Awards: Comeback Player of the Year
Winning is what every athlete trains for. But sometimes just finishing what they’ve started is more important, especially when they’ve had every reason to walk away. Gamecock Illustrated is proud to name this year’s Comeback Players of the Year Ericka Stam and Mike Bradford.
In most cases, a lower-body injury is the absolute worst thing that can happen to a runner.
But when it happened to Ericka Stam, she realized there was something worse: letting it end her career.
Stam, a distance runner from Keller, Texas, began feeling discomfort while she was training for Cross Country season in the summer of 2012. Diagnoses of a stress fracture and nerve damage proved to be inaccurate. The source of pain remained a mystery until that December.
After an X-Ray in her hometown, Stam was diagnosed with joint damage from what is known as Morton’s Toe. Her second toe is longer than the big toe and takes on most of the weight while she runs. It led to her missing the 2013 Track season.
Stam graduated with a degree in Nursing that August and could have easily began her life after college. But, Stam knew she had unfinished business at Jacksonville State. She decided to return for a fifth year of competition. She wore a special orthotic in her shoes during training now, but she did not wear it in competition.
She made her return in Cross Country season and became the first woman in JSU history to be named a two time All-Ohio Valley Conference performer at the OVC championship. She ran her 5K in 17 minutes, 50.82 seconds. Then it was on to the Track.
In the Indoor season, became the first JSU woman to run the 5K in under 18 minutes. Her time of 17:51.72 was good enough for fifth in the OVC Indoor Championship. Her goal for the Outdoor season was to run a 5K in 17:30. She only made it to 17:41.31 but it was good enough to break her own JSU record of 17:47.56.
She shattered a record that stood for eight years in her 10K run at the Florida State Relays. The previous record of 37:53.82 was set in 2006 by Sarah Craine. Stam ran it in 37:02.05 in late March. She shattered it againat the Tennessee Relays in April with a time of 36:43.54. She shattered it one final time at the Gregory Invitational in May, her final competition, with a time of 36:17.23.
Stam may not have reached the mark she wanted to in her 5K races, but she still achieved immortality. Her name is on top of the record book in 5K and 10K races and she will always be remembered as the first Gamecock woman to be a two time all-OVC performer. Now will be remembered as the first woman to be named Gamecock Illustrated’s Comeback Player of the Year.
Mike Bradford walked across the stage with his degree in hand on May 2.
It was almost poetic justice that his graduation took place on the same field he spent so much time trying to get back on.
Bradford, a wide receiver from Atlanta, Ga., walked on to the football team in 2009. He survived brutal conditioning and was one of the 10 players selected of the 57 hopefuls who tried out.
As typical with walk-ons, Bradford spent his first year pulling scout team duties. It was more of the same when his second season rolled around. He had earned a scholarship by then and was allowed to dress for home games but never called on to enter a game.
He looked to break into the rotation in his third season but was forced to leave the team mid-season due to off-field difficulties. When the team received its OVC Championship rings that January, he did not.
He took a job at a local Radioshack where he remained for the next year. He continued to train his body to make one last go at the game he loved. He returned to the team in January of 2013 where he was welcomed back with open arms by the new coaching staff.
He finally took the field for the first time against Jacksonville University. He finished with only two catches for 15 yards. He finished with 30 yards on his career. But considering his journey, it was still a mission accomplished. He didn’t come back to be the superstar, but to finish what he started with the guys who had become like family to him.
It is because of his determination Gamecock Illustrated is proud to name him as its first man named Comeback Player of the Year.