It’s Saturday morning, and the Springfield Pride’s smallest but strongest football player is up early. He’s tired, but today is the first day of CYO basketball. In a couple of hours, he will be pacing the sideline at Stagg Field with his brothers, but first things first: pick-up basketball.
After playing basketball, he returns home and crashes on the couch, looking to regain some much-needed energy. After recharging, he is woken up by his parents. Standing at just 5-feet tall and weighing less than 100 lbs., quarterback Luke Bradley gains the energy to get up and get to the car.
Luke might not be able to out-bench players on the football team. He might not be able to squat more weight than the players, and he might not be able to deadlift more weight than the players, but every day Luke fights a fight that no player on the football team would ever want to encounter. Every day Luke battles Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
Luke, who is in elementary school in South Hadley, Mass., jumps into his parents’ car with his father Ryan, his mother Nikki, and his brothers Caleb and Eli. As the Bradley clan makes the drive into Springfield, Luke progressively gets more and more nervous.
“I really hope they win today,” Luke says to his parents. The Pride are coming back after a bye week to face the St. Lawrence Saints, a surprise team in the Liberty League Conference.
The Pride have run into some trouble over the past three weeks, dropping three straight games, and are in need of a win. As Luke arrives at the stadium, he goes underneath the bleachers and waits outside the Pride locker room, waiting for his brothers to emerge. He’s tired, but he wasn’t going to miss this game.
A short time later, head referee Ron Patry introduces himself to Luke and asks him if he will be flipping the coin at the coin toss. Shyly, Luke confirms that he will be. Patry takes him aside and begins practicing the coin flip.
“It keeps coming up heads,” notices Luke, trying to figure out how the coin will fall on the field.
Soon, the Pride exit the locker room, and greet their youngest teammate.
“Luuuuuke!” bellows captain Mike MacDonald.
Luke takes his place to the right of MacDonald at the front of the line and begins to walk towards the field. The maroon jersey,
No. 27, the same number his father wore while playing safety at Boston University, hangs off of his shoulders as they stop at the pavement leading to the field.
Occasionally a ref will pat him on the shoulder. Finally, they get the go-ahead and begin walking towards the field. As the Prid
e reach the entrance, they stop before sprinting headlong onto the field and down the Pride sideline with Luke as their leader.
“It feels like there is an army behind me,” says Luke. “I was nervous when they called my name. It is weird for everyone to know who I am.”
The captains, Luke included, start working their way to midfield for the coin toss. It’s tails, as the Pride win the toss.
“I wonder what’s going through his head,” Luke’s mom Nikki says. “Does he know what’s going on or is he just looking around like ‘lah-di-dah.’”
Returning to the sideline, Luke smiles proudly. Enveloped in the team huddle, Luke listens in as the team prepares for the game. After the team breaks huddle, Luke finds his spot on the sideline next to Andrew Alty, a Pride halfback who is recovering from a knee injury suffered last spring. Everywhere Alty goes, No. 27 is right there with him.
It wasn’t always this easy for Luke. In February of 2011, Luke was diagnosed with ALL, and the Bradley family’s world was flipped upside down.
“It was very surreal,” says Nikki, who works in the medicine field.
“It was like, ‘This can’t be happening.’ For me, I went into work mode. His brothers
hots and medicine.’”
The first six months of treatment are the most intense, and before long Luke was losing his hair and puffing up from steroids, but the town of Granby, Mass. had his back.
“When we would come home, the whole house was decorated,” says Luke’s father Ryan. “When you went to school, they had a whole gathering and got to talk to the kids. The school sent tutors, they sent packages to him. The school and the church did an awful lot.”
It’s kickoff at Stagg Field. The Pride hold the Saints, but are shut out on their first possession. After being forced to punt to St. Lawrence, the Saints march down the field to take a 6-0 lead. Like the Pride, Luke has had his own battles to climb to come out on top.
In October of 2012, the Bradley family moved from the friendly confines of Granby to North Hadley, Mass. Luke’s grandparents live in North Hadley, and his parents worked in the town, but Luke had to leave his old confines. His room, his friends and his memories were all in Granby. But the hardest part of the move was changing schools.
“I think the kids at school don’t understand,” says Ryan. “I feel like he struggles feeling like he doesn’t fit in.”
