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Playing With Purpose
Inside the Lives and Faith of the NFL's Top New Quarterbacksâ"Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, and Tim Tebow
By Mike Yorkey
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2010 Mike Yorkey
All rights reserved.
SAM BRADFORD: THE DYNAMITE DRAFT PICK
He's got that tall, lanky build and that tight, curly hair that reminds you of Napoleon Dynamite, the listless, underachieving star of the cult classic film by the same name.
But that's where the similarity ends.
Sam Bradford, the University of Oklahoma quarterback the past three seasons, could probably throw a football over the mountains, as Napoleon's Uncle Rico bragged he could do in the movie. But Sam's long, long bomb would hit the receiver in mid-stride.
Napoleon would call that "flippin' sweet."
Sam had the shortest college career of the Three QBs, playing one year less and losing most of the 2009 season to injury. Despite appearing in the fewest games and receiving less national attention than Colt or Tim, he could be the best quarterback of the three. At least that's what the St. Louis Rams were betting when they voted with their checkbook and tabbed Sam as the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
As they say in draft-speak, Sam brings tons of "upside" to the table: excellent height, superior arm, pinpoint accuracy, and rock-solid pocket awareness. He is the tallest of the Three QBS, standing 6 feet, 4¼ inches—the fourth of an inch must be important because it's usually included whenever Sam's height is listed. Since the end of 2009, he's added 13 pounds of muscle to his frame. Scouts believe the extra bulk will make him more durable in the NFL and that it may even bolster his rocket arm.
The scouting reports also say that Sam is an "elite decision-maker." He processes information quickly and can work through the "progressions" of the play, meaning he can look for receivers in a certain order and then complete the pass to his second or third target if his primary receiver isn't open. When his golden arm unleashes the ball, the pass whizzes through the air like it's attached to a zip line—a frozen rope, the scouts call it.
But Sam didn't always have a monster arm, and of the Three QBS, he's the latest bloomer of the bunch. In fact, he needed a huge break just to get his shot at playing quarterback for the University of Oklahoma.
THE EARLY YEARS
Samuel Jacob Bradford was born November 8, 1987, making him the youngest of the Three QBS by three months—and the only one without siblings. Since Kent and Martha Bradford were married eight years before Sam arrived, one could conjecture that she either had a hard time getting pregnant or couldn't have more children. Whatever the reason, they slathered Sam with love and devotion. He was their pride and joy, and his athletic career would benefit from the extra attention they were able to afford him.
WHERE'S RUDY WHEN YOU NEED HIM?
The mid-1970s were glory years for Oklahoma football. When Kent Bradford was a student, back in those pre-BCS days, the Barry Switzer-coached teams captured four Big Eight titles and one national championship.
Before Kent played his junior and senior years for the Sooners, however, he was on the scout team—the scrubs and underclassmen who weren't good enough, or who weren't ready, to suit up on Saturday afternoons. Think Rudy at Notre Dame.
One afternoon during practice, the scout team coach, Steve Barrett, instructed Kent—an offensive tackle—to block starting defensive lineman Lee Roy Selmon.
That was a tall order. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 256 pounds, "The Gentle Giant" would go on to become the No. 1 pick in the 1976 NFL draft and fashion a Hall of Fame career playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The guy was a load.
The play was run, and Lee Roy blew past Kent like he was a cardboard cutout. When the offense retreated to the huddle, Coach Barrett yelled, "Bradford, can't you block that guy?"
"Coach, if I would block him, I'd be starting. I wouldn't be on this scout team," Kent answered. "Besides, you probably don't have anybody who'd have blocked him, either."
Now there's a football player who knows what's happening on the field.
Sam, who was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, got his size from his father, who played as an offensive lineman at the University of Oklahoma for two seasons in 1977–78, during the Barry Switzer era. But don't get the idea that just because Dad was a proud OU alum, baby Sam was dressed in red jumpers with OU insignias. His mom graduated from the intrastate rival Oklahoma State University (where Kent's father, Bill, happened to play football in the 1940s), so they had what those in Oklahoma circles might call a "mixed marriage."
One time, before baby Sam turned a year old, Mom took him to a portrait studio where the photographer had several props, including a pint-sized outfit in orange and black-Oklahoma State's school colors.
Kent arrived late to the shoot and was aghast to find his son—his son!—sporting an Oklahoma State outfit. When he pressed Martha for an explanation, she replied that she thought their baby son looked darling in the black-and-orange ensemble.
These days you won't find Sam digging through the photo albums and reminiscing over that incriminating photo. "I don't really like the picture," he said.
Why is that?
