AGAINST ALL ODDS
- Zack Palmer
- Forest Grove News-Times - Sports
Two foot surgeries and numerous setbacks in his recovery couldn't stop Banks senior Brad Markham from fulfilling an obligation to his teammates and earning a shot at a Division I college football career
The pain was tolerable. The whispers from his coaches and teammates were not.
Eight months after undergoing foot surgery to repair bone growth in his big toes, Banks High School senior Brad Markham was in a tailspin.
After a strong finish to the 2006 football season, Markham was slated to be the Braves' starting running back in 2007. But offseason surgery landed Markham in a wheelchair for six months and lingering delays in his recovery were beginning to take their toll on the normally outgoing teenager.
Frustrated with a rehab schedule that had dragged on nearly four times longer than anticipated and disheartened by his continued struggles on the football field, Markham felt like a giant disappointment.
'It's hard when your teammates and coaches are doubting you,' he said. 'It's the worst feeling you can have in sports.'
That disappointment hit even harder given Markham's stellar performance at the tail end of the 2006 season.
'They looked to me to come in and pick up where I left off,' he said. 'But I just couldn't do it. I felt like I was letting them down.'
By the end of the season, no one would feel let down by Brad Markham.
Markham didn't expect to become a football star. In fact, he spent 80 percent of his junior season on the bench after coming out on the wrong end of a pre-season position battle with teammate Gabe Linehan for the starting quarterback spot.
Humble by nature, Markham never complained. Instead, he devoted all his effort to practices and workouts, refusing to be outworked by anyone. Given the opportunity to play tailback during practices and intrasquad scrimmages, Markham shined. In the second-to-last game of the year, on the road against Scappoose, Markham's number was finally called.
Starting at tailback for the first time all season, Markham ran with purpose, bursting through holes and shedding would-be tacklers. He rushed for over 100 yards against the top defense in the Cowapa League. The next week against Seaside he had another big game.
Despite Markham's sudden success, Banks lost both games and finished the year with an 0-10 record. But when the Braves closed the book on their frustrating season, Markham was one of the bright spots. All but forgotten early in the year, he rebounded to position himself as the unquestioned starter at tailback going into 2007.
On top of that, Markham had sent game film to several colleges, hoping to attract an offer to play Division I football. A devout Mormon and lifelong BYU fan, Markham was elated when he heard back from BYU coaches, telling him they were interested.
Things were looking up.
But nagging issues with his toes landed Markham in a doctor's office following the season. Pain he had ignored for years simply became too much to bear. In December of 2006, Markham underwent surgery to remove pieces of bone and straighten his two big toes (see 'Surgery complicates football recruiting process,' page 6B).
'I had kind of learned to deal with it, but it got worse as time went on,' he said. 'Surgery was the only option.'
Assured by doctors that he would be fit within six to eight weeks, Markham never doubted that his senior season would be a smashing success.
He was wrong.
The surgery landed Markham in a wheelchair for five months, and when lingering foot problems required a second surgery in May, his reconditioning program went out the window.
He missed all of track and field season and by the time summer football practice started, Markham had been off crutches for less than a week.
When he was finally cleared by doctors to start running in July, Markham attacked his rehabilitation with characteristic vigor. He was practicing with the football team, attending physical therapy sessions, training at Velocity and sometimes sneaking in a late-night run around town. Every single day.
Markham was devoted to getting himself back to 100 percent, but he was running himself ragged in the process.
'He's a pretty motivated kid,' said Banks football coach Ben Buchanan. 'He hated being out and I think he tried to come back too quick. He was off his feet for so long, he just didn't have the strength in his legs.'
As summer practice wrapped up and Banks prepared for its 2007 season opener against Estacada, Buchanan had to sit Markham down and have a tough conversation.
'He didn't have any explosiveness, he couldn't make cuts. He just wasn't all the way healthy,' Buchanan said. 'He wanted to be starting and I had to say, 'I know where you're coming from, but you're just not ready yet.' He was hurt. He was thinking about colleges and scholarships, and if he wasn't playing it was hurting his chances.'
Markham played sparingly in the Braves' first two games, rushing 10 times for 14 yards against Estacada and 12 times for 20 yards the following week against Molalla.
'Coming into his senior season we thought the surgery would be a quick fix and he'd be the guy,' Buchanan said. 'But it was a real battle for him. It was hard to watch.'
'He was so far behind [when he started],' said Markham's father, Mike. 'He had no endurance, no speed. He tried, but he couldn't cut, he couldn't accelerate, he couldn't control his body out there. He was probably 60 percent.'
Brad agreed that the early part of the season was tough.
'I was on a roller coaster,' he said. 'Some weeks I was beat - my ankles and calves were so sore I could barely walk.'
So Markham went back to the bench, and his dream of playing college football joined him on the sideline.
Long Road Back
As September rolled by, Markham spent most of his Friday nights on the bench and most of his other nights at home soaking in an ice bath.
'His ankles, shins, feet - everything hurt,' Mike Markham said. 'He came home after games and just soaked in an ice bath for what seemed like hours. He was in a lot of pain.'
Markham wondered if the phone calls from BYU coaches would eventually stop. He knew he had to get back on the field, for himself and his rapidly fading dream of playing college football, but also for his Banks teammates to whom he felt an obligation. After suffering through the winless 2006 season together, Markham and his teammates wanted to spawn a football resurgence in Banks.
