TAMPA — Nine Plant High players were at One Buccaneer Place for an elaborate signing day ceremony Wednesday. They each went up to a podium to talk about what it means to be able to play in college.
For Malik Bradshaw, signing his letter of intent to play at Iowa Central Community College means three meals a day — and a stable residence.
"It truly is a blessing," he said.
In the past two years, the 5-foot-9, 160-pound wide receiver/defensive back had a vagabond life. His father has been in jail for nearly four years. His mother tried to support five children on her own.
She wound up in jail last year, too.
That left the children to survive on their own. They bounced from place to place, sleeping on a coach, a floor — wherever they could find space. Bradshaw's older brother Scoop made it out. He signed last year with Syracuse.
Malik Bradshaw hoped for similar results. Football was supposed to be his sanctuary.
That also was taken away.
Bradshaw's grades suffered to the point where he was academically ineligible his senior season. Bradshaw watched from the sidelines as the Panthers went on a magical run, going undefeated in the regular season and reaching the Class 7A state championship game.
Despite his academic struggles, Plant coach Robert Weiner did not cast Bradshaw aside. Weiner continued to let him practice with the team.
Bradshaw is smart, as evidenced by his 1060 SAT score. But his grades suffered because of other distractions in his life.
"Malik got into some tough times and he had to prioritize things in his life," Weiner said. "When you're just trying to survive and make it from day to day, grades become a secondary thing. We can stand outside and be judgmental and say grades are the most important thing. Sometimes just living and surviving is more important."
Bradshaw, 18, was a solid practice player, even outperforming some of the veteran players on the team. But he never had true playing time on varsity. That meant he had no film to send to college coaches.
Months passed with no offers. Two weeks ago, Weiner was getting enough interest from the coaching staff at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa. There was no film to offer. No matter. The school offered based on Weiner's recommendation.
"I've known Coach Weiner for a while, and I put a lot of value in his opinion and what he has to say," said Iowa Central coach Kevin Twait, who has been with the program for 19 years. "Coach spoke very highly of Mailk. He went through a tough situation but kept showing up. It touches the heart.
"We're taking a leap of faith. But good things happen to good people, and we're going to see if we can make this a win-win situation."
Said Weiner, "Malik was dealt a tough blow, and he realized he wasn't going to be able to play. He had a choice to make whether he was going to be a part of something special that was going to add to his life or he was just going to let that go.
"A lot of us make decisions later in life that put us in this direction or that direction. Sometimes when you're 17, 18 years old, it's your time to make those decisions. He made a decision to take a different road, one that is going to put him on a path to success where he'll not only be a productive citizen but a productive husband and father and someone who contributes to all those around him in a positive way."
In all, Plant had 10 signees. Linebacker Thomas Allen, the Tampa Bay Times’ All-Hillsborough County defensive player of the year, enrolled early at Indiana but spoke to his teammates via cell phone.
The other signees in attendance were Davis Bak (Brown), Juwan Burgess (Indiana), Bryce Jenkins (Wesleyan), Aaron King (Valparaiso), Whop Philyor (Indiana), Jamil Thomas (Ferris State), Kyle Trina (preferred walk-on at USF) and Christian Watson (North Dakota State).
There will be more, including quarterback Dane Frantzen.
None of them was as happy as Bradshaw to find a home.
"You go through the opportunity to coach someone like Malik and get to this day and you look and say this is the reason why I chose to be a coach," Weiner said, "There was enough persistence on his part and perseverance that anything can happen."