Monday, August 10, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Melvin Bratton

(Top) Melvin Bratton in action against Oklahoma in the 1988 Orange Bowl Classic. (Bottom) Bratton leaps over a pile linemen against Florida State in 1987

It's been said you only get one chance to make a good first impression. On November 23, 1984, University of Miami freshman running back Melvin Bratton made a spectacular debut in his first college start. Playing in place of the injured Alonzo Highsmith, Bratton gained 134 yards and scored 4 touchdowns. Unfortunately nobody remembers what Bratton accomplished that rainy afternoon in the Orange Bowl. That's because in the very same game Boston College's Doug Flutie completed a hail mary pass that would become the most replayed moment in college football history. Boston College won the game 47-45 and Bratton's heroics would be just a small footnote.

Bratton's debut was just the beginning of what would become an outstanding college career. From 1984 through 1987 Bratton rushed for 1,371 yards, gained 1084 yards receiving and scored a then school record 32 touchdowns in his career with the Canes. He is the only running back in University of Miami history to gain over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in his career. He played a major role in the emergence of one of college football's great dynasties. The Hurricanes were 41-8 and won the 1987 national championship in Bratton's UM playing career. In his final college game, he tied a then Orange Bowl Classic record with 9 catches against Oklahoma and was named offensive MVP of the game.

Growing up in Miami's tough Liberty City neighborhood, the Orange Bowl had always been a big part of Bratton's life and football development. He attended many Dolphin and Hurricane games as a kid. He also played in the Orange Bowl for Northwestern High School in its annual "Soul Bowl" game against rival Jackson High School. Greatness was always expected of Bratton from the time he graduated from Northwestern High in 1983. He was the most highly recruited running back in Florida, earning All American honors by Parade and Scholastic Coach magazines. The Miami Herald rated Bratton as the second best high school player in Florida behind his future teammate and fellow Miamian Alonzo Highsmith of Columbus High School. As good as he was on the football field, he was just as spectacular in track and field. Bratton was a two-time state champion in the long jump and one of the state's fastest sprinters.

Virtually every major college football program wanted his services. He once took a recruiting trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, but forgot to bring any winter clothing. It snowed during the entire visit and the chilling temperatures were enough for Bratton to realize Michigan wasn't the place for him. During his senior year at Northwestern High, he became close friends with Highsmith. The two high school phenoms decided they would attend the same college together. In February 1983, Bratton, Highsmith and Northwestern High defensive back Tommy Streeter held a signing day ceremony at a McDonald's restaurant located across the street from Tropical Park. The three players chose the McDonald's because it was where they originally met as friends. Bratton and Highsmith signed their letters of intent to attend the University of Miami. Streeter was expected to join them. But instead, Streeter decided to sign with Colorado. (Streeter's son, Tommy Jr., is currently a freshman receiver at Miami) With Streeter choosing Colorado, Miami head coach Howard Schnellenberger had one leftover scholarship to give. He decided to give it to Bratton's Northwestern teammate Tolbert Bain.

Bratton and Highsmith were the jewels of the 1983 Hurricane recruiting class that would forever change the attitude of the program. This recruiting class included names like Jerome Brown, Winston Moss, Brian Blades, Daniel Stubbs, George Mira Jr, Darrell Fullington, Warren Williams and Gregg Rakoczy. Many of these players came from South Florida's inner city community and brought a new style of football to UM. It was called "swagger". They were not only athletic. But they played the game with and extreme blend of emotion, cockiness, brashness and loved to talk a lot of trash and dance in the end zone. Good, bad or indifferent, they changed the face of Hurricane football.

Due to an abundance of experienced running backs which included Albert Bentley and Keith Griffin, Bratton sat out the 1983 season and redshirted. The Hurricanes went on to win their first national championship with a shocking upset of top ranked Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl. Bratton's buddy Alonzo Highsmith made the switch from linebacker to running back and scored a touchdown in the game. When Howard Schnellenberger left UM in 1984, Bratton had to prove himself again to new head coach Jimmy Johnson.

