Kevin Wilson understood Sam Bradford was gifted.
Bradford showed glimmers of elite potential. However, during his second-career start in a 2007 clash with the Miami Hurricanes. Oklahoma was on the Miami 10-yard line in the fourth quarter when the inexperienced quarterback faked a handoff to DeMarco Murray, looked up and saw his intended receiver Malcolm Kelly get taken out of a play the team had practiced all week.
The poised 20-year-old quarterback immediately improvised to find his fullback, Dane Zaslaw, for an easy touchdown.
“Here’s a guy playing a big game, a second game as a redshirt freshman,” said Wilson, who took over as OU’s offensive coordinator in 2006. “It’s Oklahoma, a lot of pressure at quarterback. I know I have prepared him to do a throw that I expected to be there. I got in the game and it wasn’t there, and he made me look smarter than I was.”
Bradford’s decision made Wilson and then-Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops feel confident about more than just the quarterback’s future.
Bradford threw for 3,121 yards and 36 touchdowns in his debut season, helping Oklahoma win the 2007 Big 12 Championship and make a second-consecutive Fiesta Bowl appearance. Inspired, Stoops went to Wilson the ensuing offseason with the idea of running a no-huddle offense. The now-retired coach thought even if it skewed his team’s defensive statistics, it would be worth it.
“My reasoning was that if we can call 10-20 more plays a game than you can with my quarterback, I like my chances of winning,” Stoops said. “I just felt like he was going to be a better quarterback than anyone we played.”
The curly-haired quarterback with a quiet persona proved his coach right. In 2008, Bradford tore up his helpless competition en route to conducting one of the most prolific offenses in NCAA history and winning the Heisman Trophy — the prize annually presented to college football’s most outstanding player.
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Before Bradford became Oklahoma’s fifth Heisman Trophy winner, he wasn’t certain an OU offer would materialize.
His father, Kent Bradford, played under legendary Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer in the late 1970s and blocked for Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims. So, he knew if the Sooners offered him, that’s where he’d go.
“There was a period of time where I just wasn’t sure if I was going to have that opportunity,” said the Oklahoma City-bred quarterback, who was a three-star prospect by Rivals.com. “I think I was probably well down the list of quarterbacks they offered that year.”
Chuck Long, Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator from 2002-05, was impressed, however, by the Putnam City North product. Long, who left Oklahoma in 2006 to become San Diego State’s head coach, watched Bradford throw at an Oklahoma football camp and told Stoops he needed to pay closer attention to the local prospect.
“I really trusted what Chuck felt about him,” Stoops said. “He loved Sam. His demeanor, athleticism, the way he threw the football. And then, I remember just paying closer attention to him. I remember just also really being struck by the athlete he was, not just in football.”
Bradford was a multi-sport star at Putnam City North, playing football, basketball and golf. He also played hockey and baseball, as well as on the same AAU basketball team as former Oklahoma star and current Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin at one point.
“(He was) very competitive,” said Bob Wilson, Bradford’s high school football coach. “Just a guy who wanted to be successful. I don’t think I ever heard him say ‘I.’ It was always the team. He was that type of guy.”
Finally, one day during the spring of his junior year of high school, Oklahoma extended an offer.
“I called them the next day and committed,” Bradford said. “It was pretty simple for me.”
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Bradford mostly went unnoticed his first year on campus.
The quarterback wasn’t a serious contender to take senior Paul Thompson’s job in 2006 — the same year Oklahoma dismissed starting quarterback Rhett Bomar a month before its season opener, lost to Oregon on a controversial onside kick and dropped an unforgettable Fiesta Bowl to Boise State.
Underneath the rubble of a season filled with painful memories, Bradford was learning under first-year quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel, who finished second in the 2000 Heisman Trophy voting, and honing his passing ability as the Sooners’ scout-team quarterback.
“Probably more than anything, (that year) just gave me confidence and a sense of belonging that when spring started the next year, I knew that I would be able to compete, and I knew that I would be able to play at that level,” Bradford said.
Stoops recalls watching the freshman dissect Oklahoma’s first-team defense that included All-American linebacker Rufus Alexander, All-Big 12 defensive back Nic Harris and defensive lineman C.J. Ah You.
“Have you guys watched some of his scout-team play going up against our defense?” Stoops remembers asking his offensive assistants.
Kevin Wilson recalls Stoops saying, “Man, Sam is ridiculous on scout team. He’s threading the needle. He’s lighting these guys up.”
