Bradlee Van Pelt made his return to Spartan Stadium on Saturday, the first time he’s stepped foot inside his father’s old stomping grounds since he was a member of the Michigan State football team himself in 1999.
It was a bittersweet homecoming to honor his late father Brad, a former All-Pro linebacker for the NFL’s Giants, Raiders and Browns and an All-American defensive back for the Spartans who was inducted into the Ring of Fame on Saturday. Not because there isn’t much to celebrate about his father’s life and accomplishments, but because he wished his father were there to celebrate, too.
Bradlee, now 30-years-old, won’t say it’s overdue, more unfortunate really, but you can hear a hint of regret in his voice.
“Why is it that sometimes people have to die before they get this kind of respect?” he said.
Not that his father would’ve made a big stink about it. Would he have appreciated it? Sure. But if you know the Van Pelts, you know they have no ego to check at the door.
“He knew he was good,” Bradlee continues. “He would have been tickled pink ... that’s what he would’ve said. This would’ve put a smile on his face.”
Naturally, being his father’s alma mater, Bradlee was spoon-fed Green and White from an early age. It’s where Bradlee had dreamed of beginning a football journey to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Bradlee came to East Lansing a legacy with an athlete’s pedigree. However, not long after he arrived on campus he was gone.
Somewhere between Nick Saban’s exodus from Michigan State following Bradlee’s freshman season and the dawn of the Bobby Williams era, he transferred in what was a well-documented fallout.
It was a soul-wrenching decision as he recalls. But rather than convert from quarterback to defensive back, he sought opportunities elsewhere. Though, he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, Bradlee wanted to do so on his own terms.
“I grew up MSU, both my parents went there,” he said. “It was heartbreaking. It was hard for my dad, but I knew I had to make this move.
“If I wanted to go play defense — I could of — but that wasn’t my dream. I wasn’t going to live someone else’s dream.”
He considers himself lucky for finding an opportunity to succeed at Colorado State, where he came within 100 yards rushing and passing of being the first college quarterback to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for an additional 1,000.
You could say before there was Tim Tebow, there was Bradlee Van Pelt.
He brought the same unbridled, raw athleticism, ruggedness and fearlessness to the otherwise polished position. As a Ram, his teams enjoyed perennial top-25 rankings and postseason bowl games.
As a result he was drafted into the NFL. He spent the next couple of seasons trying to catch on in Denver and Houston, but was unceremoniously released by both teams.
The life of a fledgling quarterback is not one to envy and, eventually, Bradlee began to succumb to the pressure. Before long, he was out of the league and out of the game, the closest thing to the All-Pro he aspired to be was being a satirical selection to the AFC First-Team of dreamboat quarterbacks in 2006.
“I kind of cracked. I kind of walked away,” he said. “I definitely had anxiety problems toward the end and that’s why I needed to take a break.”
His inner circle advised him against it and in 2009 he announced he would make a comeback at his father’s old position — safety. After all, everyone had always told him how great a defender he could’ve been.
But the comeback and the position switch, he says, was on his terms.
“A lot of people convinced me to ‘hey, give her one more go, just go play and get it out of your system, so that when you get older you can say you gave her a good go,’” he said. “And I did that.”
He generated some interest, but never caught on. It’s at that point his outlook on the game changed.
Recently, Bradlee has been playing football and working as an analyst in Europe. The game isn’t a necessity anymore, now it’s networking, it’s an opportunity at pursuing other passions. A vehicle, he calls it.
“It’s funny. Dad, above all else, wasn’t disappointed I walked away,” he said. “He so badly wanted me to keep playing, but playing for me, not anyone else.”
Now, when he thinks about the future, Bradlee doesn’t think about football.
He’s come full circle. He says he doesn’t think he’ll continue to play but, on Saturday, he was back in a place where at one time making it was all that mattered and where his journey began.
He’ll celebrate his father’s football accomplishments without a second thought about what could have been for him.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Beaupied is a sports writer for The Argus-Press. He can be reached by calling 725-5136, Ext. 225, or by sending e-mail to email@example.com.