Jimmy Johnson was the right coach at the right time. He was a pyschology major at the University of Arkansas and he embraced the attitude of the new breed of Miami players. The Hurricanes became known for their bad boy image and Johnson embraced it. Johnson adopted an "us against the world" mentality and the players loved him, particularly the inner city players like Bratton.

His debut against Boston College established Bratton as one of Miami's most explosive players. On one play, he took a pitchout from quarterback Bernie Kosar and darted to his right, made two tacklers miss and then cut completely across the field, outrunning three Boston College defensive backs, who had an angle, all the way to the end zone. It was one of the most spectacular runs in UM history. The play was credited as a 52 yard run. But in actuality, Bratton ran close to 100 yards to get to the end zone. And when he wasn't running by BC defenders, he was jumping over them. Bratton scored two of his touchdowns in the Boston College game on goal line dives. He would launch his body high in the air, flying over a pile of linemen. It was a move he learned from watching Walter Payton and Herschel Walker. Bratton's leaps were almost unstoppable and made him nearly automatic on short yardage and goal line situations.

In 1985, he rotated with Highsmith and Warren Williams to form a formidable trio of running backs. The Hurricanes had a pro-style passing game. Perhaps Bratton's best skill was his ability to catch the football out of the backfield. Offensive coordinator Gary Stevens would design plays to utilize Bratton's receiving prowess. Stevens would often have Bratton run wheel routes out of the backfield or even split him out as a receiver and run take-off patterns. Bratton presented huge mismatch problems for defenses. Linebackers could not keep up with his speed and defensive backs were not strong enough to bring him down in the open field.

One example was the 1987 game against Florida State. Trailing 19-3 in Tallahassee, the Canes offense was struggling badly. Quarterback Steve Walsh was on the verge of getting benched and Jimmy Johnson was ready to ask true freshman Craig Erickson to warm up. Late in the third quarter, Walsh threw a short pass over the middle to Bratton, who then made a linebacker miss and then raced 40 yards past the entire FSU secondary to the end zone. This play changed the entire momentum of the game. Walsh quickly gained confidence and threw a pair of touchdown passes to Michael Irvin in the fourth quarter and the Canes came from behind to beat FSU 26-25.

But Bratton's shining moment was his final college game in the 1988 Orange Bowl Classic against Oklahoma. Both teams were undefeated and the national championship was on the line. During Miami's opening possession, Walsh fired a deep pass down the sidelines to a streaking Bratton, who made an over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone for the first score of the game. Oklahoma's defense was so concerned with trying to cover Michael Irvin and Brian Blades, they had no answer for Bratton out of the backfield. He caught 9 passes and the Hurricanes won the national championship 20-14.

Unfortunatley the 1988 Orange Bowl Classic was also Bratton's darkest moment. Early in the fourth quarter, Bratton caught a short pass near the Oklahoma sidelines. When he was tackled, his left knee buckled and was completed shreaded, tearing all the major ligaments. Prior to the injury, Bratton was considered a sure future NFL first round draft choice. But those dreams looked over.

The Miami Dolphins drafted Bratton in the sixth round of the 1988 NFL Draft. But Bratton and his agent wanted first round money. With a damaged knee that still needed rehabilitation, the Dolphins were not going to give Bratton the money he requested. Bratton sat out the entire 1988 season and re-entered the draft in 1989. This time he was taken by the Denver Broncos in the 7th round. With his knee finally repaired, Bratton signed with the Broncos and played two seasons in Denver. But he never regained the same quickness and explosion he possessed before the injury. He carried the ball only 57 times for 190 yards scoring 8 career touchdowns. He started for the Broncos as a fullback in Super Bowl XXIV. By 1991, he released by the Denver and then cut in training camp by the Falcons. His football career was over.

Since his playing days, Bratton has continued to stay in touch with the game. He and former high school and college teammate Tolbert Bain started a company together making throwback college football jerseys. He is currently pursuing a career as a sports agent.

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