Bratton Talks 'Cane Football - Part II

It was the fourth quarter of the 1988 Orange Bowl Classic and the Canes were just 14:47 from wrapping up their second national title against the Oklahoma Sooners. The Canes were leading at that point 17-7 and Bratton was enjoying a stellar swansong to his collegiate career.

He would get the scoring started on Miami's opening possession with a 30-yard touchdown grab from Steve Walsh to stake the Canes to a 7-0 lead. The Sooners would fight back to tie the game late in the second quarter and the game would go into halftime tied at seven.

As the second half kicked off, Bratton kicked things into high gear. On the opening drive of the second half he would grab three balls, including a 12-yarder on 3rd and 8 to set up Greg Cox's huge 56 yard field goal that gave Miami a 10-7 lead. Then as Miami's defense forced another Oklahoma punt, the Canes offense would take over with Bratton doing much of the work.

He would catch a pass for 20 yards to put Miami across midfield and into Sooner territory. Then Johnson would decide to gamble by going for it on 4th and 4, passing up a much shorter field goal attempt from Cox. Walsh would hit Bratton on a quick out for a six yard reception and a key first down. Three plays later, Walsh would hit Michael Irvin in the front corner of the west endzone-with Bratton picking up a blitzing David Vickers to give Walsh the extra pass protection that he needed. Miami would take a 17-7 lead and be on its way.

As the fourth quarter began, Miami would just need to play some ball control and the Hurricanes would win it's second national title and complete it's trifecta over the Sooners. On it's first possession of the final quarter, Miami would be pinned deep in it's territory and facing 1st and 20. Walsh would roll to his left and find Bratton down the near sideline. He caught Walsh's throw near the 20 yard line and looked for extra yardage. As he would be tackled by a pair of Sooner defenders at the 28, he would lay on the field, clutching his left knee in pain.

"Steve dropped the ball off, I was going upfield full speed expecting to go out of bounds," recalled Bratton, of that fateful play. "I looked and I saw Ricky Dixon at safety over-pursuing the play and I said, 'I could take this to the house' I planted and try to go back across the grain like I normally do and that's when I shook the linebacker, Troy Johnson, and he was going out of bounds and he pulled my right shoulder facing the east endzone and he was going out of bounds. He had to hold onto something and that's when my knee went."

It would be the last play of his Miami career. He would watch his teammates finish of the Sooners by a score of 20-14 in street clothes and held up by crutches. He would finish the night with 9 catches for 102 yards and a touchdown. But Bratton was never the same, it was the last we'd see of 'the real' Mel Bratton.

"Yeah," agreed Bratton. "Mentally, I thought the same but physically I wasn't the same person. I started the Super Bowl with the Broncos as a rookie and I tried to overcome the injuries but I thought the same but I didn't have the same action and the movement that I really wanted. I did ok, I was above average but I wasn't the superior back I wanted to be."

Bratton's draft status plummeted after his knee injury. Thought to be a probable first round pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, he would be drafted by the hometown Dolphins in the seventh round. But he ended up sitting out the year and getting re-drafted the following year by the Denver Broncos.

"The Dolphins drafted me but I wanted to make sure that I was healthy and I had bargaining power, plus the Lloyd's of London policy for a million dollars, I didn't want to forfeit that right away either," explained Bratton, who was one of a handful of players to catch passes from Testaverde, Kosar and Walsh at UM. "So I had the leverage as far as I didn't have to go out just sign for anything. So I had the million waiting tax free."

Bratton would end up playing three rather ordinary years in Denver before calling it a day. What was supposed to be spectacular pro career ended up in disappointment.

"It's a disappointment," he agreed. "But it's a blessing to me. The thing is it made me a better person as far as being able to overcome adversity and coming back. And I've had adversity in my life so I've booked it into writing mentally,'A star today, gone tomorrow, back again, again and again...' So each one of those 'agains' represents my overcoming obstacles and being able to come back and prove people wrong and that's exactly what I've done."

It's often been said that athletes have two deaths: one as an athlete and then the inevitable one that everyone has at the end. And for many athletes, the first passing is much more difficult to deal with. Life after football was not easy for Bratton.

"The first year, yes. Very much so. It really was because I couldn't adapt, I could watch the game, I had to really find myself and say,' Let this go and go on and move on with my life' But some guys still today, I see guys trying to go back and play and try to chase that dream. I see guys playing Arena Football and guys doing that, that's ridiculous. I mean, I wasn't that crazy to continue to try and make it in the NFL."

