All parents have big dreams when their children start to play a sport competitively, and few are bigger than seeing their kid win the Heisman Trophy, become the first pick in the NFL draft and be named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Kent Bradford lucked out with his son, Sam, and got all three, but he insists he didn’t really try to think of Sam’s future in that way, and didn’t push him. “Sam is competitive by nature,” Bradford says about his son’s drive to succeed. “It doesn’t overwhelm him.”
Sam Bradford, Cherokee, is currently in his second—and unfortunately, injury-plagued—season as the starting quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, but his father says his son played three varsity sports while attending high school at Putnam City North in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma—football, basketball and golf. A profile of Sam on Scout.com has this quote from his football coach, Bob Wilson: “[Sam] may not be real vocal, but he gains the respect of teammates through his play. It seems when the competition gets stiffer, that is when he steps up his performance even more.”
One of Sam’s high school teachers was Dee Dee Stafford, who called him “the perfect student-athlete-gentleman,” adding that he was, “modest and supportive of his peers. He is the son we all wish we could have as our own!”
His success on the high school football field earned him a scholarship at the University of Oklahoma (OU), down I-35 South in Norman, where he majored in finance. His father played football at OU in the late 1970s as an offensive lineman, but again, says that he didn’t push Sam to sign on with his alma mater.
As a redshirt freshman in 2007, Bradford lit up defenses with accurate passing, and was an All-America selection for football, as well as an academic star. His national honors also included the Davey O’Brien Award for best quarterback in 2008, and the highly prestigious Heisman Trophy that year, for which he beat out other standout quarterbacks such as Florida’s Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy of Texas. He won that award as a sophomore, which meant he played the 2009 season hoping to become a two-time winner. However, he suffered a shoulder injury in the season opener against Brigham Young University in Dallas. Although he
broke the OU all-time passing yards record during this game, his injury, recovery and then re-injury against Texas a few weeks later threatened to make Bradford yet another Heisman winner with limited NFL prospects. Instead, he got healthy, declared himself eligible for the NFL, became the first overall selection of the 2010 NFL Draft and after that season was the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, posting the second best mark ever for a rookie quarterback, with 3,512 yards passing, a total surpassed only by Peyton Manning during his rookie season in 1998.
He has had a rough run this season—the Rams are 2-12 and Bradford’s season may be over due to injuries—but most observers are still optimistic about his future in the NFL.
Bradford’s accomplishments at all levels of football have earned him the distinction of being one of the better-known members of the Cherokee Nation. He and his father Kent are descendants of Susie Walkingstick, who is on the Cherokee Nation Dawes Roll that determine Cherokee Nation membership. However, Kent says Sam didn’t know a lot about his heritage growing up. “He knew he had some Cherokee blood, and that’s probably about it.”
However, OU’s campaign to get him the Heisman Trophy spotlighted his heritage, making him a fan favorite among many Native people in Oklahoma and throughout Indian country. “The spring after he won the Heisman, Chief [Chad] Smith had him come up to [tribal headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma]—and his mom and I as well—and they honored him.”
Joe Crittenden, then the acting principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, says that both the Cherokee Nation and Sequoyah Schools of Tahlequah “were honored to host Sam and his family… We have watched him grow as an athlete, but more importantly as an inspiration to others.”
Another person who has enjoyed watching Bradford grow—and is one of the few people who has been in Bradford’s cleats, so to speak—is former University of Washington quarterback Sonny Sixkiller, who is also a Cherokee Nation member. Although many football fans only remember Sixkiller for being part of the ensemble cast in the original The Longest Yard, his post-football life has included work as a color analyst with Fox Sports Net and currently with IMG College, a media and marketing-rights holder for the University of Washington athletics programs. “He’s very talented,” says Sixkiller. “He’s got a lot of skills. He has great composure as a young man.”
Sixkiller says that he stills gets many words of appreciation for his days as a Huskies quarterback and for representing Native people. “One thing [I’d tell Bradford], is that it’s nice to get back in touch with Cherokee country or any kind of Native American country to tell his story. Let those young Native American kids around the country know who he is and what he stands for.
“He’s beyond his years with composure and maturity,” says Sixkiller. “I think he’s going to serve himself well for years to come in the NFL.”
Sixkiller isn’t concerned that Bradford’s performance on the field this year took a dip, the so-called “sophomore slump” that afflicts many NFL players. “I think he’s in good hands there, with the Rams,” he says. “They obviously have the high respect for him. He’s beyond his years with composure and maturity. I think that’s going to serve him well for years to come in the NFL.”