Braman’s Long, Hard Road to Philadelphia
Bryan Braman was born to be a professional athlete. His maternal grandfather, Ivan Cecil Braman, stood at 7-4 and weighed 365 pounds. His mother, Tina Braman-Fields, was an elite sprinter in high school in which she was part of a four-girl state champion track team and held the 100 meters school record.
That’s why it’s no surprise Braman is a 6-5, 241-pound “athletic freak” as described by many of his teammates. When he was in high school, his track and field coaches expected him to be an Olympian before he chose to pursue football. On the gridiron, he routinely ran around offensive linemen untouched to tackle ball-carriers in the backfield.
“He’s got breath-taking, jaw-dropping ability,” Bobby King, who coached Braman for West Texas A&M and the Houston Texans, said. “He can be a game-changer. He’s got the ability to make plays that will shoot a jolt through the whole crowd.”
Braman’s genetics laid the foundation, but he wasn’t born with his “kill, maim, destroy” mindset he operates with on the field. He picked that up somewhere along the way in Spokane, Washington; perhaps after his father abandoned his family, or after he was homeless for much of his youth, or after he was forced to leave two different college football teams.
“Special teams players are your blue collar guys. I definitely think there’s some correlation between that and how you’re brought up,” King, who’s now the assistant linebackers coach for the San Diego Chargers, said. “To be a really good one, you got to be a little bit out there, a little bit off the edge. He is and it helps him.”
While Braman’s physical gifts gave him the opportunity to make it out of Spokane, his mentality is the reason he hasn’t had to go back. But to understand how, and why, Braman plays the way he does on the field, you must first understand where he comes from.
Fighting For A Chance
Spokane is like many other lower-middle class areas across the country. According to the census, less than a third of the residents graduated from college. Nearly 20 percent live below the poverty line and the median household income is around $40,000.
Braman felt much of that hardship. He was born in Hillyard, one of the poorest sections of the city, and often moved with his mother and younger sister. They held yard sales to raise money so he could participate in youth sports while he occasionally sold his toys to buy equipment.
By the time he was in high school, he was one of almost 100 homeless students at Shadle Park. His athletic ability was quickly apparent, though, which was how he got connected with Anthony Juju Predisik, a school guidance counselor.
“As soon as he came on campus as a freshman, you knew there was something unique and different,” Predisik said. “You knew he’d be a standout athlete. It was himself that was going to hold him back from the opportunities he had and break away from the negatives he had to deal with and pursue the future.”
Predisik consistently met with a small group of athletes the school thought would make it to college if the student chose to make the commitment, but by Braman’s sophomore year, the two already had a very strong relationship.
They often discussed “Jujuisms,” famous quotes the counselor particularly liked that he sometimes put his own twist on. One that Braman was drawn to was inspired by something Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Nothing can affect your state of mind unless you give it permission, and there’s nothing more powerful than a made-up mind.”
In his case, he already had thoughts that he may be destined for the life everyone around him had. Many of his family members didn’t graduate from high school, and none completed college.
“He was struggling due to the nature of his living situation,” Predisik said. “If you’re his science teacher and you’re giving him homework, Bryan’s like ‘Well that’s crazy. I don’t even have a freaking home!’ He didn’t know where he’d sleep that night; those were the things he was dealing with. How would he eat? Would his mom be okay?”
But soon, he would begin to receive letters in the mail that provided him a way out. The only question was if he would take advantage.
Ivan Corley grew up similar to Braman: he was raised by a single mom, he didn’t have much as a kid and his athleticism gave him an opportunity most around him only dreamed of. After he attended college on a track and field scholarship and later earned his master’s degree, he coached the same sport that gave him his new life at Shadle Park.
He vowed to help all kids, but especially those who reminded him of himself.
“I would share my experiences as a college student athlete, and probably the most important conversations were those about growing up without having much, but aspiring to have a different life,” Corley said. “That ultimately, he is going to be the one who takes charge of his life and work to get to where he truly wants to be. No one hands kids like us anything. We have to go and get it and we have to continue to work hard to maintain what we do have.”
Braman saw his future open up in front of him as he sprinted, jumped and threw past the rest of his peers. He quickly and easily excelled in track and field, winning several regional titles in the high jump, long jump, javelin and the 4×100 relay.
He would’ve been one of top competitors in the state championships in additional events, but the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association bars students from participating in more than four events at post-season meets.
Nonetheless, at 6’5, 230 pounds and still in high school, he was just half a second slower and two-and-a-half inches off the provisional Olympic qualifying marks in the 100 meters and high jump, according to USA Track & Field.
“We still talk about him today,” Joe Groves, an assistant coach on Braman’s track and field and football teams, said. “He possessed that natural speed for a guy his size coupled with a sheer, raw explosiveness that was just devastating. His athletic ability was good enough to get him a shot, but he had to navigate through a lot of other obstacles.”
