GAA Football

'There is no success without struggle' - the remarkable story of Gregory Bradley

Gregory Bradley was a Derry SFC winner with Coleraine in 2010 but since then his life has been turned upside down by the death of his brother and an accidental on-field collision that left him having to learn to walk and talk again. Yet he's absorbed the hits and built a successful business from the ground up. He told his story to Cahair O'Kane...

Former Coleraine GAA footballer Gregory Bradley pictured at his business, Blk Box Fitness. Picture by Hugh Russell.

WALK into pretty much any gym in Ireland and you will see the stamp of the Gregory Bradley's life’s work quite literally on the place. Walk into him on the street and you’d think there’s nothing at all out of the ordinary.

But then if you walked into him with enough force, you’d risk jangling a fragile body whose remnants have not been the same since an accidental on-field collision five years ago.

A Derry championship winner with Coleraine in 2010, he was the goal-hanger for a club that was playing junior football 10 years previous and had come from virtually nowhere.

Eighteen months later, he was being transferred from Coleraine Hospital to the Royal Victoria in an unconscious state. Chasing a 50-50 ball in a nondescript league game against Bellaghy, he collided with a human steam train in Fergal Doherty.

It was a completely accidental, honest challenge but the result for Bradley was a fractured skull, a couple of fractured vertebrae and a broken bone in the neck.

To this day, his short-term memory is shot. The long-term isn’t much better. It was like someone wiped the hard drive. Everything he’d learnt in school, gone.

He had to learn to walk again. To talk again. Even to this day, a three-syllable word can be there on the tip of his tongue but it won’t find its way out.

“It sounds funny but my OT was pretty attractive, so I was cheating on some of my homework to try and impress her.”

He wouldn’t eat the “s*** processed food” in the hospital and was repeatedly told off for breaking the rules as all and sundry smuggled in something decent to eat, but he maintains that it aided a much quicker recovery than expected.

In all, Bradley spent five weeks in hospital, the last couple of them in the brain injury unit in Musgrave.

“I had this big neck brace on. The vast majority of the other people there had brain damage and they made you eat every meal together.

“There was a lady sitting beside me and I’ll never forget her looking at me as if she felt sorry for me, and I was thinking ‘I’m hopefully getting out of here soon’.

“It was pretty crazy having to learn to walk again. But I remember my mum crying when I got home again because I wanted to go straight to work. I was always ambitious and driven before that, and it was just like a catalyst.”

To sit and talk now in the boardroom of the company he’s built from the ground up, you wouldn’t know unless you knew.

The brace stayed on for three months after he left hospital and he was advised never to play football again.

But as he had proved plenty of times by then, and is still doing now, the more he is told he can’t do something, the more he will want to do it.

“I’ve adjusted. I ended up did go back. That’s kind of just my mentality – if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll do my best to prove you wrong.

“Rightly or wrongly, that’s my mindset. I played a few games after but ended up just stepping away, and my focus has been growing the business.”

The business. Blk Box Fitness. Based in Titanic Quarter in Belfast, the unit that houses 20 staff is impressive but gives little away about the scale of industry that goes on there.

It started out with a couple of clubmates as efp gyms in March 2012, just a month before his football injury. And for the next couple of years, his life was a mixture of education and rehabilitation.

He did return to the playing field with Eoghan Rua, starting throughout their 2013 championship campaign that ended with a semi-final defeat to Ballinascreen at a sodden Owenbeg.

It was a symmetrical way for it all to finish, given that probably the outstanding moment of his playing career was palming home a crucial semi-final goal against Ballinascreen at a sodden Banagher three years earlier.

That one worked out. This one didn’t. By then, his determination to play again had been sated and the mind had moved on to something else.

Since then, it has been work, work and more work.

Most nights he takes five hours’ sleep and works from the moment he gets up until the moment he goes to bed. You say ‘takes’ rather than ‘gets’ because it’s all his own choice.

“I’m conscious that I bring a lot of this on myself, it’s a choice for me. I don’t have to do it, but I want to make an impact.”

When they started out, they spent the first year “selling fresh air”. One of the first sales he made was on DoneDeal, where he uploaded a couple of stock images of equipment that he didn’t actually have to sell.

One of the first phone calls he got was from Eoin Lacey, a coach at the Irish Strength Institute. At the time, he was training a little known MMA fighter called Conor McGregor.

“He rang saying he needed a lot of prowler sleds for the next Sunday. Somehow I got a welder and managed to get them made.

“McGregor was on the dole at this stage, the week before his first fight in the USA. I still have the messages on Facebook where I said I’d be interested in sponsoring him, and he said ‘for sure, I’m heading off to my first fight in the USA’.

“Obviously he won that fight and I never heard of him again.”

It would have been nice for the portfolio but the Coleraine man has moved well past lingering on that.

The rags came before the riches. While his parents lived a comfortable life and supported their children, they weren’t given handouts and had to find their own way in the world.

The bank charging him £5-a-day as he tried to get out of a £2,500 overdraft was the first finishing line he had to cross.

A meeting with Fergus Connolly persuaded him to initially go down the line of selling sports nutrition supplements rather than equipment, “which was a fair rationale”. So he spent two years at that but eventually grew frustrated with the lack of capital progress.

The manufacturing began in 2014 and since then, Bradley has moved out on his own, rebranded and reckons they’ve done 29 of the 32 inter-county gym fit outs.

The phone call for the 30th had just come through the night previous to our meeting, for the new Kerry centre of excellence.

