Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Just get Braddy the stick
Senior has a nose for the finish line
Arkansas' Neil Braddy crosses the finish line during 400 meter race Thursday, May 29, 2014 at the NCAA Track and Field West Preliminary meet at John McDonnell Field in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Among the pictures of his Arkansas track and field athletes in Coach Chris Bucknam's office is one of Neil Braddy anchoring the Razorbacks' 1,600-meter relay team to a victory at the 2011 SEC Indoor Championships.
The picture shows Braddy thrusting his left arm in the air in triumph as he crosses the finish line to secure the Razorbacks' first SEC victory in the event.
"That's pretty neat," said Braddy, a freshman in the picture and now a senior. "People are going to walk in and see that picture and they're going to ask, 'Who's that?' And there's going to be a story to tell."
It's a good story.
It's really more of a fairy tale considering Braddy, a lightly-recruited sprinter from Fort Smith Southside High School, has become a 12-time All-American for the Razorbacks.
Twice Braddy has anchored the 1,600 relays to national championships, including a college record 3:03.50 at the 2013 NCAA Indoor meet.
"He's got a special place in Arkansas lore for track and field, I think," Bucknam said. "He's just been that guy we can depend on all the time."
Braddy will write the final chapter of his improbable success story at Arkansas this week at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore. He is running legs on the 400 relay semifinals today and on the 1,600 relay semifinals Thursday in hopes of advancing to finals Friday and Saturday.
"He's definitely a go-to guy, and in the 4x400 there's no anchor like him," said Arkansas assistant Doug Case, who coaches the sprinters. "I say you smell the finish line, and I think he does that really well. He has a good feel for when to go on that thing."
The 2011 SEC Indoor meet marked the first time Braddy ran in a major competition. Braddy knew he was running on the 1,600 relay but didn't learn from Bucknam until about 15 minutes before the race that he would anchor.
"My heart sank, because I was a freshman and it was this huge meet," Braddy said. "I warmed up and Buck was like, 'Don't mess it up for the rest of us.'
"I don't know what he was trying to accomplish there, if he was trying to loosen me up or freak me out."
Bucknam's psychological ploy worked as Braddy took the baton in second place behind LSU Caleb Williams, then passed Williams and held off Florida's Christian Taylor -- the 2012 Olympic triple jump champion and an All-American sprinter for the Gators -- to win.
"The last 100 meters is particularly where I like to kick, so I did my kick and just hoped to God they didn't catch me," Braddy said. "I had no idea where they were, I just hoped that my body would carry me past the line before they caught me."
Bucknam said he was watching a replay of the race that ESPN announcer Lawrence Johnson predicted would come down to Florida and LSU on the anchor leg.
"Then all of a sudden Neil Braddy wins it," Bucknam said. "The fist pump with the baton as he crosses the finish line and seeing those guys not being able to catch him, it's priceless. It's vintage Arkansas track and field."
Braddy said the anchor leg was a boost that has helped carry him to many more relay victories.
"It gave me a lot of confidence in myself to where in later races I knew I can compete with these guys, " he said.
As a senior at Southside in 2010, Braddy won the 100, 200, 400 and long jump and ran on the winning 1,600 relay team to lead the Rebels to the Class 7A state championship.
"He would run five events in every high school meet he was in," Case said. "He hadn't run that fast, but he had done so much that we just felt like if we can get this guy in our mitts, man, something is going to happen, and it did."
Braddy said it wasn't easy turning down full scholarship offers from UALR and Missouri Southern, but ultimately he wanted the challenge of competing for the Razorbacks and testing himself in the SEC.
"Coming in and doing as well as I did, that's going to be a good story for down the road that I can tell my kids," Braddy said. "It's just been a great -- heck, I don't how to say it. Don't know how to put it."
Eleven of Braddy's All-America honors have come on relays.
"He's got a special gift when he gets that baton in his hand, there's no question about that," Bucknam said. "I think what motivates him is more team than individual.
"All I can think is that he's running for three other guys, and for him to get to that level of pain, that's what it takes."
Sports on 06/11/2014