Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
Brad Bearden poses with his wife, Denita, and their children Jaxson, Jadyn and Jordyn. Bearden said he’s ready to replicate the success of his business, Elite Fitness & Body, at new locations.
As Brad Bearden sat in jail for his second robbery arrest, the idea that he would become a successful, nationally recognized personal trainer would seem ridiculous to everyone who knew him. But a simple phrase repeated itself in Bearden’s head: “Watch me.”
Bearden is now a Hoover resident and the founder of Elite Fitness & Body, a 3-year-old personal training gym at 2341 Johns Hawkins Parkway. His business has quickly risen to success. Bearden plans to open a Homewood location in September and franchise the business nationally in early 2017.
It’s an improbable outcome for Bearden, who said one of his earliest childhood memories is facing the barrel of a gun in the hands of his angry, drunken father. Bearden said he remembers pleading with his father to spare his mother’s life not just once, but on multiple occasions.
“That’s kind of a picture of a lot of my childhood. It wasn’t pretty,” Bearden said.
Bearden was about 8 years old when his mother met Steve Bearden, an “amazing man” who taught his young stepson about character, manhood and sacrifice. Bearden chose to take Steve’s last name. However, when Steve died in a car crash, 12-year-old Bearden was left adrift.
As he grew up, Bearden said he was never able to develop an identity outside of his environment.
“From there I was really broken,” he said. “I looked like I had it all together on the outside, I really did. I was able to put on a good face. My senior year I was voted Mr. Chelsea … What people didn’t realize — nobody really knew — is by the time I turned 18, I was a full-fledged alcoholic.”
By the time he graduated from Chelsea High School, the football scholarship offers Bearden had once entertained were revoked. His pride wounded, Bearden decided to enter the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Having the uniform made him feel invincible, and Bearden continued to drink and dabble in different drugs.
Just before his deployment to Iraq in 2004, Bearden made a life-altering choice. After running out of money at a party, a drunken Bearden decided to rob a grocery store in Inverness. He made it out of the store with stolen beer and cash, but left his car keys at the checkout counter.
“That should have been my first sign that I was not cut out for this line of work,” Bearden said with a small smile.
He was arrested before he could get out of the parking lot. Bearden said he still had a knife on him from an earlier fishing trip, so he was charged with armed robbery. Six months later, he was bonded out of jail with no former friends or career prospects.
Instead, Bearden went to Panama City Beach with two friends he had met in prison. They got into a fight with two other men and stole their wallets. Bearden said they were caught using the stolen credit cards, and he was given a 22-month jail sentence. His family cut ties with him, and Bearden was alone. In a tough environment like a high-security prison, Bearden said he had to become hardened and fiercely independent.
“Quite frankly, this is a part of my life where I became a very dangerous individual. And it’s not because I wanted to be; it’s because I had to be,” he said.
But at the same time, Bearden said, he was finally discovering an individual identity, as well as a new goal for life after his sentence: personal training. Every spare minute, Bearden was either studying books on fitness and health or in the gym, applying that knowledge to himself.
“I probably did more studying than anyone in college, because that’s all I had to do,” he said.
‘WHOLE BUNCH OF JESUS’
After the 22-month sentence ended, Bearden had to return to Shelby County for a court date to determine if he still had to serve the remainder of the original armed robbery sentence from 2004. As he waited, Bearden joined a prison prayer group, and for the first time, he could understand what he was reading in the Bible.
Though his upcoming court date was the original motivator, Bearden said, he began to fall in love with the Christian faith. Finally, Bearden had his “moment in the mirror,” when he stopped blaming his hard past or other people for the choices he had made. He cried and prayed, promising to put his passion and energy toward his faith.
“I got up right there a new person. It’s hard to explain,” he said. “Internally, the things that I wanted in life were different; the things that made me happy, that gave me pleasure, were different; the things that I desired were different.”
That internal change didn’t rid him of years of “bad habits,” though. Bearden got into another fight, and when his court date finally came, he was sitting in confinement. The judge sentenced Bearden to three more years.