Brighton & Hove Albion was the first big one outside the GAA and since then, he’s done Ulster and Ireland rugby, Google’s office in Dublin, the world’s largest Lamborghini showroom and six gyms for Sri Lanka cricket.

The latest divergence is into the military, with a new contract secured in Dubai and one underway for five new outdoor gyms for the Irish Army.

Safe to say things are going alright on the business front. But the one that resonates best, for many reasons, is Arsenal.

**

WHEN the phone rang early one Wednesday morning just over two years ago, Gregory looked and saw ‘Aoife’ flash up.

Nothing out of the ordinary for his baby sister to call. But when he answered, it brought down his world that she already knew was broken.

Their brother Gerard had been in Australia for a few years. He and his English girlfriend Shelley Aplin had just gone back to Perth after a break in Bali. They had residency and were likely to apply for citizenship.

Gerard was due to start a new job as a golf coach but with a couple of weeks to pass in between, he took the chance to earn an extra few quid on one of the hundreds of construction sites in the city.

But around 11am on November 25, a day before he was due to embark on a trip home for Christmas, Gerard and Omagh man Joe McDermott sat down for a break and were killed when a concrete slab fell from the back of a truck and landed on them.

He was the second of four Bradley children. Jon Paul the oldest, then Gerard, Gregory and Aoife.

Everything Gerard did, he did with a smile and a sense of ease.

Gregory's elder brother Gerard (pictured) was tragically killed in Australia two years ago when a concrete slab fell on him and co-worker Joe McDermott, who also died. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

Golf was only intended to be a leisurely pursuit for him but he ended up coaching the game and playing off a handicap of one. An Arsenal fanatic, he was a graceful soccer player.

Olive McGowan was a friend who had worked with him in the Portstewart Arms, and she perhaps summed it up best: “He should have been a model. He was the sort of fella every mother would have wanted their daughter to marry.”

Gregory had just arrived back in Ireland the previous night from a conference in Boston, and was on his way to Limerick that morning when the call came.

“I was pretty jetlagged when Aoife rang me. It was early morning when it happened and it was complete shock.

“I was at home at the weekend for the first time in a while and it just dawns on you sometimes, you’re thinking is he going to come walking in, is this a dream?

“When you think of exactly what happened, it’s crushing. I’ve been through a fair bit of setbacks and it’s almost conditioning for me.

"These things happen. A lot of people would feel sorry for themselves but you have to pick yourself up and keep going. I have to embrace it. There’s no success without struggle.”

The last time Gregory was talking to his brother was when Gerard had been in Bali, and that is part of the reason why the younger sibling will go there on a working holiday over Christmas this year.

“In Bali, he was sending me messages and I was saying about doing some work for Arsenal. He was a hardcore Arsenal fan for his sins.

“That’s why it was nice for me to do their first team gym this summer, and ultimately quite a few of the players’ and management’s home gyms as well.

"I was hoping to do a gym or two in Australia and I was maybe going to get him to do some work there."

There is no manual for dealing with such grief. Gregory describes himself as an open book and there’s the deepest of emotion on his face, in his voice and in his hands as he talks about it.

But largely his way of dealing with it has been to make himself so busy that he doesn’t give himself time to stop and think.

“I’ll be honest, I’ve probably sedated myself with work and trying not to think on it too much. It’s important to keep control of your emotions too. I don’t think Gerard would have wanted me to be sitting around feeling sorry for myself.”

The case is still open and the hope for justice, or even full answers, goes on. The pain can be duller some days, but it never leaves.

**

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
Haruki Murakami

IT’S just a different stage of his life now.

When Coleraine won that Championship in 2010, Gregory Bradley stripped his house in Belfast and hired a DJ for what became party central amid the celebrations.

“When we won the championship, we partied crazy. There was a rumour going around that we’d won the lottery. There was a deer’s head. It got a bit mad. One of the boys actually conceived a baby.”

Gregory Bradley in action for Coleraine against Burren in the 2010 Ulster Club series. Picture by Philip Walsh

He’d played Gaelic football up until his last year of under-14 before taking a break until he was 17.

A decade ago the family moved out from the centre of the triangle between Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine to Ringsend, which is more Ballerin territory than Eoghan Rua.

But his roots were down – indeed, one of his life’s ambitions is to buy his parents a home back in the town – and by that stage he was back trying to get on to a senior team.

You can call it stubborn or determined but there were more than a handful within the club who thought he’d never make it in any shape or form.

“I’d be the first to admit I’m probably one of the worst players ever to win a county championship, and I’m quite happy with that.

“I played up until under-14. Then from 14-17, there was a sabbatical where I didn’t play and did other stuff – played football, skateboarded, surfing.

“When I came back I started training absolutely clueless and I remember Sean McGoldrick saying something that kind of questioned my ability, and he was right because I was s***, but I was like ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’.

“I’m a huge believer in playing to your strengths, so I became a better athlete. That probably helped us get over the line that year, the fact we were quite athletic.”

They’ve never been back on the podium since and if they were now, it’s unlikely Bradley would be leading the celebrations. He misses the craic but not the football itself.

He might not even have time to go to the match. At 29, he doesn’t have time for a girlfriend, though in time he will re-evaluate.

“You were asking about hobbies but sadly all I do is work, travel, read or learn. That’s been my choice.”

Sometimes life offers you a choice. Sometimes, as for Gerard, it doesn’t. And in absorbing all the torment, the emotional and physical pain of the last five years, Gregory Bradley’s choice has been to forsake football and absorb himself in work.

The dividends have been rich but he knows that some day, he’ll want something different, something more. Because that’s just the way he is.

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