After school let out some afternoons, a stranger driving past the Bradford house in Oklahoma, deep in the heart of football country, might have done a double take.
Crouched there in the garage was Martha Bradford, standing 5 feet 5, head to toe in goalie gear while young Sam Bradford whizzed street hockey pucks at her head.
With ice time in Oklahoma hard to come by, a packed sports schedule and a dream of lacing up the skates for the Vancouver Canucks, Sam had to improvise. So if none of his buddies were around, it was Mom who had to strap on the pads so Sam could work on a wicked wrist shot that made him a star on his youth traveling team.
“He’d be out in the garage firing pucks at her,” Kent Bradford, Sam’s father, said with a hearty laugh during a phone interview Wednesday. “It was hilarious.”
The Bradford boy who was a standout in several sports before becoming an NFL quarterback will be in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, making his second start for the Vikings vs. the Carolina Panthers. But if 10-year-old Sam Bradford had his way, he would be in Canada, taking the ice for another Canucks training camp.
Bradford fell in love with hockey at an early age thanks to the “Mighty Ducks” movies and Don Cherry’s “Rock’em Sock’em Hockey” VHS tapes. He became enamored of Canucks winger Pavel Bure, though the lanky kid did not have the explosiveness of “the Russian Rocket,” and he scanned the newspaper every morning for boxscores.
Kent, a former offensive lineman at Oklahoma, knew little about hockey. “I had no idea what icing and offsides were,” he said. But the Bradfords said, “What the heck?” and let Sam give it a shot at age 5. For the next nine years, there were a lot of early-morning practices, long drives and $200 Easton Synergy hockey sticks.
“I really did love hockey,” Bradford said. “It was one of my favorite things to do.”
Bradford skated in a local house league when he wasn’t playing football or basketball or baseball or golf. Bradford was never the most fluid skater, but as he grew older he developed great vision, slick hands and a sick righthanded shot.
“I loved to score,” Bradford said. “I was pretty offensive-minded.”
When he was 11, Bradford joined a travel hockey team based out of Oklahoma City called the Junior Blazers. His coach, three-time Stanley Cup winner Mike McEwen, believes Bradford could have made it to the NHL.
“He just kind of had it all at 11 and 12,” he said. “In games he would come up big and make plays not many kids that age would make. He was a really good playmaker. He could see the ice really well. He was a captain. Great work ethic.”
Because either football or basketball was in season, too, Bradford often missed practice and sometimes only skated once a week. Yet he still took over games, like when he helped rally the Blazers from a goal down in their regional championship win.
“He set one kid up on a breakaway. The other one, he was around the net and there was all kinds of traffic and he found this kid wide open on the back door,” McEwen said. “I don’t know if I could have made that play and I was in the NHL for 12 years.”
When he was younger, Bradford tried to persuade his parents to move to Vancouver.
“My parents couldn’t quite get on board with that,” he said, laughing at the thought now. “I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just pick up and move to Canada.”
But as Bradford headed into high school, his heart started tugging him toward basketball and football. So he quit hockey. He last skated around a few years ago when he was in St. Louis. He can’t remember the last time he played hockey.
He believes his youth hockey career helped him become a better quarterback.
“I feel like there is a lot of carry-over,” the 28-year-old said. “Whether you’re handling the ball or handling the puck, you’re anticipating where your teammates are going and looking for a window to find a cutter or a receiver or whatever that is.”
T.J. Clemmings was stumped. Sweat dripped off his face after Thursday’s practice as he pondered the question for nearly 90 seconds. Which one of his Vikings teammates got scholarship offers in basketball, is a scratch golfer and was a peewee hockey star?
“Are you sure that person exists in this locker room?” Clemmings asked.
Clemmings, a former hooper himself, finally threw a Hail Mary. Kyle Rudolph?
Xavier Rhodes was also baffled. He, too, guessed Rudolph, the big tight end who caught Bradford’s first touchdown pass with the Vikings, then safety Harrison Smith.
When Rhodes was told it was Bradford, he yelled out in disbelief as he ran away.
“Aw, man! Get out of here!” the corner said. “I would have never guessed that one.”
Yup, Bradford excelled at pretty much everything while growing up in Oklahoma City.
“My favorite was always whichever sport was in season,” Bradford said, later adding, “I think these days it’s almost saddening to see kids who are 10 or 11 and are forced to choose one sport and specialize in that sport and play that sport year-round. By playing different sports … you become a better all-around athlete.”
His grandpa first took him golfing when he was 5 or 6. Years later, when Michigan was recruiting him to play QB, the coaches told him if he signed they could probably get alumnus Tom Brady to play 18 holes with him. Brady would give Bradford a few strokes, of course. The confident teenager told them that wouldn’t be necessary.
