CHICAGO -- All former Bears wide receiver Mark Bradley remembers was staring up at the ceiling lights of the hospital as they wheeled him in a gurney down the hallway of the emergency room.
"It was dim and blurry with a lot of people in panic around me assisting and all I thought was, 'I'm going to die any moment,' " Bradley said in an interview with the Tribune.
He was 4, and on that day over the Fourth of July weekend in 1986 in Pine Bluff, Ark., the curious toddler discovered his grandpa's gun in a bedroom between the box spring and mattress. Mustering up all the strength he could to pull the trigger, the little boy shot a bullet that tore into his left hand near his index finger. As chronicled in Bradley's new book "1nsepara6le: Faith, Family, Fatherhood," he lost so much blood that doctors encouraged his family to inform the hospital who might be a match if a donor was needed.
The request made his mother, Denise Davis, panic even more. That meant she would have to inform Reginald Mayberry, the man raising Mark under false pretenses, that he wasn't the boy's biological father. Danny Bradley, a local football legend entering his second season as a wide receiver with the Los Angeles Rams, was.
It was a genetic reality Danny doubted when Davis first alleged he was Mark's dad two weeks before the 1985 Orange Bowl. He was Oklahoma's star quarterback and figured Davis was a woman with whom he had a fling trying to capitalize on his rising celebrity. But nearly two years later, a call in Los Angeles from Danny's mother telling him the boy who might be his son shot himself playing with a gun left a feeling Danny couldn't shake: What if he really did have a son -- and the child was in danger?
Danny boarded a plane home to Arkansas the next morning, demanded a paternity test that proved he was the father and began a long, emotionally painful mission of trying to be the attentive, loving dad his own never was. Over the next decade, that commitment to inject himself in Mark's life cost him a marriage and shortened his NFL career when he turned down a two-year contract offer from the Lions after crossing the picket line during the 1987 NFL players strike.
The sacrifice all started with the gunshot heard in Hollywood.
"Not that you ever want kids playing with guns, because it could have killed Mark, but thank God that happened for this reason only: I believe had that incident not happened, I'm not real sure how it would have turned out but I don't think it would have penetrated my heart the way it did," Danny Bradley said. "Understand, legally I had no rights to this kid. He was named after another father. They petitioned in court naming this guy the father. I had no real reason to believe this woman. But at that point, I was committed to find out if it was really true."
The truth about the depths of family dysfunction Mark endured growing up in Arkansas, revealed in the book the Bradleys have pitched to movie producers, might surprise even those close enough to know he plans an NFL comeback. Many never knew about the gun accident or how years of shuttling from his stepdad to his biological dad in Dallas to his presumed dad in Alabama affected Mark's state of mind and maturity. Or that Mark's mother spoke so negatively about Danny that, for several years, his son despised the man. Or that he was Mark Mayberry until legally changing his name at 17.
A cleansing exercise for Mark's psyche, the book takes an unvarnished look at his upbringing without shirking responsibility for immature mistakes. He candidly describes the day Danny kicked him out of the car after learning he had dabbled with marijuana at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The account of the way the Bradleys successfully fought a plagiarism charge at Oklahoma illustrates the lengths Danny would go to keep his son on the right path. And when Mark states, "I really would rather die than go back into that confrontational pigsty" in Arkansas during a crisis of confidence with the Sooners, it provides a sense of how suffocating his childhood environment was.
Over time Bradley forgave his mother for years of building an insurmountable wall between him and his biological father and making her son believe Danny was good for nothing but sending money. On one side was a father trying to get to know and help his son while on the other stood a young man hating his father based on bogus information. Denise Davis, who wished not to be interviewed, consented in writing before the book was released and Mark credits the common ground he eventually found with his mother to the man she spent decades disparaging.
"Every time I got to the point I didn't want my mom to be able to benefit from things I was experiencing, Dad would cut me off and say, 'I don't care how you feel, that's still your mother,' " Bradley said.
Added Danny: "I wanted him to know one thing -- that the greatest gift you can ever give to your kids is to love their mother."
By design Mark shared as little as possible about his past with teammates during his Bears tenure to preserve thoughts of a book or screenplay. The Bradleys felt the personal narrative was compelling enough that Danny, with a wealth of connections, pitched the movie idea to actor John Travolta during an impromptu meeting at the Four Seasons hotel in Dallas.
"Mark's a good friend and I knew he was very close to his father but nothing else," said safety Chris Harris, a member of the Bears' 2005 draft class with Bradley. "It is hard to believe that he was able to cover stuff up and just function like everything was normal."
Bradley did confide in Bears wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. When Mark's grandmother on his mom's side passed away while visiting Chicago for a Bears preseason game in 2006, for example, Drake consoled the player after his grandfather blamed the death on him.
"Can you imagine that? He was tore up and still had to play," Drake recalled. "I just said, 'It's not your fault.' "
Drake blamed a spate of injuries on Bradley's disappointing stint with the Bears from 2005 to 2008, but inconsistent hands and focus contributed too. The 39th player taken in the '05 draft bounced around on the Chiefs, Bucs and Saints rosters before sitting out last year to get healthy physically -- and mentally. Now clearheaded for the first time and motivated by failure, Bradley seeks a comeback and claims he recently ran a 4.34 40-yard dash.
It sounds like a long shot, but Drake cautions against skepticism.
"I always thought Mark was good enough to play and probably could still play if given the opportunity," Drake said. "He's older, he's wiser. He came up real tough and a lot of people don't realize what he's been through."
Now that people do, will evolving personally help him develop professionally?
"I'd love to get back to Chicago," said Bradley, 29. "But whoever is willing to sign me will see a different guy that brings a lot from the table and has learned from my mistakes. I've learned how to be a better player on the field and in the locker room."
Guess who he credits for teaching him.