Because of treatment, Luke was forced to miss extended periods of time. Also, he is unable to play sports with his classmates and friends on the block.
“Our house is kind of like the headquarters for the street,” says Nikki, who graduated from Springfield College in the 1990’s. “There are always around seven kids from the ages of 7- to 9-years-old in the house.”
But for Luke, there are days when he can’t keep up with the tempo that the children are running at. Still, there are still kids that are by his side.
“There is a young boy named Matt,” Nikki points out. “Matt gets it. He’s always prodding him on, saying, ‘Come on Luke.’ He understands.”
It’s approaching halftime at Stagg Field. Luke has been following Alty around diligently; everywhere he goes, Luke is right there.
The Pride exit into the locker room while Luke hangs around his family. Bryan McDonald, a senior, comes out of the locker room first.
MacDonald is unable to play due to injuries, but that doesn’t change how often he interacts with Luke.
MacDonald is Luke’s favorite player, and earlier in the season, Luke and MacDonald got into a “scuffle,” ending with MacDonald claiming he would have to call his lawyer. After exchanging blows, Luke turned around and sucker punched MacDonald.
MacDonald is quick to start prodding Luke today.
“You need to cut your hair dude,” says MacDonald. “You got to have it like this,” MacDonald says as he removes the baseball hat from his hat, rubbing his shaved head.
Luke smiles back.
The jokes continue for the remainder of halftime.
The Pride return to the field, trailing 13-0. But as Luke knows, it’s not over yet – you’ve got to keep fighting.
Luke has fought ALL since 2011, and although he is past the worst part of treatment, it doesn’t mean that it is easy. Following treatment, Luke goes through a four-week process of highs and lows. For the first four days after treatment, he is mopey, before a four-day sequence where he could eat everything in the Bradley house.
For the next two days, Luke becomes emotional, before becoming a normal kid for the next two weeks.
Then treatment comes, and it’s back to square one.
But at treatment, he challenges himself. He will have competitions to see how high he can count before the anesthesia knocks him out. His record is 28. But it is still a process.
“He struggles when he has to get his port accessed,” Nikki notes.
“He had a bad situation with a nurse. Treatments have stayed the same for the past three years. He still gets high anxiety.”
Meanwhile, the Pride are slowly making progress. After returning the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown, the Pride are within six points. But a long touchdown pass extends the Saints’ lead to 13 as they go ahead, 20-7.
The Pride face a tough road if they plan to win this game, but Luke has taught them how to handle it.
“They are young,” Nikki says of the football players. “They could just be like, ‘Whatever.’ They realize that this kid’s day is tough, and my days could be tougher.”
And tough the Pride are, as it doesn’t take long before the Pride answer, scoring a l
For Luke, he too is making progress. Treatment ends in August, and the doctors have told the Bradley’s that they should expect a growth spurt from Luke this summer. Luke used to be one of the tallest kids in his class, but because of treatment, he is now one of the shorter kids.
“He couldn’t compete in sports,” Ryan says. “He was real reluctant to join activities. But now he talks about wanting to play football. He has an interest in sports again. [The Pride] have embraced him.”
Over the loudspeaker, the announcer says that the concession stands are now serving hot chocolate. Luke begins walking from the sideline towards the stands. After he spots his father, he tells him he wants a cup.
Luke is warm now, and so are the Pride. After stuffing a St. Lawrence drive on their own side of the field, the Pride go on a 13-play, 67-yard touchdown drive, taking the lead with under three minutes to play.
As the Pride walk off of Stagg Field with the win, Luke is leaving the field after leaving his mark on Springfield once again.
“It puts things in perspective for our kids,” says coach Mike Cerasulo. “How fortunate all of them are to be able to be in college, to be healthy, to play this game and enjoy life to the fullest, where as Luke was battling for years this awful disease and I think it gets them to take a step back and say, ‘Wow.’”
Luke has helped show the team how fortunate they are to be competing and playing collegiate sports. But as much as they have been taught by Luke, the players feel lucky to be a part of this brave boy’s life.
“It’s an honor [to be a part of Luke’s life],” says MacDonald. “[And] to know that he’s playing a role in our lives. He’s taught us to live every day and appreciate every day like it’s your last, because you never know.”