- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Travis Bridges sat in an offensive line meeting in March, unaware that the latest unforeseen twist in his young life was about to unfold.

In comparison with so much that had come before, it did not carry that much meaning. At least in time, it would not. It was still an eye-opener to a man who had settled in after bumpy times during his first two years at the Naval Academy.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo called Bridges, who was poised to contend for playing time at guard, into his office to inform the rising junior that he would switch to defense.

“He was sitting in my office like, ‘What is going on?’” offensive line coach Chris Culton said. “Travis didn’t see the big picture, not because he couldn’t see the big picture but because he thought it was a strike against him or he couldn’t get it done on offense.”

It had nothing to do with that, and Culton said so. The Midshipmen rarely find a player with both the size and athleticism to so capably plug into the middle of their defensive line. A Navy lineman typically will go from defense to offense; a trip in the other direction usually involves a special talent.

Besides, Culton and the rest of the Mids’ staff knew that if anyone would ultimately handle a change with grace and tenacity, it would be Bridges. Who else in Navy’s locker room lost his mother to a brain tumor when he was 3? Or lived in vacant homes as a child during his family’s trying economic times?

Bridges assumed resilience. When Culton asked defensive line coach Dale Pehrson about the switch a week later, his fellow assistant replied that Bridges was in his office nearly every day with a pad and paper to soak in as much as he could.

“I think that’s something my dad instilled in me,” Bridges said. “Don’t look at the bad things or what’s going on. Just keep your mind on the road and keep in mind what’s going on out there doesn’t always have to be like this. It helped me keep a good head on my shoulders, and I feel I was blessed enough to pick that up at a young age.”

It’s why he thrived in high school. It helped him turn in such a strong spring that Navy is counting on Bridges to make an impact at nose guard when preseason camp begins Wednesday.

It also helped him survive his first two years at Navy, where a 6-foot, 318-pounder stands out whether he wants to or not.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that a kid 300 pounds has it harder here than anybody else,” Niumatalolo said. “I know there’s ribbing and razzing that goes on because you can’t get in line and nobody notices you. They’re going to see you. There’s no way you can hide. For him to have dealt with that, you have to be a tough kid.”

Questions to answer

Pride, Travis Bridges Sr. believes, can work for or against a man.

It could have worked against him while raising his son. Mr. Bridges, a musician, wouldn’t allow it, even as a real estate friend allowed them to stay in unoccupied homes when work was scarce.

“Although I had to go without, he couldn’t go without,” Mr. Bridges said. “Being a self-taught barber, I kept his hair cut neat. I got him [good] hand-me-down clothes. I was able to keep him looking well.”

And living well, too. Bridges matter-of-factly acknowledges his family’s difficulties when he was a child, but he doesn’t dwell on it.

“I didn’t think about it as, ‘My life isn’t normal,’” Bridges said. “My dad did a really good job helping me. Of course, I couldn’t get everything I wanted, but he was a real strong man and had a positive attitude, and he made sure I was happy as best he could. I didn’t really think of it as a struggle or anything.”

Things turned for Mr. Bridges, and his son eventually landed at Chaminade Prep, near Miami. There, Bridges was a strong student and a promising offensive lineman who caught the eye of Navy.

Culton had not recruited in South Florida before, and Chaminade was one of the first schools he visited. He stayed in touch with the lineman, but had yet to meet Bridges‘ father. That would come during a home visit in a high school locker room because of Mr. Bridges‘ unusual schedule.

It would be an atypical trip.

“I had kept calling and he said, ‘I haven’t had a chance to meet you,’ and I said, ‘Well, yes sir, I haven’t had a chance to get out,’” Culton recalled. “He said, ‘I told my son never to talk to strangers, and you’re a stranger.’ I was like, ‘Holy cow.’”

The meeting lasted about an hour. It felt like six to Culton. Mr. Bridges was not mean or rude, but he was persistent. He wanted answers to everything, and each of his questions seemed to spawn two or three more.

In retrospect, some of the concerns stemmed from an understandable misperception.

“It’s amazing because I was just blinded by what was being proposed,” Mr. Bridges said. “When I first heard he was being courted by a Navy recruiter, my mind never turned onto Annapolis or the Naval Academy. All I saw was an enlisted teenager going into the armed service.”

Ultimately, it would be Bridges‘ decision. He found himself the target of an eclectic mix of schools: Navy, Southern University, South Florida and Colgate. Navy provided an impressive opportunity, but Bridges wasn’t sure.

A few months before finalizing his decision, he visited a family friend he knew only as Teddy in the hospital.

“I remember talking to him about my options — ‘And also Naval Academy. I don’t know,’” Bridges said. “Before I even finished, he said, ‘Take it.’ Hearing his attitude about it and he did serve a long time ago, just hearing his input about that opportunity is something that helped me. ‘Just take it.’ That’s what he said. I’ve never seen someone so serious in their eyes.”

Finding his way

The Naval Academy isn’t for everyone. For a while, Bridges teetered on falling into that category. Yet his mind wandered for obvious reasons as he navigated plebe summer and worked through his first preseason camp in 2010.

One of his high school teammates, Ruben Narcisse, remained in touch to provide encouragement. Narcisse, then a freshman linebacker at Wyoming, sent Bridges some letters of support during the adjustment.

They spoke the day before the Mids’ opener against Maryland. After the game, Bridges learned that Narcisse was killed in a single-car crash that morning.

“It was really hard,” Bridges said. “I still think about him every day. He’s one of my really best friends.”

It was an ominous start to the semester. Bridges acknowledged that he wasn’t as diligent as necessary, and he found himself in a precarious position academically.

“I remember going to the board, talking to them,” Niumatalolo said. “Professors and company officers were saying he doesn’t belong here, look at his grades, this and that. I said, ‘This kid is a great kid and he’s adjusting. Just give him some time; there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll make it.’”

It was another jolt, the latest in a series. Like so many that came before, Bridges responded maturely.

His grades improved, and he earned a 3.0 GPA in the spring. Meanwhile, he adjusted to the military aspect of the academy experience and began to blend in better as a sophomore.

“My back was against the wall. They gave me a really good scare when I went to the board and they said, ‘If you don’t show improvement ,’” Bridges said. “I was like, ‘I’ve made it this far in life, I’m not going to let my family and friends down, my dad down. We’ve been through so much already. I’m not going to let this happen.’”

On the field, Bridges‘ career was beset with injuries. He worked with starters during camp as a freshman but suffered a dislocated elbow. After working primarily with the field goal unit last year, he sustained a foot injury and was limited entering spring practice.

Nonetheless, he was optimistic about his chances of earning regular playing time on offense until his meeting with Niumatalolo.

“I was starting to feel good and things were going well,” Bridges said. “Then they hit me with a switch, and I’m like, ‘Does this mean I’m not good enough to play on offense?’ Then talking to coach Culton, I’m like, ‘I’m not going to think like that.’”

Bridges soon deployed two of his greatest assets: positivity and pride. He embraced the change and rapidly learned some of Navy’s defensive concepts, and was one of the stars of the Mids’ spring game with seven tackles and a sack.

Just like his father taught him, pride can work for or against a man. Travis Bridges Jr. put it to use to adapt to his circumstances at every turn at Navy.

His father couldn’t be more pleased.

“I don’t think there are enough words in the English dictionary or the language of English to express that,” Mr. Bridges said. “You realize the magnitude of his commitment to society in having this opportunity. I’m more than proud. I’m honored.”

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