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FIRST PLACE: FEATURE
ANADARKO, Okla. – Sam Bradford's a genuine star now. Saturday, the Oklahoma quarterback will join college football's glitterati in New York for the televised presentation of the Heisman Trophy. He's favored to win it. At 6-4, with smarts and cool and an uncannily accurate right arm, he is beginning to generate talk of going first in the NFL draft – whenever the third-year sophomore might choose to enter it.
"The guy's unbelievable," says Bob Stoops, who declares him better than both the Heisman winner and Heisman runner-up he previously coached at OU.
But it's in places such as this little town an hour's drive west of Norman, at the edge of Oklahoma's Great Plains Country, that each touchdown pass, each win, each TV close-up of Bradford's 21-year-old face resonates loudest.
This is Native American land, home to seven western Oklahoma Indian tribes, where life is hardscrabble and optimism and inspiration can be scarce. Anadarko's Riverside Indian School, the nation's oldest federally operated Indian boarding school, doles out both to some 600 students from 25 states enrolled in fourth grade through high school. Its football program has struggled and was dropped for a couple of seasons but restarted this year and drew more than 40 boys who suited up for the varsity team.
Their inspiration is Bradford.
The Sooners star is four generations removed from the last full-blooded Native American in his family, and his suburban rearing came with little exposure to American Indian culture. But he's Indian nonetheless, a registered Cherokee. And Saturday's prospective Heisman coronation – near the end of a season in which Bradford has led No. 1-ranked Oklahoma to the cusp of a national championship – is momentous and moving for many Native Americans.
"It opens everything up for us," says Ray Brady, a Riverside junior and tight end on the football team. "Like Obama becoming president."
Nearly a century has passed since Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian also born in Oklahoma, began shaping his legend as the greatest all-around athlete the modern world has seen. It has been 44 years since Billy Mills, a Sioux, ran to a 10,000-meter gold medal in the 1964 Olympics. They remain the standards of Native American athletic excellence.
Elders such as J.R. Cook, a Cherokee who heads United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), an Oklahoma City-based agency designed "to foster the spiritual, mental, physical and social development" of young American Indians and Alaska Natives, rank Bradford right behind them.
"It's not just that he's a college football player," Cook says. "He's the quarterback, a team leader. He's admired by his peers and coaches. They speak very highly of him. ... And being a serious contender for the Heisman, that's not happened before.
"It's a little sad," he says, "that you have to go back 40-some years to find a role model of this quality."
Cook pulls out his Blackberry and pulls up a text message he has saved for a couple of weeks. It's from an acquaintance in Arizona, a Sioux woman who caught the nationally televised 61-41 victory against Oklahoma State in which Bradford passed for four TDs and made a now-famous, cartwheeling dive for the end zone to set up a short scoring run.
"Bradford for president," she'd typed.
Cook slips the Blackberry back into his pocket.
"It's all over the country," he says. "I really don't think Sam realizes."
Bradford, whose dad, Kent, once blocked for Billy Sims is a former OU offensive lineman, is something of a conflicted hero. Kent's great-grandmother, Susie Walkingstick, was Cherokee, and he's of one-eighth descent. Sam, whose mother, Martha, is white, is one-sixteenth. But until Oklahoma publicized his lineage a year ago, it was incidental to the family's life. They're aware and even proud of their heritage, Kent says, but unattuned to its customs.
"When people ask me questions about it, I have to be careful with how I answer," Sam says. "It's something I'm definitely proud of, and I'll never shy away from it. But I don't know probably as much as I should know or as much as some people may think I know."
At the same time, he says, "God has blessed me with a great platform. If I can use that in a positive way and be a role model for younger kids, set a good example for them, I think it's a really good thing."
His appeal starts, of course, with his performance. Throwing for 4,464 yards and a nation-high 48 touchdowns, Bradford has been the centerpiece of a ridiculously prolific Oklahoma offense that scored 60-plus points in each of its last five regular-season games -- something no team had done since 1919.
