Someday, Tony Bradford Jr. will be asked how he spent the pandemic year in 2020, after college football programs were shut down.

“I joined the Texas Tech Police Department,” he’ll say.

This was a temporary gig, a fact-finding mission of sorts. He was always going to return to football when the world reopened. Bradford loves the game more than ever. This season, the 21-year-old sociology major has found a home as the starting noseguard in the Texas Tech defensive line and he couldn’t be more excited about this week’s road game against Texas.

The Red Raiders are 3–0 after beating Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and Florida International. Those wins provided a jolt of confidence for a program trying to snap a streak of five consecutive losing seasons. But beating Texas—something Texas Tech has rarely done—would be the best barometer of all. “We’ve been working our behinds off since the last game last year,” Bradford said. “Now it’s time to prove to ourselves that we are capable of becoming who we choose to become. It’s up to us at the end of the day.”

In the strength-versus-strength department, Texas Tech is allowing 55 rushing yards per game while Texas is gaining 245. Both numbers are among the best in the nation. “It’s about stopping their running game, which is what I love,” he said. “They have a really good running back group and think they’re going to be able to just run the ball on us. We’re cool with that.”

Like thousands of other college football players, Bradford has NFL dreams. At some point, though, he’ll return to his other passion: law enforcement. And Lubbock, where folks know and respect Bradford, might be a good place to begin his post-football career. He’s a mainstay in the community, where he’s made a habit out of visiting kids in hospitals and at local athletic clubs. Texas Tech assistant athletic director Matt Dowdy called Bradford “one of the best all-around human beings I’ve been privileged enough to work with.”

As for his police work, that decision hasn’t been popular with some of Bradford’s family and friends, and he understands why. “A lot of people around the world right now are not really a big fan of law enforcement,” he said. “And you can’t blame them with everything that’s been going on.

“I feel the same way you guys feel,” he added. “I just think it’s time to change it. To do that, we need more people of color on the force.”

The time Bradford spent as an intern with the Texas Tech Police Department reinforced how he already felt about a potential career in law enforcement. He loved the work. “I was just a security guard on campus and responding to calls and everything,” he said. The calls were mostly routine—de-escalating a situation in which someone was disrupting a class, for example.

“I didn’t arrest anyone, because I wasn’t a real cop,” he explained. “What I learned is that most cops are great people if you interact with them. I wish everybody else in the world could see what I see and hear what I’m hearing when I’m talking to these officers.”

But Bradford also understands the systemic problems with policing in Texas and throughout the United States. “Some in law enforcement did not grow up in the neighborhoods [where] they’re working,” he said. “They don’t go out and speak to them until there’s a problem, and that’s not always good. I want to be in an area like the one I grew up in. Let the kids see my face.”

At the height of the pandemic, the viral cellphone video of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd on May 25, 2020, stunned much of the nation and sparked a protest movement that swept the country. But many Black Americans weren’t surprised by the footage of the crime captured by then seventeen-year-old bystander Darnella Frazier. Police brutality had long been a fact of life in many Black communities, and the people who’d experienced it wanted the rest of America to wake up to this widespread injustice.

The week after Floyd was killed, Bradford sat down and put his feelings into an essay that was published on the Texas Tech website. “I want to be the change,” he began.

He wrote that he’d been an eighth-grader in Houston on July 17, 2014, when Eric Garner died while in the choke hold of a New York City police officer. “It was shocking and tragic to watch,” he wrote. “I had heard growing up that ‘all police are racists.’ Or that it was the whites versus the blacks, and that nobody was there to protect us. The police were only out to get us. That’s all I knew. But as I sat there and watched the videos and the different photos that came out following Mr. Garner’s death, I knew right then and there what my calling in life was. I wanted to be a cop.”

Bradford is adamant that the ultimate solution is to have more cops who come from the areas they patrol and a diverse police force whose members can relate to the communities they police. “I was like, when is it gonna stop?” Bradford said. “What is it gonna take for law enforcement just to treat people right? The only way that’s going to happen is for more minority people to become policemen. That’s how the change is going to come.”

After high school, he chose Texas Tech from a long list of scholarship offers. Bradford said he felt enchanted by Lubbock’s wide-open spaces during his first visit, under previous coach Kliff Kingsbury. Three years later, his feelings for Tech are even stronger. “I definitely wanted to get far away from Houston, just because I wanted to be on my own,” he said. “But I wanted to still be within the state of Texas.

“I just fell in love with the campus,” he went on. “I didn’t want a big college campus, but this place is beautiful. I could see myself continue to develop as an athlete and get better as a young man.”

Bradford grew up in Houston as one of thirteen siblings, not all living under the same roof. Still, their home stayed busy enough to teach Bradford some valuable lessons. “It teaches you not to be selfish,” he said. “As the older sibling, you know how to share pretty much everything. The more of them there is, the less stuff I get. I’m sharing and teaching them and leading by example. I think that’s kind of what made me who I am today.”

Before the pandemic, Bradford made regular visits to children at hospitals around the Texas Tech campus to do what he could to “put a smile on their faces and let them know we care and we’re fighting with you. Stuff like that really just makes me feel good.” The community service helped Bradford understand what Red Raiders football means to people throughout the region. “They might not know our names or anything like that, but because we play a sport here at Texas Tech, they’re in love with us,” he said. “My heart is for the community, especially for the youth that’s growing up in the rougher parts of Lubbock. I can kind of see myself there.”

This week, for both the Red Raiders and for Lubbock, nothing matters more than beating the Longhorns. It would be a defining moment for the football program, the university, and the city.

“It’s all about taking steps to get where we want to be, and that’s being the Big 12 champs,” Bradford said. “Not next year, not in the future. I want to accomplish something great this year.”