"Because of the attire. Wrong colors. It wasn't even Halloween."
There isn't much evidence that Martha tried to dress her son in OSU school colors after that episode. Since the University of Oklahoma is in Norman, 20 miles south of Oklahoma City—and because Kent bled Sooner red—Martha became neutral in what you could call a "Switzerland" home. Since Kent had been an OU season ticket holder for what seemed like forever, young Sam grew up cheering for Big Red at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Even Mom came around during the "Bedlam" games—the annual showdown between OU and OSU—and rooted for the Sooners.
You could say sports were important in the Bradford household. Martha was an elementary school physical education teacher while Kent, who worked as an insurance agent, was the former Sooner lineman with a competitive nature. When Sam was a preschooler, they filled his bedroom with different kinds of balls, bats, and gloves. Nothing like getting him started early.
Sam's aunt, Jan Bradford, remembers coming over to the house and having Sam, then a preschooler, lead her to his room so he could show off his ball collection—one ball at a time.
"Here's a football!"
"Here's a baseball!"
"Here's a golf ball!"
The only thing Sam didn't bring out during this show-and-tell was his ice skates. His love affair with the ice started because Kent and Martha enjoyed ice skating at a nearby rink during the winter months. When Sam was five years old, he asked for his own pair of skates for Christmas. He wanted to play hockey because it looked like a fun sport.
Santa did his part, making sure the ice skates were under the tree. The parents did their part by immediately enrolling Sam in skating lessons. But the kindergartner didn't like it when the coach got tough on him. One day, the tearful youngster came home and announced he wanted to quit skating.
Mom hugged her son but remained firm. The family had paid for 12 lessons, so he had to see this through. If he stuck with it, then he could play hockey.
Sam completed his skating lessons, and when he began his elementary school years, he starting playing hockey—but he also liked the Big Three All-American sports: football, basketball, and baseball.
Sam displayed some of his athletic precociousness on the ball field as a nine-year-old when he played for the Putnam City Optimist Ducks, who won the AAU state baseball championship in 1997. Check this out: the Ducks played more than 65 games that year, and their state championship team of third and fourth graders earned a trip to Sherwood, Arkansas, for the national tournament.
NO SOCCER FOR SAM
By the 1990s, youth soccer—played under the auspices of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO)—was taking up every free field between Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon. In many households, "bunch ball" was replacing T-ball as the sport of choice.
Sam Bradford played just about every sport under the sun—or on the ice—growing up, but he never played organized soccer. Sure, he outplayed the kids in his class during elementary school recess, but his parents never signed him up to play soccer, most likely because they were running themselves ragged getting Sam to all his football, basketball, baseball, and hockey games.
"I would say if you put me on a soccer field today, I would be clueless," Sam said.
No, Sam, you'd probably figure out the game pretty quickly.
No sooner had Sam thrown his mitt into his bedroom closet at the end of summer than it was time to slip on the shoulder pads and a helmet for youth football. Sam somehow always seemed to play each fall on teams named the "Sooners"—with their fire engine red mesh jerseys. Then, by Thanksgiving time, the chilly climate made it easy for Sam to transition into basketball, which was played indoors in gymnasiums. After basketball season was over, the sports merry-go-round started all over again with spring baseball.
And then there was hockey.
CATCHING THE HOCKEY BUG
In those early years, Sam's father would drop by his son's bedroom to tuck him in. Many evenings, he would ask his son to say 10 things to him—positive statements like "I can do anything I think I can." Kent was planting the seed that young Sam could do anything he set his mind to, but realizing his goals meant he would have to work hard. Nothing would be handed to him—on the field or in the classroom. It was up to him to set a goal and go chase after it.
That's one way to build a champion, but if you were to ask Sam what his favorite sport was back in grade school and middle school, he'd tell you it wasn't football, basketball, or baseball. That's because he had caught the hockey bug.
Sam was a multi-sport kid juggling a year-round schedule of games "in season," but he truly loved hockey and displayed a gift for the game. His idol was National Hockey League star Pavel Bure—the "Russian Rocket" who played for the Vancouver Canucks and led the NHL in goals during the 1993–94 season.
Despite the time commitment required to keep his hand in the other three sports, it wasn't long before Sam won a spot on the Oklahoma City Junior Blazers, a competitive "travel team" that either drove or flew to tournaments as far away as St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, and Houston.
We're talking serious junior hockey. Canadian-born Mike McEwen, a talented defenseman who helped the New York Islanders win three Stanley Cups in the early 1980s, coached the team.
As Sam developed his love for ice hockey in his middle school years, he adopted the Canucks as his favorite team. He would wake up early and grab the morning newspaper so he could see if Vancouver won and if his hero Pavel Bure scored a goal—or two or three.