Oklahoma’s assistants admitted they hadn’t paid much attention to the 197-pound freshman.
The assistant coaches quickly caught on to the accuracy and decision-making Stoops was seeing each day from a quarterback Kevin Wilson says approached practice and video study as hard as anyone.
“I don’t think many people know or realize how hard Sam prepared and studied,” Kevin Wilson said. “He was a very smart kid, very gifted. But he worked unbelievably hard to become an elite player.”
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Bradford’s dedication paid off.
In 2008, the redshirt sophomore, guiding OU’s new no-huddle scheme, orchestrated an Oklahoma offense that scored an NCAA single-season record 99 touchdowns. Bradford threw a school-record 50 touchdown passes and rushed for five more. He completed 328-of-483 (67.9 percent) passes for another school record, 4,720 passing yards.
The Sooners went on a tear late in that season to bolster Bradford’s Heisman campaign, starting with a 65-21 win over No. 2-ranked Texas Tech in the now-famous “Jump Around” game.
Then-Texas Tech receivers coach Lincoln Riley refers to that evening as a “nightmare,” but for Bradford?
“That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing in a football game,” he said.
Oklahoma continued to roll with a 61-41 win the next week over No. 11 Oklahoma State when Bradford iconically launched himself nine feet away from the goal line, took a hard hit to the stomach, flipping and landing hard on his left side out of bounds.
The Sooners then topped No. 19 Missouri 62-21 in the Big 12 Championship Game for the program’s third consecutive conference crown, ensuring Oklahoma would play in its fourth national championship game in nine years.
Bradford was rewarded with a trip to New York for the 2008 Heisman Trophy presentation, where he won over Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, who beat Bradford head-to-head, and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who won the award the previous year.
Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford
Texas QB Colt McCoy
Florida QB Tim Tebow
Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell
Bradford admittedly was shocked to hear his name called. Sims, who was on stage at the presentation with the other former winners, eased his nerves a bit when he repeatedly yelled “Boomer!” after the Sooners’ fifth Heisman Trophy winner was announced.
“I think I said ‘Boomer’ a hundred times,” said Sims. “The way his dad helped me – his dad helped me win mine.”
Bradford, who yelled “Sooner!” back at Sims as he walked on stage to accept the coveted bronze trophy, later went to The Palm Steakhouse in New York City after the Heisman ceremony.
“Just going to dinner with my family afterwards, having them there and being able to have fun and celebrate the evening,” Bradford said. “I think that’s something I’ll always remember.”
He still had one game remaining his sophomore season after the special weekend in New York. Oklahoma faced Florida and Tebow for the 2009 BCS National Championship, but the Sooners fell short of capturing the school’s eighth national title, losing 24-14 to the Gators.
Oklahoma’s single-season passing yards and touchdowns leader could’ve forgone his junior season to enter the draft, but he decided to return for one more crack at a national title along with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
His season was curtailed by a shoulder injury suffered in OU’s 2009 opener vs. BYU, which was re-aggravated a few weeks later against Texas, ending his college career.
“I’ve always kind of put it on me,” said Kevin Wilson, now Ohio State’s offensive coordinator. “Sometimes I start thinking it’s my fault and what could I have done from a play-calling perspective. Because you know, injuries are a part of the game. You want to do as much as you can to keep your quarterback out of harm’s way.”
Bradford managed to recover from the injury and was selected by the St. Louis Rams with the first overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft — the third Sooner to ever be taken No. 1 overall, joining Lee Roy Selmon (1976) and Sims (1980).
Bradford won the 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and spent five seasons in St. Louis. But after dealing with more injuries, he left the Rams following the 2014 season to play one year with Philadelphia before joining the Minnesota Vikings.
He set the NFL single-season record for pass-completion percentage — 71.6 percent — during his first year with the Vikings in 2016. He played in only two games in 2017, however, after re-aggravating a knee injury that shut him down for the season.
Now 30, Bradford isn’t done with football yet, but his legacy at Oklahoma is already immortalized with a statue erected in 2011 in Norman’s Heisman Park. His likeness looks up at the stadium where — similar to current Heisman hopeful quarterback Baker Mayfield — he nearly didn’t get the chance to live out a lifelong dream.
“(Bradford) was an elite worker and made himself into a phenomenal college player,” Kevin Wilson said. “He was an unbelievable Sooner. What he did those couple years with us in Norman – he was a special young man.”