He throws a TD pass every nine or so attempts and an interception once every 74 and is on pace to break the major-college efficiency record set two years ago by Hawaii's Colt Brennan. Bradford's all over the OU record book, supplanting 2003 Heisman winner Jason White and 2000 runner-up Josh Heupel in just about every relevant single-season passing category and setting a career mark with 84 TD passes in two seasons.
Turn in a typical game Jan. 8 in Miami, where he and the Sooners (12-1) will play Florida (12-1) for the national championship, and Bradford also will surpass White's career record of 7,922 passing yards. He needs 338.
It's his precision – the 68.3% accuracy, a single interception in OU's last six games – that wows. "If it's not a good ball, it's probably for a reason. He's putting it in a (Continued from page 6) place where you don't have a chance to get your head knocked off," says the Sooners' All-Big 12 Conference tight end, Jermaine Gresham. "Wherever he puts the football, just roll with it."
That hasn't come by accident.
"He's a perfectionist by nature," says Heupel, now the Sooners quarterbacks coach. "That's why he comes in on Monday afternoon (to pore over film) after going 23 of 26 – nearly perfect – finding flaws and finding ways to get better."
"The best coaching tool," offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson says, "is to look at (him) and say, 'That's what it looks like. That's how you practice. That's how you prepare.' It's better than sitting at the board and drawing circles. A picture's worth thousands of words.
"Whether he's the greatest now or will ever be or where he ranks doesn't really matter. It's just nice in this day and age to see a great player bust his tail every day and buy in."
A finance major, Bradford carries a 3.95 grade-point average. Post-football, he plans to become a corporate attorney. It's not hard to see how an Indian populace thirsting for positive role models has latched onto him.
Some 4.1 million U.S. residents consider themselves Native Americans, including 281,000 Cherokees and more than 729,000 who claim some Cherokee ancestry. Close to 11.4% of Oklahoma's population – almost 392,000 – has Cherokee ancestry, according to the 2000 census.
The difficulties of Native American life are welldocumented: higher-than-normal rates of poverty, alcoholism, suicide. "It's getting a little better," Riverside Indian School co-superintendent Milton Noel says. "But there are so many places where there's not enough to go around."
Precious few Native Americans make it big in sports. Charles Albert "Chief" Bender and Allie "Superchief" Reynolds found fame in baseball. Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, who grew up 21 miles north of Anadarko in Binger, Okla., is one-eighth Choctaw, though he never has been popularly identified or celebrated as an Indian star.
Native eyes today are on a couple of young major leaguers in baseball: New York Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain, a Winnebago from Nebraska, and Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who's Navajo.
Bradford, however, is a supernova.
"Usually, what you see about Native American people is something bad. They're drunk In bar fights. It seems like there's always a negative image," says Brady, the 17 -year-old tight end from El Reno, Okla., who's in his second year at Riverside. "That's not always the case as of now."
James Sutteer, Riverside's coach, suggests the number of players who came out for his rebuilding program -- 70 in junior high and high school – was that high, in part, because of Bradford. "They see him perform, and people tend to think they can do the same thing. Or at least want to try," he says.
"He'd be a role model for anybody. The guy's carrying a 3.95. Never gets in trouble. Is well-spoken. Puts off the impression that he's danged-near perfect. ... Something we hopefully can inspire these kids to do is not only look at him but look at good people like that in general."
Of more than 306,000 athletes in Divisions I, II and III in 2006-07, the most recent year tracked by the NCAA, just one-half of 1% were Native American. In majorcollege football, the percentage drops to 0.4%. Bradford is thought to be the first to start at quarterback for a major program since Washington's Sonny Sixkiller in the early 1970s.
Saturday's step is potentially far bigger. Seventythree Heismans have been handed out since 1935. If it's Bradford's name that is called, he'll be the first Native American to win.
"I can hear all the Indian kids, at Riverside or wherever, hollering when that happens. And the community," Noel says. "Lots of whoops."
Comment of the judge, Ken Stephens: As a Heisman candidate and a record-setting quarterback on one of the country's best teams, Sam Bradford is a natural feature topic. Throw in his Native American heritage and what he means to a people with few modern athletic stars, and you've got a winning story,
► Second place: Josh Robbins, Orlando Sentinel
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