It proved to be those other obstacles that partially influenced Braman’s choice to pursue football instead of track and field. Although he was recruited significantly more for the latter, his grades prevented interested coaches from offering him scholarships. Only one university was willing to work with Braman to get him to qualify academically, and they wanted him on the gridiron.
Wasting A Way Out
The University of Idaho was coming off of a losing season, but they were also the only school who worked with Braman to get through the NCAA Clearinghouse. They were willing to help because they heard the stories, then watched them unfold with their own eyes.
There was the time Braman’s high school football coach had a stroke of genius and put the man-child back to return kicks. It instantly paid off when Braman returned one for a 78-yard touchdown as he hurdled multiple defenders and ran past others too scared to get near him.
“The only athlete I’ve ever been continually impressed by is Bryan,” Josh Powell, one of Braman’s best friends and a former teammate who played with several NFL players, said.
Powell wasn’t the only one impressed, though. His father also saw Braman play against his son in junior high and on the same team in high school. He then got to know him off the field, and would help the fatherless-teenager where he could whether it was providing him a couch to sleep on or buying him cleats for football.
While Braman received some help from others like the Powell family, Predisik and Corley, school was always on the backburner. Those habits continued to plague him once he got to Idaho, where he rarely went to class and dropped out after two semesters having never played a single division one football game.
He then needed that support system more than ever. Braman said he remained in Idaho after the academic year ended, but he wouldn’t discuss what he did on the streets. Severely depressed and hopeless about the future, he did what many 18-year-olds in need of help did: he called his mom to come get him.
The change of scenery back to Spokane didn’t help though, and Braman was living a similar life just in a different setting.
“I stayed in Idaho four or five months after I failed out because I was so depressed,” he said. “I felt like I let my family down. Everybody was so proud of me. I threw away a $100,000 scholarship. It was a bad time in my life and when I went back to Spokane, it continued. I was working, but I wasn’t the same person; I got mixed up in the wrong stuff.”
A Living Nightmare
Braman was living the life he figured he was meant to. Although instead of working a tough 9-to-5, he worked 15-hour days from 2pm to 5am laying concrete for CXT, a railroad tie company, at close to minimum wage.
He described the work as “back-breaking.” Although he was making some money, he was still homeless with his American Pit Bull Terrier, Doja, with whom he slept with on park benches sometimes.
All he could think about was the mistakes he made, leaving him with seemingly no future.
“Idaho rocked his soul. It took the punch out of him,” Predisik said. “He didn’t think he’d ever play football again. He had to face his own demons. I think his biggest demon was himself. He didn’t believe in himself.”
Then, about six months into his stint at CXT, still homeless and “mixed up with the wrong things on the streets,” he suddenly had a realization. He made his way back to his old high school counselor’s office after Predisik put word out on the street that he wanted Braman to visit him.
“It was definitely a light bulb moment,” Braman said. “It was one moment that just struck me and then the thought of everything that happened previously just built up and it just wasn’t right. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t what I should’ve been doing. It was the opposite of everything I said I’d be in life.”
But the man standing before Predisik was almost a stranger. Powell estimates Braman dropped nearly 100 pounds, down to about 160. Standing in his doorway, wearing a blue pullover sweatshirt with old tennis shoes and no socks, Predisik says there were “signs of serious depression and [that he was] in need of help.”
‘You Could See It In His Eyes’
It took just three days for Predisik to completely change Braman’s mindset, and ultimately his outlook on the future of his life. In that time Predisik called Jerry Jaso, a coaching legend at Long Beach City College, a junior college on the southwest coast of California.
Jaso had never seen Braman play in high school and had no tape of him to watch at Idaho, but Predisik already sent him Powell the year before so he agreed to take a chance. Braman was shocked when Predisik told him he had another opportunity to play football, as he thought his only option was to pursue track and field at the local Spokane Falls Community College.
A change in Braman was quickly apparent.
“In high school, his athleticism was more ‘whatever’ to him. He didn’t have much motivation. He was more worried about other things,” Powell said. “But when he got to Long Beach, he was definitely different. You could see it in his eyes. His whole mentality changed. He realized that was it, this was the only thing that could get him out of the place he had been in his whole life.”
Braman, who didn’t get much of his muscle back in his first year in California, instantly dominated. He went on to earn first-team all-conference honors twice.
He again went through struggles with homelessness, but this time he didn’t let them slow him down. Braman and Powell were evicted around Christmas because they could no longer afford their apartment. For the next five months, they lived out of the weight room, their coach’s house or random garages, any place they could find.
Meanwhile, scouts came looking for Braman. But because he took a year off after Idaho and you must use your four seasons of eligibility within five years in division one, he wouldn’t have been able to play within his window. That left division two schools to recruit him, but first they had to find him.
