NORMAN — In a packed gym at Carnegie High School near the Kiowa tribal headquarters in the middle of Oklahoma, school officials were forced to delay the tipoff of the boys’ basketball game for 10 minutes. Howls and hugs spread through the gym before the home team even put up a shot. News that Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford had just won the Heisman Trophy jolted the place. Bradford’s Cherokee Indian heritage is a source of inspiration in a state that is home to 250,000 American Indians. "Carnegie is in the heart of Kiowa country,” said Anthony Whitebird, a Hopi Indian and sophomore forward for Carnegie. "It’s probably 90 percent Native American, and I think everyone in town was in the gym that night.” Bradford’s success is stirring something profound among American Indians as he prepares to lead the No. 1 Sooners against No. 2 Florida in the BCS National Championship Game on Thursday at Dolphin Stadium. "I was speaking in New Town, North Dakota, recently, and I met this Native American family of five,” said Chance Rush, an Oklahoma-based activist who speaks on a Voice of Virtue tour. "They were all wearing Sam Bradford jerseys with his No. 14 on them. I travel a lot, and I’m getting requests from people all over the country wanting me to bring them Sam Bradford jerseys.” American Indian youth leaders see almost a messianic quality in Bradford’s emergence these past two years. They see in him the power to change lives through his own example. That came through to Rush on his trip to North Dakota when tribal leaders there wondered if he had enough influence to woo Bradford north to address the substance-abuse problems plaguing their region. Bradford’s reputation as an outstanding student with reports of a 3.95 GPA as a finance major meant almost as much to tribal leaders as Bradford’s record-breaking statistics as a passer. The intensity of American Indian interest is potentially staggering to a 21-year-old college sophomore who grew up in suburban Oklahoma City with only a fleeting awareness of his Indian heritage. Bradford is one-sixteenth Cherokee, but he’s officially a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and listed on the tribe’s rolls. Bradford is candid about his lack of knowledge of his Cherokee heritage. "At first, it was a little overwhelming to have so many people talking about (my heritage), but I felt I have learned a little bit more and I hope to learn more about it in the offseason,” Bradford said. "God has blessed me with a great platform.”
American Indian youth leaders see almost a messianic quality in (Sam) Bradford’s emergence these past two years. They see in him the power to change lives through his own example.
A role modelNative American youth leaders are encouraged by Bradford’s interest. "There’s a long-time discussion about what it takes to be Indian, whether you need to speak the language or participate in tribal ceremonies,” said J.R. Cook, a Cherokee who founded United National Indian Tribal Youth. "Personally, I don’t think it matters whether he participates in traditions or not. It doesn’t make him any less of an American Indian.” Cook is respectful of Bradford’s circumstance, and he’s hopeful that Bradford will be drawn to his Indian roots in meaningful ways. "I don’t think he realizes what a positive impact he’s already making,” Cook said. "Sam just needs to be Sam. He’s doing an outstanding job living his life.”
Already among legendsBradford is already a rival to Jim Thorpe as the most famous Native American athlete born in Oklahoma. Thorpe, the Sac and Fox Indian, is legendary for his feats as an all-around athlete. Billy Mills, the Sioux Indian who won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Olympics, remains a source of American Indian pride. So does Sonny Sixkiller, who gained enormous attention quarterbacking the Washington Huskies in the 1970s. If Bradford adds to his Heisman Trophy by winning the national title and becoming the first pick in the NFL Draft, his popularity promises to soar to heights no Indian athlete has ever known. "Youth in our generation need to see people of today succeeding, not just reading about people of history who were successful,” Cook said. That’s why Cook features a sports page on his www.unityinc.org Web site that follows the achievements of Bradford, Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kyle Lohse, Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain and others. "Having an intelligent, well spoken, poised Cherokee citizen like Sam Bradford play quarterback for the Sooners means a lot to Cherokee people all over the country, not just the ones here in Oklahoma," Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith wrote in an e-mail response to an interview request. Randall Mell writes for the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.