“I’ve been following Shaquem Griffin ever since he started at UCF,” said Bradley. “He definitely was a real inspiration to me. I didn’t know there were guys out there like me playing with that kind of a handicap. It gave me the confidence that I needed that I could just get out there and play and let my skills show. I feel like the sky is the limit.”
On top of his athletic skills for the Golden Hawks football team, Heaven Bradley doesn’t stop there. He also gets it done in the classroom as well, maintaining a 3.5 GPA.
“He loves science and is gifted in math,” said Melia Bradley, who also named her daughter Blessings and another son Zealous. “I always told him if he wants to excel in athletics, he better make sure he’s working just as hard, if not harder, in school. The one thing I have always preached to him is to never be satisfied with where you are or where you’ve been, but where you are going.”
Montoya said Heaven Bradley has been nothing short of an inspiration to not only him and his coaching staff but the players on the team as well.
“Heaven has been a leader since day one,” Montoya said. “He’s the first one out on the field and last one off. He outworks everyone and is one of the most coachable football players I’ve ever had. Not only does he excel in the classroom but he’s a dog out on the field as well. He makes plays and doesn’t let his handicap slow him down one bit. He’s never been an excuse maker and he never will be, moving forward in his life.”
“Heaven is about the best teammate you could have,” said wide receiver John Bennett, who leads the team in receptions and touchdowns and also plays defense. “He lifts all of us up to the point that we kind of forget ourselves that he has to deal with that handicap. He comes out here and outworks all of us every day. We look at what he does and just kind of shake our heads. He has a gift and is a special guy.”
Montoya said that even as a freshman, Bradley never looked for any kind of sympathy and that he simply refused to let his condition hold him back.
“It’s almost like it doesn’t exist,” said Montoya. “He pays no attention to it. He’s never made it an issue of, ‘I can’t do this or I can’t do that.’ Even as a freshman when he stepped on the field, he was looking for a place to start right away and look at him now.”