Lance Bradley Sr. thought nothing could top winning a state high school football championship – until he watched his son win one last season. Now he’s hoping for another big win.
If the undefeated Wake Forest High School Cougars win the 4AA title again this fall, Bradley will have had a hand in Wake County’s only three state football titles in the last 30 years.
He was a team captain and starting offensive guard for Garner Senior High in 1987, when the Trojans beat Charlotte Harding in the state title game. Now he’s president of the Wake Forest High School Athletic Boosters Club, and his son, Lance Jr., was part of the Cougars team that marched to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA championship last year. The Cougars’ 29-0 win over Greensboro Page ended the county’s 29-year 4A drought.
“Playing for the state championship and winning it (in ’87) was a wonderful experience,” said Bradley Sr., a project manager for Mercer HR Services. “It was an amazing time.
“But watching Lance experience the same thing was even better. I was so glad that he had that experience.”
Much has changed for high school football in the past three decades. Bradley Sr. had heard stories of how Garner coach Hal Stewart went to a local businessman to raise money for the ’87 team’s bus trip and accommodations. Wake Forest doesn’t have such worries, because the strong booster club helps.
The players are bigger now. Garner’s offensive line in 1987 averaged about 200 pounds, including the 190-pound Bradley. No Trojan weighed more than 240, and only one weighed more than 210. Wake Forest had seven offensive linemen on last year’s roster who weighed 270 or more.
In 1987, the NCHSAA staged four state title games, one in each classification. Eight champions, two in each division, are crowned now.
The playoff experience is different, too. Garner’s playoff run included trips to Richmond County, to Durham County Stadium for a semifinal game against Northern Durham and to Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium for the title game. Wake Forest did not play outside of Wake County, defeating Page at N.C. State’s Carter Finley Stadium last December before thousands of loyal fans.
The Garner-Harding game drew nearly 20,000 spectators, spurring the NCHSAA to begin playing its 4A title games at major college venues. The organization soon moved all its championship events to neutral sites.
For Bradley Sr. and his son, their football experiences have been a bit different, too. Bradley Sr. was a leader of the ’87 club. Bradley Jr. spent most of the 2016 season on the junior varsity team before being pulled up to varsity for playoffs.
“It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot,” said Bradley Jr., who got a massive state championship ring.
“His looks like a (true) championship ring,” the older Bradley said. “It is square and massive. Our rings, and we were glad to get them, looked a lot more like a high school ring.”
Wake Forest’s run through the playoffs last year brought back memories for Bradley Sr. He thought back to a fourth-quarter comeback at Richmond County and to his fondest memory of the ’87 season after a semifinal win over Northern Durham.
He had been sick that week, but he ended up playing in the game. Moments after the victory, he passed out and awoke in an ambulance. He was severely dehydrated and was treated and released from the hospital.
Bradley Sr. said he received a call at 3 a.m. from Garner offensive line coach Nelson Smith, who wanted to make sure he was all right.
“That meant so much to me,” Bradley Sr. said. “He didn’t ask if I could play next week. He just said he couldn’t sleep until he knew I was all right. When I think of ’87, I think of that phone call.”
And that’s where high school football hasn’t changed, Bradley said, adding that Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas has that sort of relationship with his players now.
Cougar football’s success has provided an opportunity for father and son to talk about shared experiences. Bradley Jr., who has played football since he was 4 or 5, had asked about his dad’s high school days, but last season he asked more often.
“For each round of the playoffs, I would tell him who we played in that round and how we did,” Bradley Sr. said. “I’ve watched a lot more of the old Garner games on YouTube than I ever had, looking at the old highlights. I’m seeing things that I don’t remember.”
He remembers the telephone call, of course, and missing a block in a playoff game against Roxboro Person. He remembers the last-minute win at Richmond County, the hard-fought win against Northern Durham and making the key block for a 55-yard touchdown run on the first play in the title game.
He also will remember his son’s magical season last year.
“I enjoyed watching Wake Forest play this year and being a little part of it,” Bradley Sr. said. “And to watch my son have this experience has been great. ... To know what our state title meant to me made watching him go through the same experience that much more meaningful.”
Bradley Jr. is in the regular rotation this year. He said he is enjoying the added pressure that comes with a No. 1 team ranking.
That’s another thing that has changed since 1987. Back then, the idea of Wake County school having the best football team in the state seemed far-fetched.
Tim Stevens writes stories out of Garner for The News & Observer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.