Players and coaches who competed with and against Sam Bradford years ago aren't surprised Bradford has made it big. They sensed the tall, shy, ultra-talented, skinny kid had the mental makeup and talent to be special.
What surprised some is Bradford chose football.
Bradford obviously made an excellent decision. At OU, Bradford won the Heisman and played in a BCS title game. He was selected No. 1 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft. The quarterback's six-year, $78 million deal with the St. Louis Rams is the most lucrative rookie contract in NFL history.
On Sunday afternoon, Bradford and the Rams play the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys are the closest NFL team to where Bradford grew up in Oklahoma City, but he didn't grow up a Dallas Cowboys fan like some of his friends. Bradford was an OU fan, but he was too busy jumping from sport to sport to have time to root for an NFL team. On Sundays, he played basketball or hockey.
A rare athlete who excelled in every sport, Bradford is a scratch golfer who also played baseball, basketball and hockey at travel-team levels.
“I thought he might go play Division I basketball,” said Owen Canfield IV, who played on a talented McGuinness freshman team that was swept by Putnam North a decade ago. “He was a big-time basketball player. He torched us.”
Jake Merritt played on two McGuinness state championship teams. Merritt also was Bradford's teammate on an AAU summer team — the RedHawks.
“I've known Sam since he was in the fourth or fifth grade,” Merritt said. “You could tell even in junior high he'd be very successful. Even if he didn't play athletics, you could tell he'd go far in any business. There just aren't many people like Sam Bradford.”
Denis Rischard, an attorney in Oklahoma City, coached that McGuinness freshman team.
“We won a lot of games,” Rischard said. “Sam's team was the only team to ever beat us home and home. Back then no one knew who Sam Bradford was. This was before he was famous. But even at that age you could see he was unique.
“The one thing that stood out was he had an uncanny desire to win. In the rematch, our last home game, our kids were really motivated to avenge that first loss. We played well but Sam took over at the end. It was apparent, even then, he was a special young man.”
Bradford played at a high level in every sport. But even when he focused on football, he wasn't a slam dunk to start at OU.
Bradford was a three-star recruit, and his first offer was from Texas Tech. Six or seven schools extended offers immediately after watching Bradford's uncanny accuracy in workouts.
“We didn't really know what we had, but by his junior year you could tell he could definitely play at the next level,” said Putnam North coach Bob Wilson. “Sometimes we went through a 20-minute skeleton period where the ball never hit the ground. I think playing all those other sports helped him.”
Hockey was a viable option
The story goes that when Sam Bradford was in elementary school, he tried to convince his parents to move to Vancouver so he could play hockey year-round.
“I told him, ‘We can't move to Canada,'” said his father, Kent, who played football at OU in the 1970s. “Our lives are in Oklahoma.' But it's something he really wanted to do. He wanted to play for the Vancouver Canuks.”
Bradford played highly competitive hockey for a couple of years.
He was good. Really good.
Bradford possessed a deadly wrist shot. Tall at a young age, Bradford used his size to get open, firing lasers at 11- and 12-year-old goaltenders.
“He was so tall he could stretch out real wide with his stick,” said Luke Rose, co-captain with Bradford on the 2000-01 Jr. Blazers, which won the TAHA title. “Sam could really skate. He got around people easily. He was a scorer. He scored a ton of goals.”
Former Blazers coach Mike McEwen, who played on three Stanley Cup championship teams, coached that Jr. Blazers championship team that won the Texas-based postseason tournament.
McEwen tried to convince Bradford's parents that Sam should choose hockey when he eventually specialized.
“That was one of the weirdest conversations I've ever had with a parent,” McEwen said. “His dad listened to me for a minute or two. He smiled and said, ‘I think football, baseball and basketball are big here. I don't know if we'll keep doing the hockey thing.'”
Bradford was quoted in a USA Hockey Magazine article the summer after winning the Heisman as saying his hockey background sped up the football learning curve.