The tide began to turn on Sept. 28 against Taft. Banks wore out the visiting Tigers, winning 34-14 on homecoming night. Markham played well on defense and the pain was beginning to subside.
By early October, Markham was completely pain-free. He got just seven carries against Astoria on Oct. 11, but spun them into a season-high 33 yards. More important than the yards, however, was how easily they came - the senior was finally operating at 100 percent.
'I felt a ton better,' Markham said. 'For the first time I felt like I could do what I wanted to do. I was finally getting results.'
The results kept coming. The next week against Tillamook, Markham had 115 yards and a touchdown. A week later against Scappoose it was 202 yards and three touchdowns on a staggering 40 carries. The following week he erupted for a career-high 259 yards against Seaside. And in the last game of the season, a 52-30 loss to Hidden Valley in the first round of the 4A state playoffs, Markham capped his career with 137 yards and three more touchdowns.
'He's the hardest working kid on the team,' Buchanan said. 'As the season went on you could see how he was running the ball - he was running over people and making cuts just like he used to do. With the ball in his hands we were able to just pound people.'
In four short weeks, Markham rushed for 713 yards and seven touchdowns. In the process, he helped spark a football renaissance at Banks. The team that went winless a year earlier capped the 2007 season by winning five of its last seven games, including four straight in Cowapa League play to clinch a co-championship with Yamhill-Carlton.
The wins, the playoff appearance, the league title - those were all nice, for sure. But for Mike and Linda Markham, one particular play will always stand out. Late in the third quarter of the Braves' Oct. 19 game against Tillamook, Banks led 14-6 when Brad took a pitch at the 36-yard line, started left, then cut back to his right and busted it for a touchdown.
'We will never forget watching the joy come over Brad at that moment,' Mike Markham said. 'He did it. He was back. And as [fullback] Ben Rodgers went running over to Brad and hugged him in the end zone, all the things that Brad went through - the surgeries, the recovery, the rehab, the setbacks, the doubt, the ice, the pain, the hurt - all of it came rushing back and we had a few tears in our eyes.'
A Second Chance
The renewed team success in Banks brought joy for Markham and his teammates, but the renewed individual success brought Markham back onto the radar of college recruiters.
BYU announced in December that it was still interested in Markham, and assistant football coach Barry Lamb visited Banks shortly before BYU's 17-16 win over UCLA in the Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl. Lamb discussed the possibility of offering Markham a preferred walk-on position with the football team - he wouldn't get an athletic scholarship, but he would be guaranteed a spot on the team and would have an opportunity to earn a scholarship based on his performance.
'He said they wanted to offer me a scholarship but I was a little late on the radar,' Markham said.
Lamb returned again in January and officially offered Markham the chance to continue his football career at the college level - BYU would extend a preferred walk-on offer to the Banks standout.
'It was such a good feeling,' Markham said. 'I'm excited. I won't get a scholarship, but I'll have a chance to earn a scholarship.'
His future was set. Football would come, but not right away.
Markham's faith and his commitment to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supersedes his commitment to football. Like most Mormon players entering the football program at BYU, Markham will defer his enrollment and instead spend two years on a mission trip for the church (see Part 1 of this series in last week's issue of the News-Times).
His responsibilities will be far-ranging, but none of them will involve football. When he returns to school in 2011, BYU coaches will have a roster spot waiting for him and Markham will begin the long process of once again resurrecting his football career.
Markham is not the first Mormon player to get a crack at playing Division I college football, and he is not the first BYU recruit to be offered a preferred walk-on role instead of a scholarship.
Given the constraints of recruiting mostly Mormon players - Lamb estimates that 75 percent of the football team's players, like Markham, belong to the LDS Church - BYU has found success in recent years with its extensive walk-on program.
Since so few players return from their two-year missions in game shape, the coaches withhold a concrete scholarship offer and instead let players earn the scholarship through on-field performance.
'We have a very extensive and successful walk-on program,' Lamb said. 'We've had 17 young men in the last four years earn scholarships. That's way above the national average.'
According to Brandon Gurney, who covers BYU football for the recruiting network Scout.com, the Cougars have gotten big contributions from former walk-ons. The entire starting defensive secondary in 2007 was comprised of players who started their careers as walk-ons.
'All four starters joined the program as walk-ons and three of them earned scholarships,' Gurney said. 'You can start as a walk-on and actually get the opportunity to play [at BYU]. I think that's a big attraction for some kids.'
Lamb said players returning from mission trips are placed into a separate conditioning and weight lifting program than the rest of the team, starting slow and building to the point where they can join everyone else.
'They do less than the other guys to get their bodies into condition where they can compete with the other guys,' Lamb said. 'You've got to take it easy on those guys until they can integrate into what the other guys are doing - guys who've been going full bore.'
The program quickly separates those who are serious about resurrecting their football careers and those who are not.
Markham has plenty of experience taking a career that once appeared finished and bringing it back to life.
'I had struggled for so long that when the [Banks] coaches finally gave me a chance to get back out there I knew I couldn't mess up,' he said. 'Every time I got the ball I said, 'I'm not going down. If you're going to tackle me, you're going to have to bring the whole team.' That was my motivation.'
Editor's Note - This is the second part of a two-part series. Click here to read Part 1 or pick up a copy of the March 12 edition of the News-Times.