Oct. 12—In the Bradbury home in Charlotte, N.C., there is a photo of a young Garrett Bradbury with former Carolina Panthers star receiver Steve Smith. There also is an autographed photo that Smith once gave the kid.
Bradbury was a Panthers fan growing up in Charlotte. His father said Smith was one of his favorite players, and he met him for the first time around 2005, when he was 10.
"It was at a local card shop where he was signing autographs," Tim Bradbury remembered.
Bradbury really liked receivers at the time since his aspiration was to be one, and he went on to play tight end at Charlotte Christian High School. But when Bradbury returns to Charlotte this weekend it will be as a center.
Bradbury, 26, who switched positions at North Carolina State, is now in his third season with the Vikings. And on Sunday he will face the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in his first NFL game in his hometown.
"It's going to be awesome, first time back," Bradbury said. "Going to have a lot of friends and family there, so it'll be a lot of fun playing in front of them. I think a lot of them grew up Panthers fans, but I think we're going to have people in purple cheering for us."
Bradbury was once a Panthers fan himself.
"Grew up in Charlotte, so you cheer for them," he said. "When they're winning, you cheer a little bit more."
The Panthers made it to the Super Bowl for the first time after the 2003 season, when Bradbury was 8. That season, Smith, who played for the team from 2001-13, caught 88 passes for 1,110 yards, so he had a lot of fans among kids in Charlotte.
Bradbury attended a number of Panthers games growing up. And he had thoughts of one day being on the field at Bank of America Stadium.
"I mean, it's the dream," he said. "It's pretty surreal. To this day, you're still pinching yourself."
Bradbury has played at the stadium once, back in 2015 to conclude his redshirt freshman season at North Carolina, but that didn't go well. The Wolfpack lost 51-28 to Mississippi State in the Belk Bowl.
Bradbury and his many supporters are hoping for a better outcome this time around.
"They'll be about a dozen family members, and Garrett has a ton of high school friends, so there will be 50 to 100 folks I'm sure there supporting Garrett and hopefully rooting for the Vikings," Tim Bradbury said. "But we can't force them to do everything."
Tim Bradbury said he and his wife Shelly are "very excited" to see their son play on Sunday. They won't be able to see him much during the weekend due to NFL COVID-19 protocols, but they are hoping to at least see him briefly after the game before he gets on the bus.
Also on hand will be Bradbury's high school coach, Jason Estep. He will attend the game along with Chris James, a former assistant coach at Charlotte Christian.
"I'm pumped," Estep said. "I can't wait to watch him."
It will be the second time Estep sees Bradbury play in person in the NFL. For the 2019 season finale against Chicago at U.S. Bank Stadium, Estep and his wife, Leslie, surprised their two sons Cameron, then 17, and Tate, then 15, with a Christmas gift of a trip to the game.
Bradbury, taken with the No. 18 pick in the 2019 draft, was a rookie that season. Estep is pleased with the progress Bradbury has made since.
So is Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.
"He's a good leader," Zimmer said. "I think he's more about doing his job than being a vocal guy. He typically gets guys on the right page, and he's a first-class citizen."
And now Bradbury will be coming home to where it all started for him as a football player.
"It's the best job in the world for me, and it's going to be cool," he said.