“Hockey is so fast and unpredictable that it teaches you to think quickly and make snap decisions,” Bradford said. “That quality translates really well to playing quarterback.”
Rose understands why the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Bradford chose football.
“In football he had more opportunities, more offers,” Rose said. “But I have no doubt he'd be a helluva NHL player, especially with all the size he's put on. Back then he was skinny. With his talent, and his size, who knows how good he'd have been if he had stuck to hockey?”
Rose played hockey through his sophomore year at OU. He now works in a family-owned homebuilder company in Moore. Rose hasn't talked to Bradford in four or five years. The last time they talked, Bradford confessed he missed lacing up the skates.
“He was good at everything but at that age it wasn't like you thought he'd go No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft,” Rose said. “Once he focused on football, he took off. I think it would have been the same for hockey. I know he loved hockey to his core.”
AT&T Stadium “not good” memories
Bradford sometimes is labeled “too nice” or “too soft-spoken” to be a quarterback. But teammates and coaches at every level, including OU coach Bob Stoops, tell stories about how Bradford's calm, quiet persona is complemented by a ultra competitive drive.
Bradford doesn't need the limelight to bring out his competitive side. Wilson said Bradford would want to win, whether it was a pickup basketball game on a driveway or against America's Team in Jerry World.
“You combine that competitive side with the type of person he is, Sam Bradford is what every coach dreams of,” Wilson said. “I knew his character and discipline, more than anything, is what would carry him. I know it sounds old school but what impressed me most about Sam is the way he handles himself.”
The NFL preaches not to get too high or too low, but Bradford might have added incentive in Week 3.
Sunday's game will be Bradford's first “official” game at AT&T Stadium since his final season at OU.
Bradford played in a preseason game against the Cowboys last season in Arlington. His only other appearance was when OU lost to BYU 14-13 four years ago.
Last week in a conference call with the Dallas media, Bradford was asked for his memories of AT&T Stadium.
“Are you referring to my college game there?” Bradford said. “Then obviously they're not very good.”
Bradford entered the game, which was OU's season opener, as the reigning Heisman winner. OU was ranked No. 3 in preseason. But the season turned upside down when Bradford was slammed to the turf late in the first half, injuring his throwing shoulder.
He returned a few weeks later but reinjured the shoulder the following month. He played in only three games. OU finished 8-5.
“That was supposed to be a big year for myself and our team,” Bradford said. “To get hurt down there and eventually go on to miss most of the season it was pretty frustrating. Obviously not the best memory of that stadium.”
Since the BYU game, Bradford has been slammed to the ground countless times during his NFL career. In his first three seasons, only four quarterbacks were sacked more than Bradford, who was sacked 105 times.
But the tide could be turning. Protected by a revamped offensive line with 337 career starts, Bradford is the only NFL starting quarterback who hasn't been sacked this season, a stat that will be tested by the Cowboys, led by All-Pro defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
The Rams also have surrounded Bradford with more weapons.
St. Louis signed tight end Jared Cook and moved up in the draft to select West Virginia star Tavon Austin. Young receivers Austin Pettis and Chris Givens are much improved. Running back Daryl Richardson provides some balance.
Bradford has thrown for 651 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions in the Rams' first two games.
“The first two weeks we've done some good things, but we've shot ourselves in the foot multiple times, especially early in last week's game,” Bradford said at his weekly news conference. “It'll be interesting to see how good this offense can be if we play four quarters the way we're capable of playing.”
That's typical of Sam Bradford the competitor. He's constantly trying to improve. But regardless how his stat line reads, Rischard said he knew a decade ago Bradford would be a success.
“My kids always ask, ‘Dad, tell us a Sam Bradford story,'” Rishcard said. “Everyone talks about how he was so talented in every sport, even hockey. But what stands out to me is Sam Bradford is one of the most likable young men to ever come on the Oklahoma sports scene.
“He's such a great role model for kids and adults. I don't know how anyone could root against Sam Bradford. He's exactly what you want your athletes to be.”