By Walter Villa, Special for USA TODAY High School Sports | May 31, 2017 12:35 pm
BRADENTON, Fla. – Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles was only 6 years old, but he already had the swag of a veteran football player, from his orange helmet visor that he borrowed from his older brother to a No. 44 towel that draped around the front of his Reseda Buccaneers pants.
And it was while with the Bucs that he made a lasting friendship with T.J. Pledger, who played for the Mid Valley Titans, another Los Angeles-area Pop Warner team.
Except that their introduction did not include a handshake … instead, Radley-Hiles left his cleat marks on Pledger’s abdomen.
“The first play we ever hit, he ran me over,” Pledger admitted. “He took the breath out of me.”
During drills this spring, roughly 11 years since they first made contact, Radley-Hiles, 17, and Pledger, 17, are – for the first time – playing on the same high school team, IMG Academy in Bradenton.
Both Radley-Hiles and Pledger have grown into young stars and are ranked among the consensus top-100 prospects nationally.
Pledger is a 5-8, 190-pound running back who is ranked 89th nationally and has committed to Oklahoma. Radley-Hiles is a 5-9½, 185-pound cornerback who is ranked No. 90 and has committed to rival Nebraska.
As for their first meeting, Radley-Hiles said he and Pledger recently watched video of that Pop Warner game.
“I got the ball on a little sweep,” Radley-Hiles said. “I saw (Pledger), and I just bucked him. … That was a fun game. I boomed him.”
Despite that jarring first impression, the two kids grew to respect each other through the years.
For starters, Radley-Hiles said he was tackled by only one player at any point during that Titans-Bucs game, and that was by Pledger.
In addition, growing up in the San Fernando Valley, the two talented athletes would see each other at lots of football games, and they even joined forces in middle school as sprinters on the same club track and field team.
Radley-Hiles, better at running the curves, took the third leg. Pledger, faster on the straight-aways, ran the anchor leg. They were good enough in track to qualify for the Junior Olympics three years in a row, from 2008 to 2010.
They saw each other so often, in fact, that their families became close.
“Our moms are best friends,” Pledger said. “And we’re best friends.”
Radley-Hiles said they are even closer than that.
“I wouldn’t even call us friends,” he said. “We’re brothers.”
The buddies were separated during their first two years of high school when Radley-Hiles, his mother and grandma moved to Las Vegas so he could play for Bishop Gorman.
At Gorman, he went 30-0 in two years, winning two state titles and earning a No. 1 national ranking by USA Today after each season.
“It was a great experience,” Radley-Hiles said. “The coaches taught me to grow up and be disciplined. They identified my work ethic, and I took it and ran with it.”
When the family moved back home for his junior year, Radley-Hiles continued his career at Calabasas, where he once again played in close proximity to Pledger, who was at Chaminade.
Both players dominated as juniors.
Pledger was named the Mission League’s Offensive Player of the Year, rushing 1881 yards and 32 TDs. He also caught two TD passes.
Radley-Hiles, who said he has no idea why his mother gave him the nickname Bookie, was named the Camino League’s Co-Defensive Back of the Year, scoring 11 touchdowns, including 10 as a receiver.
After their stellar junior years, the two buddies plotted to play on the same high school team, once and for all. Pledger’s mom was going to get a job in the Calabasas district.
But when that plan fell through, the guys got creative and joined another one of their friends from the L.A. area, Brian Hightower, at IMG.
Hightower, a 6-4, 205-pound wide receiver who has committed to play for the Miami Hurricanes, convinced Pledger to join him IMG.
The next step was simple: Hightower and Pledger got on a three-way call with Radley-Hiles and gave him “48 hours” to make the decision to join them.
“It was either stay home and enjoy high school or come here and take (football) seriously,” Radley-Hiles said. “I decided to take it to another level with these two people that I know I will be with for the rest of my life.”
IMG Coach Kevin Wright is certainly thrilled with the additions of Pledger and Radley-Hiles.
In fact, Wright compares Pledger’s running style with former NFL star LaDainian Tomlinson.
“TJ is one of the best overall backs in nation,” Wright said. “He is not the biggest or the fastest. But he is extremely competitive.
“He has great vision, catches the ball well, and he’s powerful. He does a lot of good things with the ball in his hands.”
All that’s left, Wright said, is for Pledger to make the final adjustments.
“At higher levels, you can’t just run,” Wright said. “You have to be patient. And when that crease opens up, you have to be able to change gears and hit it now.”
Wright said Radley-Hiles is a “lock-down corner”, comparing him to NFL star Darrelle Revis at a similar stage in their development.
“Bookie is a very explosive player,” Wright said. “He has great hands and is a tremendous vocal leader. He can also play wide receiver and kick returner.”
After arriving at IMG, Pledger, who wants to study business in college, and Radley-Hiles, who wants to major in finance, wanted to attend the same college.
Along with Hightower, the trio made a list and found that there were 18 colleges who had made scholarship offers to all three of them.
In the end, however, the right collegiate fit meant that these best friends would have to split up after what they hope is a dream senior year at IMG.
Already dreaming of the NFL, Pledger said college won’t be the end of the road for him and his buddies.
“We’ve told each other,” Pledger said, “’We’ll see each other at the top’.”