His first endeavor would be in the field of sports management. His first client would be fellow Hurricane alum, Lamar Thomas and soon, others like Jack Jackson, Pat Riley and Jimmy Hitchcock would call themselves clients of Bratton. But after six years of swimming with the sharks, Bratton had to get out.

"It's a headache and it's slimy game," he said laughing. "Nobody plays by the rules and it's so frustrating. It's like dating, you got to be there for those guys at four in the morning, they call, hang out and they want to talk. It's like you have no life. I got fed up and that's when I went across the fence and started scouting and be the evaluator of the talent- which I had to do anyways to find out who was going to be the diamonds in the rough to make NFL teams."

Bratton would spend three years as the area scout in the northwest for the Atlanta Falcons, then he was the director of pro personnel for the Washington Redskins for two seasons and last year he was an advanced scout for the St Louis Rams.

But at heart, he'll always be a Hurricane. Like many other alums, Bratton would make the pilgrimage back to the Orange Bowl to see the current crop of Canes. And wherever the Canes play, your bound to see some familiar faces from the past milling around on the sideline. It's a unique relationship that the alums enjoy with the program. At this years spring game, Bratton was one of a handful former players who were at the Orange Bowl, watching the action intently.

"It's a thing that Jim Kelly started and a lot of people don't want to give the credit to Jim but he started it," Bratton says of the Cane connection. "When we saw Jim Kelly on the sideline on his off-week, he would come back home. Y'know you want to play even harder. I mean, you're looking at the great Jim Kelly, you walk up to him and he's shaking your hand, saying, 'Let's go, let's go!!!' and pats you on the butt. That within itself is like an automatic boost.

"And then the players come back, Jim Kelly, Mark Richt, who's now the coach at Georgia, Mark Rush, Speedy Neal, Albert Bentley, Eddie Brown, will come back and workout in the off-season right after you. And we we're out there competing with these guys going seven-on-seven, working these drills with these guys and you beat one of those guys."

Bratton recalls when he showed he belonged at the next level.

"I remember when Winston Moss made second-team All-NFL Rookie team and I beat him on a route and he was covering the best backs in the NFL and I beat him on one play and I was like, 'If you're the best cover guy in the NFL and I'm beating you like this, hell, I could play in the NFL.'"

And past Hurricanes have always taken an interest in the current ones and taken them under their wing. The sight of Willis McGahee laid out on the Fiesta Bowl turf was awfully reminiscent of what happened to Bratton, 15 years earlier. Bratton took time out to speak with McGahee after his horrific injury.

"Just take your time," he said to McGahee. "I mean with technology, it's so advanced right now. The same doctor that did my surgery did his, so he's in great hands with John Uribe. Who's one of the best surgeons in the country and if I had to trust anybody, he would be the guy I'd put my life in his hands. So John has learned a lot over the years and plus he's gotten nothing but better since my injury. So he's in great hands. He'll be back on the filed but I told him not to rush, don't let the media or your agent pressure you to get on the field too soon. Because if he gets injured again, it's over for him."

This years edition of the Hurricanes has a lot of similarities to the 1987 edition that was able to rebound from the nightmarish loss in their Fiesta Bowl to win a national championship. Bratton, expects this years team to play with much more emotion, desire and hunger.

"I think everything came kinda' easy to those guys," he said of last years squad. "I guess they thought they could just come and show up after that championship season and everything was going to just happen for them but you have to really prepare each year because everyone's gunning for you. You can't play relaxed, it's just not going to happen and plug it in in the fourth quarter and win.

"The year before they had some close games, the BC game with the Ed Reed play. You lost a lot of veteran leadership too, so you had a lot of young puppies out there who's eye's got big. I call it, 'the deer in the headlights syndrome' that these guys were like, 'Oh, my God, I'm out here' So they didn't really understand.

"But this year nobody is expecting for them to win a championship and I think this will be the year they win it like the year we won with Steve Walsh after the year we we're supposed to win it with Vinny Testaverde."

And you can be sure that Bratton will be at more than a few games this season as he has moved back to South Florida to run his business and to be with his 13 year old daughter Torencia.

"I moved back here, basically to be a part of her life, her second half, because I've always been gone the early part of her years, playing ball or scouting," Bratton explained. "I always missed those early years but now I promised myself to be there in her teenage and high school years to be there for her."

( For more info on Bratton's company log onto www.collegethrowback.com)

Steve Kim is a freelance writer who also owns MaxBoxing.com. Steve is an avid fan of the Miami football program and has logged onto Grassy.com since 1998. For questions or comments, Steve can be reached at k9kim@yahoo.com)

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