“I was crushed, because I knew my heart. It was just one of those things where I had so much faith and so much belief because I knew my heart; I knew my intentions,” Bearden said. “Looking back now, though, I was not ready. I was nowhere near ready. God had a huge work to do in me.”
As he served this new sentence, though, things happened that Bearden said he can only attribute to miracles. He was one of the first to participate in a therapeutic education program that he hadn’t even applied for. That program allowed him to participate in work-release, and he defied expectations by getting hired for two jobs in a matter of weeks. And finally, Bearden said he was released six months early.
With no family to take him in, Bearden moved into the Aletheia House in Birmingham and began applying for personal training jobs. He was again warned that a felon with only a high school education shouldn’t expect much, but Bearden continued to say, “Just watch and see.”
It took months, but he finally found his opportunity with Sportplex.
Those first two months, Bearden said he was working 60-hour weeks and brought in only $240 total.
“But I was hungry,” Bearden said. “I was just doing everything I knew to do.”
The work began to show. He was promoted first to manage one Sportplex location, then to manage three. Statistically, Bearden said, his story wasn’t supposed to work out that way.
“Within six months of being released from prison with nothing more than a high school education and a whole bunch of Jesus, I had a good work ethic. I wasn’t going to be outworked,” Bearden said. “I [was] able to really very quickly create a positive reputation for myself throughout the entire fitness industry.”
Bearden got married and stayed with Sportplex for a few years, but eventually he felt the itch to start his own business.
That was a bigger challenge than he expected.
Bearden was finally getting his business to slowly grow when his world was upended again. Bearden and his wife divorced, and the gym where he leased space raised its rent drastically, forcing Bearden to leave and keeping most of his clients.
“In 24 hours, I became a full-time single dad of twin 9-month-old girls,” Bearden said.
The divorce drained his finances and ruined his credit. At one point Bearden had less than $500 to his name and relied on the generosity of friends to pay for an apartment and groceries. The only way to get back on his feet was to start personal training again, but Bearden had no savings, no credit and no one to co-sign on a loan.
To this day, Bearden credits the appearance of Terry Ponder and Ponder Properties in his life as a miracle. Ponder reached out to him and showed him a foreclosed gym, still full of equipment. When Bearden explained his situation, Ponder talked to the property owner and they made a deal: Bearden would get the first three months of his lease rent-free, three months at half price and all the equipment for just $1. An acquaintance gave him a $6,000 sign for his business in exchange for personal training.
“I had my chance,” Bearden said.
Once again, he wasn’t going to be outworked. Bearden would go days without sleeping, working to find clients and train them while still taking care of his daughters. When he wasn’t working, Bearden was laying down rubber flooring or looking up how to build a website. He knew he had no choice but to succeed, for the sake of his daughters sleeping on a pallet in the gym’s office.
Bearden developed a motto that he continues to hold onto: “Have courage, practice faith.” He was aware of how bad the situation could be if Elite Fitness & Body failed, but he continued to make decisions as if he was guaranteed to succeed.
Within 18 months, Bearden said, the gym was pulling in $52,000 worth of business each month. Elite now has multiple trainers, a nutritionist and office staff on board, and Bearden said he’s ready to replicate that success with new locations. He has also reconnected with his mother and sister, is remarried and has a son.
Bearden is also not ashamed anymore to share the story of his past with clients and others he meets, including when he gives motivational speeches. He said the opinions of others won’t do a thing to change his decisions or life. So far, though, he has yet to have a negative reaction.
“Far too often, someone’s opinion of what you can do is just a mere reflection of what they believe they can do,” Bearden said. “The only thing a scar is to me is it shows me I was tougher than whatever tried to harm me.”
While his business continues to succeed, Bearden said he wants to write a book and help other entrepreneurs learn the lessons he got from years of trial and error.
“How does this happen? Statistically it’s an anomaly. This is not supposed to happen,” he said. “The opportunities I’ve been given and the experience I’ve been allotted are just incredible.”