By Robbie Neiswanger, Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — There’s a photo in Arkansas track coach Chris Bucknam’s office that tells the story of sprinter Neil Braddy’s career.
The image came from the 2011 SEC Indoor Championships, when Braddy was an unknown freshman from Ft. Smith. He was running Arkansas’ anchor leg in the 4×400-meter relay. So Braddy was expectedly nervous as he prepared to step into the spotlight for his first big test as a Razorback.
Braddy had nothing to worry about. He surprised everyone, crossing the finish line to hold off Florida’s Christian Taylor and LSU’s Lawrence Johnson for the SEC championship. Braddy thrust his right hand in the air and the camera clicked, capturing the raw emotion of the moment.
“That picture is worth a thousand words,” Bucknam said last week. “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 Arkansas. It’s vintage Arkansas track and field.”
It’s also — as Arkansas has come to realize — vintage Braddy. The Ft. Smith Southside graduate, who Bucknam described as a “no-name” out of high school, will wrap up a quietly impressive collegiate career when he competes at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., this week.
The sprinter has been a mainstay with Arkansas’ relay teams throughout the past four years and his efforts have been rewarded. Braddy may not be well-known like former Hog greats Mike Conley, Tyson Gay or Wallace Spearmon, but is a 12-time All-American. He was part of two SEC champion relay teams and has one NCAA title.
He’ll get a chance to add to the collection of honors when he competes with the Razorbacks for the last time in Oregon. Braddy said it’s been a memorable run and attributes the success to the photo. His freshman surprise started it all.
“Arkansas had never won the 4 by 4, so being a freshman and anchoring like I did gave me a lot of confidence in myself to where in later races I knew, ‘I can compete with these guys,’” Braddy said. “Being a freshman and being from Fort Smith and not being that fast in high school, and coming to the best conference in the United States, I didn’t have much confidence. I didn’t think I’d be able to compete.”
Arkansas saw the potential in Braddy when they offered him a chance to compete with the Razorbacks. He was a do-it-all athlete at the school and performed well, winning state championships in the 100, 200, 400, 4×400 relay and high jump as a senior. But Arkansas knew Braddy wasn’t a sure-thing at the next level.
Arkansas sprints coach Doug Case recognized Braddy’s talent and what could be accomplished if his emphasis narrowed with the Razorbacks.
“He hadn’t run that fast in high school,” Case said. “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. It turned out to be true.”
It didn’t take long for Braddy to find a place with Arkansas’ relay teams during his freshman season. He has remained a vital piece of the four-man equation since. Teammates have changed over the years, but Braddy has been a constant.
The pinnacle came at the 2012 NCAA Indoor meet when Braddy was the anchor for the 4×400 team that won the national title. It was the program’s first title in the event. Arkansas earned a runner-up finish at the NCAA Outdoor meet later that year.
“He’s been, definitely, a go-to guy and in the 4×4, there’s no anchor like him,” Case said. “He’s awesome on the 4×4 anchor and he runs a great leg on the 4×1. He’s kind of one of those surprising guys on the 4×1. He really gets the job done on that thing.”
The 2014 NCAA Outdoor Championships is a perfect example of Braddy’s career with the Razorbacks. He just missed qualifying for the 400 field as an individual, but will get a chance to run legs in the 4×100 and 4×400 relays.
Most of Braddy’s success at Arkansas has come in the relays. It’s a rare trait in what is predominantly an individual sport – especially for sprinters.
“He’s got a special gift when he gets that baton in his hand,” Bucknam said. “I think what motivates him is more team than individual. We wish he was in the open 400, but there’s something about putting a stick in his hand and running for his teammates that gives him that extra nitro, so to speak.”
Braddy said he has learned to thrive on the pressure.
“The competition in the 4 by 4, being the last event and the most exciting event to watch, all the pressure comes down to that last person,” Braddy said. “And so whenever it comes to do that, that overwhelming pressure turns me into a more competitive runner. … If somebody tries to beat me, then I’m going to show them. All that pressure is on you, and you just know you have to perform.”
It points back to his first significant test at the SEC Indoor Championships in 2011.
Braddy said he was surprised to be running the anchor leg as a freshman. Braddy knew he had a role on the relay team, but wasn’t informed until just before the race he was going to anchor it. Then he said Bucknam added more motivation.
“I warmed up, and Buck was like, ‘Don’t mess it up for the rest of us,’” Braddy said. “I don’t know what he was trying to loosen me up or freak me out.”
Either way, Braddy knew the pressure was on. He didn’t disappoint.
Bucknam believes the moment, as well as the success Braddy has enjoyed the rest of his career, has a “special place in Arkansas lore.” At the very least, Braddy will be remembered for his accomplishments with the Arkansas track program because of the picture that sits in Bucknam’s office.
“People are going to walk in and see that picture and they’re going to ask, ‘Who’s that?’” Braddy said. “And there’s going to be a story to tell.”