ALBUQUERQUE — In 2006, senior cornerback Brandon Bradley first set foot on BYU's campus, a place he had never visited before. Although Bradley had signed a national letter of intent, Cougar coaches had never met him or seen him play.
During Bradley's five years in Provo, his career, and life, has been filled with both trials and triumphs.
His journey ends Saturday in Albuquerque, where the Cougars collide with UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl. He's one of 13 seniors who will be playing their final game in a BYU uniform.
"It's a tough spot to be in. I've got mixed feelings," Bradley said. "I'm definitely going to be sad that it's over with, to say I'm done playing for BYU and being with these guys.
"But at the same time, it's part of life. It's time for me to move on to another part of my life. I had a great time while I was here, and I wouldn't change it for anything in the world. I'm excited to have one more chance to play."
During his senior year at Lincoln High in Tallahassee, Fla., in 2003, Bradley signed with Louisville. Before enrolling, he left for an LDS mission to Brazil. While serving, he felt strongly that he should play football at BYU instead — thanks to some prompting from his mother, Marcia Neely-be'y.
"This is where she and others believed he ought to be," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "That, in and of itself, is pretty remarkable."
It was a double-blind recruiting experiment that ended up paying big dividends for both Bradley and BYU, although there were plenty of challenges along the way.
Just days before fall camp in 2006, Bradley suffered a season-ending knee injury and redshirted. He ended up seeing significant action as a redshirt freshman in 2007, then started three games in 2008. Bradley has been the Cougars' starting boundary cornerback the past two seasons.
While at BYU, Bradley married his wife, Alexis, and the couple have a daughter, who turns 2 this month.
"There's been a lot of ups and downs," Bradley said of his BYU career. "There's been a lot of things that have happened — my beautiful wife, my beautiful daughter. The experiences I've been able to have while being here — I couldn't have scripted my life out anything near to this. My plans were totally different, to be at a totally different place. But I'm glad I'm here and for all of the experiences I've had and lessons I've learned here."
Mendenhall appreciates Bradley's contributions to the program.
"Brandon is just fun to be around," the Cougars' coach said. "His career hasn't been perfect here. But I like his perseverance, and his smile and his presence."
Since the start of his senior year, Bradley has tried to soak in, and enjoy, every moment. That's the same approach he's taking this week.
"Knowing this is my last ride as a Cougar, I knew I had to take every day and every practice for what it's worth," he said. "And now, it's even more real to me, that it's coming to an end."
On top of that, Bradley and his teammates would like to finish on a high note after falling in a heartbreaker to Utah, 17-16, in their regular-season finale.
"As a team, our whole mindset is to prove that our team is better than our record shows this season," Bradley said. "I have no doubt in my mind that we'll be prepared for the game."
Bradley played a memorable role in the loss to the Utes. With about six minutes remaining in the game, BYU led 16-10 when Bradley intercepted a Jordan Wynn pass at the Utah 29-yard line. Bradley returned the ball 9 yards before being tackled. By the time the play ended, Utah's Kendrick Moeai had the ball.
Television replays and photos seemed to show that Bradley's knee had touched the ground before he lost possession. The replay official looked at the play and confirmed the ruling on the field, that Bradley had fumbled and Utah had recovered. The Utes scored the game-winning touchdown on that drive.
Immediately after the play, Bradley didn't know what to think.
"The collision left me a little woozy," he said. "So I wasn't sure if I was down or not. My teammates and coaches told me I was down. It was one of those things that I took their word for it."
Later, he watched a replay.
"When I saw it, I was in shock. I couldn't believe it was actually called a fumble," he said. "But it is what it is. There's nothing we can do about it now. The call was called."
Bradley has heard numerous comments from friends, and strangers — both in person and on Facebook — about that controversial play.
"Two weekends ago was my wedding anniversary," he said. "My wife and I went to Park City and went to some of the outlets. While there, I had four people come up to me and say, 'Good game. I know you were down. I saw it. They robbed you.' I've heard a lot about it."
This weekend, Bradley is looking to cap his BYU journey with a victory.
"I've had a lot of learning experiences since I've been here, and I'm sure those learning experiences will carry me through the rest of my life, even after football," Bradley said. "I'm glad I made the decision to come."
New Mexico Bowl
BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6)
University Stadium, Albuquerque
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM