An oversized leather chair in the break room at TCO Performance Center shrunk when all 6-3 and 305 pounds of Garrett Bradbury sat in it.
The Vikings rookie center chewed on a piece of chicken and considered a question about how he was notorious for starting heated arguments with his North Carolina State teammates.
“We can’t do this in one discussion,” Bradbury warned.
Bradbury, the 24-year-old center and first-round pick who the Vikings hope will help patch up their offensive line, arrived in Minnesota with a reputation for initiating battles of wit with North Carolina State teammates and coaches — an intellectual edge that, when paired with his effortlessly nimble feet, made Bradbury the highest-drafted center in franchise history (18th overall).
“Oftentimes he’d play devil’s advocate just to get other guys to think a bit,” Wolfpack strength and conditioning coach Dantonio Burnette said.
Example: Bradbury’s claim that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, which he’ll back up with anecdotes and analytics alike.
The Charlotte native, with no geographical allegiances to James, said he fell in love with LeBron’s dominance and later grew to appreciate the superstar’s ability to meet towering expectations.
“It’s rare when someone, especially nowadays, is pegged as the No. 1 guy and has so much to live up to and actually lives up to it,” Bradbury said. “All these No. 1 quarterbacks coming out and basketball players, rarely are they still the No. 1.”
Living up to expectations is now Bradbury’s parallel to his sports hero, but that only surfaced in late April when he became a hot commodity in the draft. He rose from athletic anonymity — a two-star-rated tight end at Charlotte Christian High School — to emerge as a man with a chance to reshape opinions about the Vikings offensive line much as he likes to do in locker room debates.
“He loves going back and forth about different things that go on in the world,” Burnette said. “He was part of a leadership group, where I had a group that I’d send out information … He was always one of the guys responding back to it and getting other guys to think outside the box.”
Bradbury’s path to center stage wasn’t conventional, and nor was a decision to move him to offensive line at North Carolina State.
Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren’s staff first saw Bradbury on high school baseball film; he was an athletic power hitter and sure-handed catcher. Doeren recruited Bradbury as a 240-pound blocking tight end, but ankle and shoulder injuries led to a redshirt freshman season. Bradbury then gained about 40 pounds, eating junk food when rehab limited his workouts.
“He got pretty big,” Doeren said.
So Bradbury returned as a redshirt freshman nose tackle, embarking on an eight-month offseason with a stacked defensive line featuring Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill, Justin Jones and Kentavius Street — all 2018 NFL draft picks. That Wolfpack defensive line room is where Bradbury said he learned to treat football like a profession, absorbing lessons from future NFL players about offensive tendencies and how to eat and train properly.
“That changed the trajectory of my college career,” Bradbury said.
Then Doeren asked Bradbury to change positions again, this time to an offensive line that offered him opportunities to start. Bradbury didn’t want to do it at first, but his athleticism — eventually — made him an immediate fit at guard and eventually at center. At the NFL combine, he was third in the 40-yard dash (4.92 seconds) and first in the three-cone drill (7.41 seconds) among offensive linemen.
“Garrett, from center, can reach a three-technique [defensive tackle who lines up outside a guard] with ease,” Doeren said. “You’re not supposed to be able to do that.”
Entering his senior season last fall, coaches challenged Bradbury to be a leader. After a few Wolfpack offensive linemen failed a conditioning drill in the spring of 2018, Burnette verbally undressed them and then did the same to Bradbury, holding him accountable for his teammates’ failures.
“It’s amazing once we got to the summer program, he was pulling young guys, making guys stand next to him during conditioning,” Burnette said. “Because he never got tired during conditioning.”
Bradbury went on to be named a team captain, didn’t allow a sack last fall and won the Rimington Trophy as college football’s top center.
“There’s a reason he’s in the position he’s in — his willingness to step out of his comfort zone,” Burnette said.
A coach on the field
Two months into his NFL career, Bradbury again sought to push his boundaries. He jumped at the chance to stay with Vikings fourth-year tackle Rashod Hill for a July weekend in Dallas, where the two attended a veteran offensive line summit featuring All-Pro talent, from Eagles tackle Lane Johnson to Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen.
Bradbury saw immediate returns on his three-day investment. At the onset of training camp, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer praised Bradbury’s “businesslike” approach and commitment to learning the intricacies of calling protections as an NFL center.
Veteran teammates, like right guard Josh Kline, just want to hear a joke on command. That’s one of Bradbury’s rookie duties with the Vikings offensive linemen, who challenge his quick wit by demanding a laugh whenever they feel like it.
His best, Kline says, aren’t printable.
“I can’t really say; HR will get on me,” Kline said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
Teammates say they’re more impressed by Bradbury’s football IQ as a rookie. He has proven adept at understanding why linebackers fit the way they do against a running play, or why safeties cheat toward one hash mark or another, or why a nickel corner might align inside or outside the slot.
“He’s picking up the offense well and he’s taking control of it,” said starting left guard Pat Elflein, whom Bradbury replaced at center. “That’s a big cornerstone, when you take control and you’re confident in your calls. I can see him doing that. He’s displaying confidence, which is good.”
Bradbury’s interest in football’s finer points arose midway through his N.C. State career, when he started telling coaches he, too, wants to be a football coach when his playing days are done.
“That’s stuff I’m going to continue to want to learn,” Bradbury said. “Brett Jones, another center, hearing the way he thinks … I’m just like, ‘Wow, these guys are so far ahead of me in terms of football IQ and understanding the game.’ I’m excited about how much I can grow and how much work I still have to do.”