When former Dinwiddie High School football player Matthew Bradford was learning to walk again, he would at first bounce against the walls and trip a lot, wary of falling.
Eventually, his physical therapist told him: “Matt, whatever you do, put one foot forward and just walk; I’ll never let you fall.”
That gave Bradford, a Marine Corps veteran who is blind and has two prosthetic legs, the confidence to take the next step. Now, he skydives, surfs, participates in marathons, hikes and travels, sharing his story of resilience as a motivational speaker.
“Just Walk” became his personal motto.
“I realized later on in life that I don’t know what each step holds, but I know each step moving in a forward direction is in the right direction,” said Bradford, who lives in Kentucky but regularly speaks with the Generals’ leadership council via Zoom.
He was on the sidelines for Dinwiddie’s 28-14 win over Matoaca on March 12.
“Each day, we’ve got to live it to our fullest because we’re not guaranteed tomorrow, or next week,” Bradford said. “I almost wasn’t guaranteed my next step.”
Bradford went to Dinwiddie from 2001 to 2005 and played football his junior and senior years. He fondly recalls long two-a-days in the summer heat of Virginia, an environment that began fostering in him the leadership traits he would take to the Marine Corps.
Bradford had already decided at that time that he would enlist straight out of high school. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had raised in him a need to protect the country and give back through service. His father was part of the Air Force, and his stepmother was in the Navy Reserve.
“I think it’s important for people to serve because you learn so much about not only yourself but how to work as a team, a lot of leadership values,” said Bradford, adding that one of the first lessons he learned at recruit training was to take the “I” and “me” out of his vocabulary, replacing it with “we” and “us.”
“These are some of the values and traits that I’m trying to teach these leaders for the Dinwiddie football team. Leadership is important on the field, but it’s important in life.”
Bradford’s goal when he joined the Marines was to serve for 20 years and go on as many deployments as possible. He always figured he would either come home with his brothers, or not come home at all.
“I never thought about coming home in the middle, losing my legs and losing my vision,” he said.
He was stationed in Iraq in January 2007, and his squad endured constant firefights and engagements. In the city of Haditha, he stepped on an improvised explosive device and woke up in the hospital three weeks later.
“I was conscious when the bomb exploded and I could hear the Marines around me, my squad leader, and all these people who I truly love and that I’d give my life for, holding my hand thinking that I’m taking my last breath,” Bradford said.
“These are the things that you try to teach these kids, that there’s a lot of really, really good people in this world that are willing to lay down their life for you, and it’s those connections you have that make you want to go even harder each and every day. And that’s what these guys, these Marines, made me feel,” Bradford said. “Even today, my kids have some amazing uncles.”
His website, “No Legs No Vision No Problem” (www.matthew-bradford.com), aims to help fellow veterans overcome obstacles. He currently works for U.S. Rep. Andy Barr as the national security fellow for the 6th District in Kentucky, where he does veterans outreach.
Dinwiddie coach Billy Mills was hired toward the end of Bradford’s senior year. Bradford never got to play for Mills, but the two developed a relationship beginning in 2008 when Bradford visited for a game.
They stayed in touch through the years while Bradford earned multiple degrees from the University of Kentucky.
Bradford spoke with the team at a game in 2016, and Mills welcomed him back for the team banquet at the end of last season.
Then the pandemic hit, and Mills asked Bradford to speak to the team about handling the adversity of the coronavirus in a Zoom for the leadership council. Mills kept sending invitations, and Bradford kept accepting.
“When it’s your own high school, I want to do everything I can to help these kids out,” Bradford said. “My trip to Dinwiddie, I left there with a full heart.”
Bradford listens to the games on YouTube whenever he can and keeps constant tabs on the team with Mills’ help.
Mills said the mental side of the game is more important than ever during the COVID-altered season, and Bradford has been instrumental in helping his team develop the resilience and leadership skills necessary to persist through the most challenging of seasons.
“We’re just so fortunate,” Mills said. “Great leader; he’s got a lot to share with the kids.”
Sophomore free safety Quentin Mankin walked by Bradford on the sidelines during an offensive series in the Matoaca game, explaining the situation and progression of plays.
Mankin’s mother served in the Army, and his father does so currently.
“That was a great experience, I really appreciate him for that,” Mankin said of his conversations with Bradford. “It hit home with me.”
Bradford said it was difficult to fight back emotions while talking to the team after the game.
“Because here I am, from the minute I got to Dinwiddie at practice, these leaders are walking over hugging me, shaking my hand and sitting down talking with me, walking me off the bus, standing next to me on the sideline and explaining what’s going on in the game,” Bradford said.
“I took so much out of that.”
He gave the team Just Walk T-shirts.
“He explained the deeper meaning of it, that no matter what, just keep going,” Mankin said of the message.
“And I feel like that is important now because you never know when your season could end, so you’ve got to be thankful for every day and you’ve got to just keep working because it could come to an end at any time.
“You’re got to put your head down and just walk, that’s the whole thing. Just keep going through any obstacle that’s in your way.”