Skip to main content
Carolina Panthers

Bradley Bozeman waited for chance, now it's his job

Bradley Bozeman

CHARLOTTE – Bradley Bozeman didn't know when or if he'd start at center in Carolina.

Six weeks into the regular season, he spoke before a group of middle and high school football players at the Charlotte Police Activities League, sharing the truth about how it's hard to sit on the sidelines, but you still have to prepare for your moment.

"How come you're not starting?" they asked. Bozeman shared lessons he learned before he ever snapped a ball in college at Alabama and applied nearly a decade later at his second NFL stop with the Panthers:

You can only control how much you give, what kind of teammate you are, and the attitude you come into practice with each day. Eventually, you'll see a result.

And while he'll admit sitting on the bench at Carolina reached a "frustrating point," he didn't show it in his preparation or his mentality. He'd impressed coaches with his practice effort since returning from a preseason ankle injury just before Week 1, but the Panthers opted for Pat Elflein.

Seven days after giving that speech, Bozeman reached his first goal with the Panthers.

His wife, Nikki, watched Bradley step outside last Tuesday to answer a call from offensive line coach James Campen. The Buccaneers were coming to Charlotte that week, and Elflein was dealing with a hip injury.

Bradley walked back in, and Nikki noticed a peculiar look on his face. He gave her the news – he was starting in Week 7 – and they cried together on their couch.

"It's been great, something that we've been looking forward to, something that we came here to do," Bradley said. "You battle adversity. You go through the wringer. And she and I just took a step back, regrouped, and refocused. She's a huge supporter. She's the backbone of us, and she knows she's right there with me.

"Whenever it's me, it's us. It was one of those moments, like, 'OK, here it goes. This is our chance.' So we just sat there and just embraced it. It was such an amazing moment."

Bozeman came to Carolina on a one-year contract after starting in 48 games the last three seasons with the Ravens. He and Elflein competed for the starting spot throughout training camp, but an ankle injury during joint practices with New England held him out of practice for over two weeks.

Once Elflein got the job initially, inertia kicked in and he started at center for the season's first six games. The Panthers' offensive line stayed intact throughout those six, playing every snap. It was a new kind of continuity for a line that stayed in flux last year, and although Bozeman was disappointed, he understood.

"This is all about opportunity here, and injuries hinder some opportunities," he said. "For me, it came at a really bad time. I thought Pat was playing well and doing the things he needed to do. You couldn't blame them for not making the switch, but you just continue to step back and do the things you do every single day."

Then Bozeman ran onto the field in Bank of America Stadium as a starter against Tampa Bay. Nikki, his parents, and her parents fought back emotions as he went on to block for the Panthers' season-high rushing effort, with Carolina posting 173 yards in a stunning win over the Bucs. Bozeman said the offensive line took "tons of pride" in the effective run game against Tampa Bay.

And there's a chance that somewhere in Charlotte, those young football players watched Bozeman play a key role Sunday, so sharing his message mattered.

"It's so cool to have those kids see that he preached this when he didn't even know he was going to start," Nikki said. "He's telling them and showing them it is possible to work your tail off and get rewarded."

The Bozemans and family

The waiting is a moot point now, since interim coach Steve Wilks said Wednesday that Elflein will have season-ending hip surgery, solidifying Bozeman's role as the starting center.

This season wasn't the first time Bradley Bozeman battled for his spot. He played for Nick Saban during the dynasty years at Alabama, on the team for three SEC championships and two national championship wins from 2013-17.

But Bozeman's college journey started with adversity, as he redshirted his first year after suffering an ACL injury his senior year of high school. The injury knocked him back from early competition, leading to him missing out on the starting job for the first two years after returning to practice.

Bradley Bozeman

Nikki, a fellow student-athlete who played forward on Alabama's women's basketball team, supported Bradley while he waited for his chance. The couple has been together for almost 10 years.

"We were very young then, probably 19 or 20. But he tells a lot of the kids we mentor he was going to hang up his cleats; he was just done," Nikki said. "He felt like he had earned the starting job, and he had kind of been told that it was going to happen, and then it was a last-minute change."

Bozeman started at center in his junior year at Alabama, was voted a team captain for his senior season, and capped off his final year in college with a win in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship over Georgia, a day that would become even more significant for him. He proposed to Nikki on the field after the game.

Bradley's championship rings have sat in a box since he and Nikki moved to Charlotte, but Nikki said they have a plan for the perfect place to display them.

Nikki is expecting the couple's first baby, a son they'll name Brody. They've started planning the nursery, and the child of two athletes will sleep in a sports-themed room, with awards and honors from Alabama and Baltimore lining the walls.

Between moving to Charlotte in March, embedding themselves and The Bradley & Nikki Bozeman Foundation in the city, fighting for the starting job, and growing their family, the Bozemans have had a busy year.

Bradley's face lights up when he's asked about his son, who recently started to kick in Nikki's belly. Brody is due in February, and Bradley has already taken on the proud father role.

He makes Nikki laugh during appointments, picks up groceries, and takes on responsibilities at home with a grin. And he did it while things weren't going his way at work.

"His mental ability to always be so positive is his most outstanding attribute," Nikki said. "Even in the weeks when he wasn't starting … when we feel like he definitely should, in those weeks, he still came home every day with a smile.

"'What can I do to help you? Do you want me to go to the grocery store today for you?' In the days that I was sick, he'd always be there. It was the mental positivity that he brings every day."

Nikki said Bradley tells his teammates to be like goldfish. Based on the notion, popularized by the television show Ted Lasso, that a goldfish's memory lasts three seconds, the message is rooted in his mentality to let the bad news go and let the good news roll in short strides.

"The best thing I've seen about him is being able to take everything in stride," Nikki said. "Nothing really overwhelms him. He's just like, 'You know what? We'll figure it out. Whatever it is, we'll figure it out.'"

Bozeman's first start as a Panther resulted in a solid offensive performance and a win, but he said he's excited by how there's "more in the tank."

He made it through a battle to earn this job and wants to see more come from those efforts.

"We had to fight for our position and fight for things; you've got to fight for things you want in your life," he said. "We've just been able to continue to do that, and it's worked out pretty well so far. We're just going to continue to grow on that and see where we end up."

Go behind the scenes with Bozeman as he arrives in Charlotte.

Related Content