Then one day, Sam asked his parents—in all seriousness—if the family could move to Vancouver, Canada, the home of the Canucks, so he could watch Pavel roam the ice in person. And besides, they played the best junior hockey in Canada, eh?
"I told him, 'We can't move to Canada. Our lives are in Oklahoma,'" his father said in USA Hockey magazine. "But he was pretty set on it."
Sam's parents' practical thinking prevailed, and the family stayed put in Oklahoma City.
Playing on a hockey travel team was a good news/bad news situation for Sam and his parents—and quite a commitment. The good news was that Sam played a top-flight schedule against the best teams in the Midwest. The bad news was the constant travel, which meant being away from home a couple of weekends a month and competing in tournaments where games could be scheduled for six or seven o'clock in the morning or after nine at night. (Tournament games had to be played morning, noon, and night because of the scarcity of rink time.) Sam's parents said he never griped about the early face-offs, though there were 5 a.m. wake-up calls when they had to stuff Sam's legs into his hockey pants while he was still asleep.
From every indication, though, the family enjoyed their hockey days with Sam. Kent never complained about being a "hockey dad," and Martha never complained about being a "hockey mom." Consequently, Sam didn't grow up a complainer, either.
"I definitely think their attitudes had a great deal of impact on getting me where I am today," Sam told The Oklahoman.
Sam played two years on the OC Junior Blazers, and his leadership qualities and ever-improving stick skills landed him the role of team captain. But as high school loomed, decisions had to be made. The start of high school is the time when most athletes have to "specialize" in their best—or favorite—sport. Was Sam going to become a hockey player and chuck football, basketball, and baseball?
Mike McEwen told Kent his kid could one day play in the National Hockey League. Sam was a natural, the coach said. He had good hands, great vision, and played smart on the ice.
Kent listened to the old NHL hockey player make his case, saying nothing as his patronizing smile grew bigger and bigger. The father wouldn't be persuaded. Kent had other things in mind for his son, and they weren't going to happen on a sheet of ice.
MEET SAM BRADFORD, CELLO PLAYER
When he was in fourth grade, Sam started playing the cello, a lower-sounding member of the string family that is held between the knees and played in the seated position. He kept at it through middle school, when he became part of the orchestra at Cooper Middle School.
As is often the case with grade-school musicians, Sam's cello ended up in a closet when he graduated to Putnam City North High School. Too much homework and too many sports: football in the fall, basketball in winter, and baseball or golf in the spring.
Sam's father told the New York Times that he played the cello "okay for his age group"—although his football coaches at Putnam North and the University of Oklahoma gushed about the quarterback who played the cello. Some of the media's "cello-playing quarterback" storyline was embellished a tad, especially when the writer sought to do a little myth-building.
But Sam Bradford, quarterback/cello player, has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
THE TRANSITION YEARS
In the 1960s and 1970s, when Kent and Martha were growing up, youth sports weren't nearly as organized as they later became. Youth league presidents risked the wrath of parents if they scheduled baseball, basketball, football, or hockey games on Sunday mornings. That was the time for church. For worshipping God.
That mindset slowly changed in the 1980s as parents sought better and better competition for their children, and by the time Sam was lacing up his cleats, sneakers, or hockey skates in the mid-1990s, all the barriers came crashing down. The advent of "all-star" leagues and travel teams heralded a new era in youth sports, and the Bradfords plugged right into the program. Sam was always playing a sport—against the best competition in his peer group—and Kent and Martha had their share of Sunday morning games to attend. Since the seasons overlapped, they had to make choices about which games Sam would play in. That was the reality they had carved for themselves.
By the time Sam entered fifth grade, Martha noticed something else: even though their son was gaining valuable athletic experience every weekend, he was missing out on something far more important—learning about God. She knew that instilling spiritual values and good morals in Sam would mean a lot more than him learning the fast break, the two-minute offense, or the power play. Mom believed it was time for the family to start going to church. If a game was scheduled for a Sunday morning, the team would have to play without Sam.
"We were playing sports every weekend, and it's not like I didn't know who God was, but it was just something that we really did not have the time to do," Sam told Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist with The Oklahoman. "I think my mom finally brought it up and was like, 'Hey, we're going to start going to church.' We started going to a couple of different churches, and finally, we found one where a couple of my friends attended. I give a lot of credit to my friends; they were the ones who got me involved in youth group, got me involved in Confirmation, got me to really stick with it."
Excerpted from Playing With Purpose by Mike Yorkey. Copyright © 2010 Mike Yorkey. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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