As a senior quarterback at Putnam City North, Bradford threw for 2,422 and 19 touchdowns and gathered late recruiting steam as a three-star Rivals.com prospect.
But until then, Bradford’s best sport was basketball. Bradford first dunked during his freshman year of high school — a revelation that blew Clemmings’ mind — and he was on an AAU team with NBA star Blake Griffin. Bradford averaged a double-double as a senior small forward and received offers from Division I schools.
“For a long time, I thought I was going to play basketball,” he said. “There’s not many 6-4 white guys playing the three spot in the NBA, so I realized I probably didn’t have much of a future in basketball and that football was probably going to be my best bet.”
So Bradford finally settled on one sport and signed on to play football at Oklahoma.
A history of injuries
Bradford stepped into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman and tossed 36 TD passes. The following year, in 2008, he threw 50 more and won the Heisman Trophy.
Oklahoma would lose to Florida in the national championship game at the end of that season. But days before the Orange Bowl, Bradford got the thrill of a lifetime.
Bure, who lives in the Miami area, showed up at a Sooners practice to say hello.
“I got to talk to him. It was awesome,” Bradford said, his eyes widening at the thought of the memory, somehow making the baby-faced quarterback look even more boyish.
His final season at Oklahoma was cut short by a pair of shoulder injuries. But he was still selected first overall in the 2010 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. He topped 3,500 passing yards that season with current Vikings tight end coach Pat Shurmur as his offensive coordinator and was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year.
Shurmur moved on after the season, spinning a revolving door of Rams play-callers. Josh McDaniels was there for a year, then Brian Schottenheimer for the next three.
Even though he tore the ACL in his left knee midway through the 2013 season, Bradford for the first time in his pro career finally felt comfortable heading into 2014. He completed 75 percent of his passes with a 127.4 rating in his preseason debut.
“It was hands down the best I’ve ever played,” he said. “And that’s because I was finally comfortable. I knew the checks. I knew everything. I knew the audibles. I knew what I wanted to get to. I knew where the ball wanted to go. And it felt great.” Then Bradford tore the same ACL again during the team’s third preseason game.
At the 2015 scouting combine, Rams General Manager Les Snead stood on a podium and in front of dozens of reporters and live on NFL Network insisted there was nothing to the persistent Bradford trade rumors, saying “deleting him is not the answer.”
Four weeks later, the Rams traded Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles turned out to be a disaster in the final year of the Chip Kelly experience. But Bradford, statistically, had the best season of his pro career, throwing for 266.1 yards per game while averaging a career-high 7.0 yards per attempt.
The Eagles, under new leadership, signed Bradford to a two-year deal in March. A month later, they, too, stunned him by drafting North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz with the second overall pick. Seeing the writing on the wall, Bradford demanded a trade but then backed off, saying after rejoining the team that his agent urged him to do it.
Philadelphia seemed poised to enter the season with Bradford under center. But things quickly changed in late August when Teddy Bridgewater’s knee crumbled. The Vikings suddenly needed another quarterback, and the Eagles were ready to turn the reins over to Wentz. On Sept. 3, the Vikings traded for Bradford.
“Man, it’s been interesting. I think the best thing about the past couple years is I’ve learned so much about myself and life and how to handle different situations, how to handle people. It’s been great for me and my wife,” said Bradford, who married Emma in July. “It’s brought us closer together and closer in our faith, closer to God.”
Fifteen days after the trade shook up his life again, Bradford threw for 286 yards and a pair of touchdowns while leading the Vikings to a 17-14 victory over the rival Green Bay Packers. Up next are the Panthers, the reigning NFC champs.
Even without injured running back and former Oklahoma teammate Adrian Peterson behind him, this is arguably the strongest supporting cast Bradford, who is under contract through 2017, has had in his seven NFL seasons. And while it feels as if he has been around for a decade, Bradford is only a year older than “young guns” such as Carolina’s Cam Newton, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Seattle’s Russell Wilson.
But with Bridgewater aiming to be back for the 2017 season, there will still be uncertainty even if Bradford finally plays to his top-pick potential.
“At this point, my approach is that I have to take things day by day. That’s all I can do. I show up at this building, I come to work every day and I try to get better and try to help us win. And that’s all I can do,” Bradford said. “I can’t control what’s going to happen in the future. I can’t control what’s going to happen in five hours. So I’m not really worried about it. I’m just focused on doing what I can at this moment.”
But maybe, just maybe, the former peewee hockey star will stick around in the State of Hockey long enough to buy a new pair of skates and get back out on the ice.