No plays off: Vikings top pick's journey from catcher to NFL center

"He took control of the game from there," Bradbury's high school baseball coach Greg Simmons says of his former catcher. Courtesy of Shelley Bradbury

Six years later, they’re still talking about how far Garrett Bradbury crushed that homer on a warm April night in Monroe, North Carolina.

His Charlotte Christian teammates had eagerly nabbed a front-row seat to the action, lining up along the railing in the visitors dugout on the third-base side. When Bradbury -- the center who was drafted 18th overall by the Minnesota Vikings in April -- was at the plate, special things occurred when his combination of raw power and bat speed made contact with a baseball.

Few forget how it happened that evening at Piedmont High School. Bradbury did more than just hit a home run ball to left field. He annihilated it.

“That thing’s not coming down,” Bradbury’s teammate Nick Owens remembered thinking.

And it didn’t come down until what Charlotte Christian coach Greg Simmons estimated was at least 450 feet, over the left-field wall, up and over the tall pine trees that lined the back of the stadium.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Simmons said. “You can ask any coach that was there. It’s one of those things that when it happens, everybody just stops and says, ‘Wow!’ There was no question in my mind that he could hit and play at the Division I level as a baseball player.”

Bradbury’s baseball career served as a precursor to his NFL future. In the sport that was his first love, the catcher's power-hitting ways defined only part of his identity as a baseball player. The qualities Bradbury demonstrated athletically (listed at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds as a high school senior) and from a leadership standpoint made him a perfect fit behind the plate.

“He took control of the game from there,” Simmons said. “It’s almost like having your inside linebacker, your quarterback. The pitchers had a lot of confidence in him because they could spike their breaking ball and knew he would block it up. He kept runners close because he had a good-enough arm where he threw guys out. I think the thing behind the plate was his leadership because he wanted to be part of every play. That’s one of the reasons we put him back there. He was a heck of a catcher. That made the decision easy.”

The skills Bradbury garnered throughout his high school career as a three-time state champion would eventually find a place among those that help him with his current job, in which he is in line to be the Day 1 starting center for the Vikings.

All these years later, it’s not difficult for Bradbury to see the carry-over from one sport to the next still having an effect.

“You are kind of the leader back there behind the plate,” Bradbury said. “I got to call pitches. I got to control the infield in terms of where they were going. Just verbally put everyone in their position. As an offensive lineman, you have to be able to communicate. You have to have all five guys on the same page. In terms of communication, that helped the most.”

MUCH TO HIS CHAGRIN AS A LONGTIME RED SOX FAN, Tim Bradbury bought into his son’s love for the New York Yankees and brought home goodies from business trips to the Big Apple, from Derek Jeter jersey shirts to the stickers and posters that covered the walls in Garrett's childhood bedroom.

Born 12.5 pounds on June 20, 1995, Garrett never truly experienced a growth spurt. He grew at a steady pace throughout his adolescence and teen years, eclipsing the 225-pound mark early in high school.

Simmons saw the benefit of putting the biggest and most athletic kid on the team behind the plate when he began working with Garrett in middle school. As a sophomore, Garrett took over starting duties at catcher for the Knights.

“He was a frickin’ brick wall,” Tim Bradbury said. “People really couldn’t go through him. It was hilarious to see people try to take him out. We would laugh.”

But his size was an illusion when it came to the plays Bradbury made behind the plate. He seamlessly threw out runners attempting to steal with a powerful arm. His footwork from his time playing first base and the raw power he harnessed into his swing made him one of the most well-rounded players on the team.

“To be a big kid, he didn’t play like a big kid,” Simmons said. “He was very athletic. Moved well. Had a great arm and really good awareness behind the plate, knew how to keep the pitchers under control.”

Added Owens, who played shortstop at Charlotte Christian before playing at Virginia Tech: “The way that he managed our pitching staff was probably the most impressive. When a pitcher would walk a batter on four pitches, he has the instinct to know to go talk to them and calm him down, get his mind right. That’s something that can’t be taught. It’s something that he just has.”

While college baseball was an option and some believe he could have been drafted out of high school had he stuck with one sport and attracted scouts during fall ball, it quickly became a foregone conclusion that football was Bradbury’s ticket.

Still, even after he had committed to play for North Carolina State, where his career took him from tight end to defensive line before he settled in at guard and eventually center, Bradbury was all-in during baseball season.

In 2014, it rained during the North Carolina state baseball championship, forcing the Knights to play three games in one day. The toughness Bradbury garnered in football, Simmons believes, made him a better baseball player.

On that day, Bradbury caught all three games and hit three home runs to help the Knights win their third straight title.

“I think that he liked that he could touch the ball every single play, which is why I think as a center he does such a great job,” Simmons said. “At the high school level, our catcher was the guy making all the bunt coverage calls; we’d run things through him, the pickoffs and those kind of things. He was making calls and doing all that like he’s doing now as a center.”

BRADBURY WAS IMMEDIATELY DRAWN to the cerebral aspect of baseball. Being allowed to control the flow of the game by calling pitches allowed him to flex his mental muscle like he did with his grip-it-and-rip-it hitting style.

The pitch calls came from the coaches in the dugout at Charlotte Christian, and they were written on a wrist band that he was expected to wear and reference during the game.

Bradbury forgot his wrist band one afternoon. Simmons wasn’t happy but received some reassurance that changed his tune.

Coach, don’t worry. I’ve got this.

“That son of a gun memorized the whole thing and didn’t miss a call the entire game,” Simmons said. “So after that, I said he didn’t have to wear it.”

In a few months, Bradbury is expected to be in charge of coordinating blocking assignments for his four offensive linemates while making sure the snap count and communication with quarterback Kirk Cousins is seamless. All in front of loud, rowdy crowds that make doing just that difficult.

It’s a role he has prepared for since the day he was drafted, knowing full well that it requires the same mental preparedness and communication skills he sharpened in baseball.

“You've got to earn the guys' respect first,” Bradbury said. “No one is going to listen to a rookie coming in barking orders trying to lead anyone. So I'm just going to come in and work. That's what I've always done, whether it's a freshman or a senior, now I'm going to be a rookie.”

Who knows if his ability to quickly get out of his stance to throw a runner will help his pulling abilities on an outside zone run, but Bradbury’s athleticism is what drew the Vikings to him in the first place. It’s what they expect will play an integral role in Minnesota’s new offense, beginning with a revamped line and a new center ready to make his mark.