Vikings QB Bradford was all-everything athlete until football won out

MINNEAPOLIS--Sam Bradford started calling his own plays when he was 9. The young quarterback was playing in his native Oklahoma City for the Putnam City Optimist Sooners. The coach was his father, Kent Bradford, and in a 1996 game the offense was...

Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (8) smiles following the game against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (8) smiles following the game against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS-Sam Bradford started calling his own plays when he was 9.

The young quarterback was playing in his native Oklahoma City for the Putnam City Optimist Sooners. The coach was his father, Kent Bradford, and in a 1996 game the offense was bogged down.

Finally, the coach figured he had nothing to lose.

"Nothing was really working, so toward the end of the game, I just said, 'Hey, Sammy, go out and call a play,''' said Kent Bradford. "He called a pass play and we scored on the darn thing.''

After that, the coach let his son, with his calm demeanor, continue to call plays, knowing he might have a future at quarterback.


He sure did. Bradford went on to win the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma in 2008 and is now in his seventh NFL season. He will start his second game for the Vikings on Sunday at Carolina.

Bradford, 28, was acquired Sept. 3 from Philadelphia for first- and fourth-round draft picks and was earmarked to replace Teddy Bridgewater, lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in the final practice of the preseason. Bradford sat out the regular-season opener while still learning the playbook, and then in his Vikings debut last weekend he completed 22 of 31 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-14 win over Green Bay.

Where it all began for Bradford was in Oklahoma City, when it became apparent early he was quite the athlete and had the smarts to go with it. In addition to football, Bradford starred in baseball, basketball, golf and hockey.

Bradford was a hard-throwing pitcher. He was a Division I basketball prospect, once being on the same elite AAU traveling team as current Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin.

The kid had his first hole in one at 10. His former Putnam City North High School teammate Ben Bench said he was good enough in golf that he could have made the PGA Tour had he focused on that.

Bradford's youth hockey coach was former NHL defenseman Mike McEwen. He said Bradford could have played in the NHL had he not quit the sport at 12.

Bradford didn't want to leave Oklahoma City to specialize in hockey, which is what he would have needed to do. But after saying farewell to that sport, he did continue with the others.

"The greatest thing about playing sports growing up is my parents, they didn't make me specialize, they didn't tell me to pick a sport,'' said Bradford, the only child of Kent and Martha. "They allowed me to choose and play whatever I wanted. It makes me sad when I see kids who are 10 years old and their parents make them choose one sport and they play a sport year round.''


Nevertheless, football was the one sport Bradford liked more than the others. His father had been an offensive linemen for Oklahoma from 1975-79.

"I grew up an Oklahoma fan, grew up going to games,'' Bradford said.

Long before Bradford starred for the Sooners in college, he was playing for the Sooners in peewee ball. His father was his first coach, beginning when he was 7 in 1994 and lasting five years.

By the time Bradford was 13, he had developed as a quarterback. There is film to prove it.

"When we were in high school, we would have some people over and we would throw in one of our little league videos,'' said Bench, also a youth football teammate of Bradford's. "He was 13 years old and he was throwing 40- to 50-yard passes with regularity and with pretty good accuracy. It was pretty impressive for somebody so young to do that.''

Bradford was the starting quarterback by the time he was a sophomore at Putnam City North. His high school coach, Bob Wilson, remembers his accuracy, strong arm and smarts.

"He was always able to pick up everything really fast,'' Wilson said. "He's a guy that coaches love. You draw up something and he picks it up real quick.''

It wasn't just sports in which Bradford excelled. Encouraged by his mother, a retired schoolteacher, and his father, who is in the insurance business, he was a straight-A student and even played the cello in the orchestra.


"If he wasn't playing football, I feel like he would have been either a lawyer or a financial adviser or something like that,'' said Bench, who has maintained a close friendship with Bradford.

College years

When it came time to making a decision on college, Bradford was courted by the likes of Michigan, Stanford and Texas A&M. Once, though, an offer came from Oklahoma, it became an easy choice.

"Chuck Long just really liked him at our football camp,'' said Sooners coach Bob Stoops, referring to the former NFL player who then was the school's quarterbacks coach. "He had me watch him as well and I really liked him, too. He threw with such accuracy and he was an exceptional athlete.''

Bradford redshirted as a freshman in 2006 before becoming the starter in 2007. Then came his amazing Heisman Trophy season.

In one of the best years any college quarterback has had, Bradford as a redshirt sophomore passed for 4,720 yards with 50 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.

"He was incredible that year,'' Stoops said. "He was the reason we went to the no-huddle because I figured if my quarterback can get more snaps than your quarterback, no matter how talented he is, we're going to win.''

Bradford became the fifth Oklahoma player to win the Heisman. Thanks to that, there is a statue of him on campus at Heisman Park and a street in front of his high school was renamed Sam Bradford Drive.

"Jason White won the Heisman (in 2003) when I was a young kid, so being able to watch that and then follow him and win it, it was really kind of a dream come true,'' Bradford said.

