SAN ANTONIO — Texas players sometimes refer to the photos adorning the hallways in the football complex as ghosts.
They’re the Longhorns who have played before them, the ones who achieved All-American status or other wow kind of honors when they competed at UT.
Duke Thomas, who was a three-year starter for Texas, didn’t realize his new coach was one of those ghosts.
Thomas is a starting cornerback for the San Antonio Commanders, one of eight teams in the new Alliance of American Football spring league. He met Bill Bradley at training camp last month, not initially cluing in that his new position coach was such a fabled Longhorn that older fans add the word “Super” to his name.
“When he explained (who he was), it rang a bell,” Thomas said. “Oh, my God, I’d seen him in the pictures. Cool is the thing. Coach Cool. … He’s absolutely a Longhorn legend.”
UT defensive backs proudly have claimed for decades that the Longhorns are “DBU” because the team is so prolific at producing professional cornerback and safeties. Bradley likes to tells folks “I’m the pioneer of DBU,” although most long-time fans know him most for another position.
The Commanders offer both the 72-year-old Bradley and the 24-year-old Thomas another chance at full-time football in all its pounding glory. The league’s head coaches are big names who built staffs of seasoned assistants. San Antonio plays host to Orlando on Sunday, at the Alamodome. The Apollos are coached by iconic Steve Spurrier, aka “the Ol’ Ball Coach,” and feature quarterback Garrett Gilbert, the former Lake Travis star who played for both Texas and SMU.
AAF players are mostly younger guys who have had at least one brush with the NFL.
Thomas wasn’t drafted in 2016, but signed a free agent deal with the Houston Texans. Philadelphia picked him up and kept him on its practice squad for a couple of weeks. San Francisco then signed him that December. The Cowboys signed him in 2017, but Thomas was placed on injured reserve as he recovered from ankle and knee injuries. Last year he spent a month on the practice squad for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL.
Bradley, then the defensive coordinator at Lamar University, had retired from full-time coaching in 2014. He’d been working football camps for Football University and Under Armour, but mostly hung out with his wife, Susan, and family at their home in the Hill Country.
Still, he enjoyed one of the most interesting careers ever for a UT player.
By the time he arrived in Austin in 1965, he’d already been nicknamed “Super” Bill Bradley. He was a star athlete for Palestine High School, playing quarterback, punter and defensive back. The way he recalls the story, the first person ever to call him Super, as in Superman, was Doak Walker, the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner who was helping with an all-star game. Walker asked Bradley if he was wearing a Superman outfit under his jersey.
Bradley created a buzz on the UT freshman team — back then, the youngest Longhorns weren’t eligible to play. He earned the starting job as a sophomore and kept it until Darrell Royal and Emory Bellard switched to the newly-created Wishbone in 1968. Bradley was benched in the third quarter of the second game. But he was convinced that his final game of 1967, a 10-7 loss to Texas A&M in which he threw four interceptions, had more to do with his demotion.
In historical hindsight, Bradley was the quarterback who lost his job to James Street, the wishbone wiz who led the Longhorns to 20 straight victories and a national championship in 1969.
Bradley, a team captain, still punted. But he was a fifth-team receiver for an offense that didn’t pass much. Defensive coordinator Mike Campbell stuck him in the starting lineup as a safety with three games to go. Against A&M, UT’s final home game, Bradley picked off four passes to set a school and Southwest Conference record. Bradley’s school record still stands after a half-century. The NCAA record is five, last accomplished in 1972.
He also left UT with records for total offense and passing.
Bradley was a third-round draft pick in 1969. He was a three-time All Pro who became the first player in NFL history to lead the league in interceptions in consecutive seasons.
He got into coaching in 1983. His career has a nomadic feel to it as he’s worked jobs in new leagues and for established programs in the NFL and college. He was a part of two Grey Cup teams in the CFL. He spent time in the now defunct USFL, the WLAF, even the UFL. Yet he’s also worked for the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and San Diego Chargers and was Baylor’s defensive coordinator from 2004-06.
Mike Riley, the head coach of the Commanders, first hired Bradley in the WLAF. He offered him the Commanders job last summer. The league with its 10-game schedule plays through April and has the heft of CBS, the NFL Network and TNT as its television partners. Billionaire Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, is one of the league’s financial backers, as is The Chernin Group, which has invested in the likes of Pandora, Tumblr and Barstool Sports.
San Antonio won its first game, 15-6, over the San Diego Fleet. Members of the secondary were the stars with three interceptions. Thomas is the starting corner. Former Baylor standout Orion Stewart had an interception with a 68-yard return. Zack Sanchez, an ex-Oklahoma Sooner, had the final pick. Nick Orr, who starred for TCU, is a safety. Former OU defensive back Jordan Thomas also is on the team.
Thomas had two tackles in the season opener.
“Duke is one classy guy,” Bradley said. “He’s a real pro and works his rear end off.”
Thomas said that Bradley’s main advice to him is to “be comfortable in who you are and make the plays as they come to you.”
Thomas also said the defensive backs who played with him at Texas, or before or after, are always family. That means even the ones who only had a sliver of time in the secondary.