Another ‘Life Lesson’
King admits now he didn’t believe Jaso. All the stories, physical attributes and times Braman ran, there was no way they were true.
“To be honest, it sounded like he was blowing smoke to me,” King says.
It took him a while to finally confirm everything he heard because he couldn’t locate Braman. Eventually, he tracked him down at a Panera Bread on Sunset Boulevard with his girlfriend, and Braman later committed to West Texas A&M over Central Washington and Midwestern State.
On the field, Braman quickly stood out as he did in high school and junior college. He even blocked a punt his junior year that helped clinch a share of the 2009 Lone Star Conference South Championship. Off of it, he grew extremely close with King who provided him a place to stay at times and helped him when he needed it.
In 2010, when King left to become the defensive quality control/assistant linebackers coach for the Dallas Cowboys, Braman was expected to be a leader of the defense. Midway through the season, though, Braman was suspended indefinitely after he was charged with manufacturing a controlled substance – psilocybin, a hallucinogen found in mushrooms.
After playing just five games his senior year, his career was over. Although Braman was said to be living elsewhere at the time, his name was on the rental agreement for the house the drugs were found in. In June of 2011, he pleaded guilty, was sentenced to one year of deferred adjudication and paid a $2,000 fine. Thirty days later, the prosecutor terminated the one-year probation and his case was dismissed.
Still, his dreams of being drafted were gone and his NFL prospects looked bleak. He didn’t let himself get as down as he had four years prior, however, and dedicated himself to training as he hoped someone – anyone – would give him a shot.
“It was again a situation that was a life lesson,” Braman said. “You got to learn that the people you associate yourself with and let into your home can affect your life just as much as it affects them. Don’t think their outlook on things and their decisions don’t affect you. It was definitely another bad time in my life and I just kept my head up and I had a lot of support telling me I had hope and I had to work toward it.”
But who would give a guy a shot who failed out of one school and was kicked out of another? It turned out the answer was close to home.
Houston, We Made It
It was King’s first year in Houston. He was a defensive assistant for the Texans and was admittedly pretty low on the totem pole. But as the team was preparing for the 2011 draft, King kept talking about one player in particular on no one else’s radar who seemingly had too many red flags.
“I had been in the league, I had been around good players and I knew he could play,” King said. “I had to stand up for him. I had to stand up and vouch for him. There was hesitation, but I knew what kind of athlete he was and I knew what kind of player he was.”
After the draft, Braman was invited to training camp and shocked people by making the team. It later made King look brilliant, but no one expected the undrafted free agent to be a Pro Bowl alternate just a year later.
“It meant a lot,” Braman said. “I owe him my life. He basically put his neck out there for me and I had to do everything I could to prove him right.”
In 2012, Braman led the Texans with 16 special teams tackles and set a single-season franchise record with two blocked punts, including one he returned for a touchdown in a division-clinching win. What Braman is most known for, though, isn’t a blocked punt or any other stat. It’s a play he made in his rookie year, a play that King says “not many others in the NFL would make”; a play watched on YouTube tens of thousands of times.
Continuing to run after his helmet came off during a Texans’ punt, Braman tackled Tennessee Titans punt returner Marc Mariani leading with his bare skull, providing just another example of Braman’s mentality out on the field.
“To me, it’s just an attitude. It’s the way you approach it every play,” Braman said. “I just love the physicality. I love imposing my will; just beating the man across from me.”
The Eagle Has Landed
Predisik may have found a new Jujuism, this time borrowing from Ross Perot: “Eagles don’t flock, you have to find them one at a time.”
He applies it to Braman finding his current home in Philadelphia and playing for head coach Chip Kelly. Braman signed a two-year, $3.15 million deal in March with $1 million guaranteed. He’s the type of guy Kelly loves: a great, versatile athlete who works well in space.
“You don’t find many players of Bryan’s size with the ability to run down the field and make plays on special teams,” Kelly said after the Eagles signed him. “It’s an area of the game that we always have our eye on and look to improve.”
While Braman’s physical abilities are what Kelly saw on film, Connor Barwin was able to give the front office insight into how Braman’s mind works. Barwin, who played with him in Houston for two seasons, played a big role in Braman landing in Philadelphia. He’s been his mentor ever since he signed on and has practiced with Braman at the “Jack” linebacker position this offseason.
“He’s been a terror on special teams, a dominating guy,” Barwin said. “It takes a lot to play special teams in the NFL and he definitely has what it takes to get it done. Special teams can be reckless and single-minded at times. He has all that. He has the tenacity.”
Just a few minutes before Barwin reminisced about his playing days in Houston, Braman took a few seconds to consider how long of a journey he took to the NFL. Eventually, Braman was finished mulling it over and he discussed being a product of his environment.
“All the controversy, all the adversity and all the obstacles I had to overcome to get to where I’m at now,” he said, “has made me who I am.”