Bradford, though, had unfinished business after the Sooners a month later lost the BCS championship game 24-14 to Florida. Bradford could have headed to the NFL, but he elected to return to Oklahoma for another crack at the title.

It didn't go well. Bradford hurt his shoulder in a 14-13 loss to Brigham Young in the opener, sat out three games and then hurt it again and was done for the season. He played in just three games, and the Sooners, ranked No. 3 to start the season, finished a disastrous 8-5.

"Unfortunately, he had the injuries,'' Stoops said. "But he handled it as well as anybody could and still ended up as the No. 1 pick.''

Finding footing as a pro

The struggling St. Louis Rams, who had gone 1-15 in 2009, took Bradford with the top pick in the 2010 NFL draft. It initially looked to be a brilliant move.

As a rookie in 2010, Bradford led the Rams to a 7-9 mark. Bradford threw for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns and was named NFC offensive rookie of the year.

"He was a kid coming straight out of college and he had that curly hair and he looked like a poster child for Gap or Old Navy,'' said Jason Brown, then the Rams' center. "But when he got in the huddle, he was all business. He could command the huddle as a rookie.''

Bradford's offensive coordinator as a Rams rookie was Pat Shurmur, now the Vikings' tight ends coach. Shurmur also was Bradford's coordinator last year with Philadelphia and played a role in Minnesota's acquisition of the quarterback.

"Sam came along extremely fast as a rookie,'' Shurmur said. "He was able to pick up what we were doing and he became a starter from Day One. He really played at a high level.''

Shurmur, though, left after the season and was replaced by Josh McDaniels. The season was a disaster as the Rams stumbled to 2-14. Bradford, bothered mostly by a sprained ankle, missed six games and threw just six TD passes all season.

Despite the troubling times, Brown said Bradford, who is low-key by nature, remained on an even keel. He pointed to how Bradford related to his offensive linemen off the field whether the Rams were winning or losing.

"The offensive linemen, we all went out to eat dinner every Thursday night,'' Brown said. "We would go to a big steakhouse like Ruth's Chris or Morton's and try to shut it down. Sam would always take the time out to come in and have fellowship with us and break bread with us. That meant a lot to us.''

Sometimes, Bradford would pick up the tab for the nine or so offensive linemen, which could amount to $2,000.

More generosity came from Bradford when Christmas arrived. Bradford spent lavishly on the team's offensive linemen whether it was late in the encouraging season of 2010 or the rough 2011.

"He got for us in 2010 these Sony 3D large-screen TVs, and that was back when they were just coming out and they were probably $3,000 or $4,000 apiece,'' Brown said. "Then the next year, even though we weren't doing well, he got all of us a Bose sound station. And it wasn't just for the starting linemen, it was for all of us. That really showed his character.''

Bradford's character, though, was tested in his final three St. Louis seasons. In 2012, he had to adjust to his third offensive coordinator in three years, but he still had a solid season, throwing for 21 TDs.

In 2013, though, Bradford was lost for the season in the seventh game with a torn left ACL. In 2014, he tore the same ACL in the preseason and missed the entire year.

After the second one, his father said Bradford was uncertain about his future.

"It was harder on him,'' said Kent Bradford. "He had battled back and worked really, really hard and he came back and was playing good and then in the (third) preseason game he played, here we go again. At that point, I think he probably did question himself. Can I come back? But after he kind of got past the initial part of that, he said, 'No, I'm not done.'''

Bradford found new life after the Rams traded him in 2015 to Philadelphia for quarterback Nick Foles. Although it took time for him to get back in the groove, Bradford threw last season for a career-high 3,725 yards with 19 touchdowns.

"When Sam started the year last year in Philadelphia, he was healthy enough to play by most standards, but he didn't quite have his legs back,'' Shurmur said. "And he was getting used to a totally new system. By the end of the year, you saw the Sam Bradford I remembered from his rookie season.''

After Chip Kelly was fired, Shurmur was the interim coach for Philadelphia's final game. Shurmur then was not retained after the Eagles brought in Doug Pederson as coach.

Under the new regime, the Eagles signed Bradford to a two-year, $36 million contract extension in March. But in April they took quarterback Carson Wentz with the No. 2 in the draft, and Bradford wanted out.

He eventually got his wish. After Bridgewater went down, the Vikings were shopping for a quarterback, and Shurmur's recommendation of Bradford played a role in the move getting done.

"I was the offensive coordinator (for Bradford) in two places and I knew what he was good at,'' Shurmur said. "I just felt like he would be a good fit (for Minnesota's offense), not to mention I feel very highly of the player. ... He's not an overly boisterous guy, but he has a personality that I prefer in a quarterback, where he's calm.''

That was on display in Bradford's debut with the Vikings. Despite being under heavy pressure all game, including being sacked four times, Bradford remained calm and led the Vikings to the win over the Packers.

Those from Oklahoma City weren't surprised. They've been watching Bradford since he was flinging balls for the Putnam City Optimist Sooners.

"If he can stay healthy, I think his potential (with the Vikings) is through the roof,'' Bench said.

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