Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford completes a lot of passes. And with each one, he further entrenches himself as the most revered player in the nation.
Actually, he's most revered in several nations – the Choctaw, the Caddo, the Cherokee and many other Native American tribes in Oklahoma and around the country.
The great, great grandson of Susie Walkingstick, a full-blooded Cherokee on his father's side, Bradford, one of two Native Americans on the OU roster (long snapper Derek Shaw is the other), might give Oklahoma its fifth Heisman Trophy. He gives the Sooners a shot at another national championship. And he also gives Native Americans much more than Saturday afternoon glory: He represents hope and possibilities for tribal communities in dire need of both.
"I am aware of that and it's a great opportunity for me," Bradford says. "If I am a positive role model for younger kids, then I think that's great. But it is a little bit (overwhelming) to know so many kids look up to me."
It's not just kids. Dr. Delores Subia BigFoot, director of Indian Country Child Trauma Center on Child Abuse and Neglect in Oklahoma City, doesn't know Bradford personally, but she is among his biggest fans in a state full of them. She holds up Bradford as an example to Native Americans of what can be accomplished with proper support in a positive environment.
"We work in communities where Native youth have a lot of challenges, so seeing someone like Sam excel is incredible," says BigFoot, an enrolled member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. "He's such a great role model for other Native youth. He is steady, he performs well under pressure, he's reliable, he's consistent and he's competitive. He's a great leader, and that's what our youth need."
Bradford is by no means the first Native American college football star. Jim Thorpe, perhaps the greatest college football player ever, was an Oklahoma native from the Sauk tribe. He was an All-America in 1911 and 1912 playing for Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
Bradford might be the best player with Native American heritage since Washington quarterback Sonny Sixkiller, who led the nation in passing in 1970 and helped revive a Huskies program that struggled in the '60s.
"I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said, 'I couldn't get my wife to go to a football game until you played,' " Sixkiller told Rivals.com in 2006.
Bradford surely will gain a similar following. He has been a tremendous leader for the top-ranked and unbeaten Sooners. He has thrown for 1,665 yards and 18 touchdowns, with three interceptions. He's second in the nation in passing efficiency and fifth in passing yards per game.
That's a long list of impressive statistics. But BigFoot also has a list of statistics; hers are sad and depressing.
"There are a lot of things that are going on within our troubled communities that make it difficult for children to be as successful as they could be," she says.
• About 40 percent of Native American children live in poverty.
• Native American children live in single-parent families at the highest rate in the United States.
• Despite making up only 2 percent of the population in the United States, Native Americans make up an estimated 8 percent of the homeless.
FROM THE HISTORY BOOKS
One of Oklahoma's best players in the early 1940s was running back Jack "Indian" Jacobs, a dual-threat star who was a Native American.
Jacobs was an All-Big Six Conference selection in 1941 as a senior and was a second-round pick by the Cleveland Rams in the 1942 NFL draft.
In those less-politically correct times, Street & Smith's 1940 Football Yearbook extolled the virtues of Jacobs thusly: "Palefaces took land from his forefathers, and winning it back, yard by yard, for the Oklahoma team is Jack Jacobs."
Another famous former Sooner of Native American heritage was linebacker/guard Edward "Wahoo" McDaniel, who was at OU from 1957-59. McDaniel was of Choctaw and Chickasaw descent. He played nine seasons in the AFL and later became well-known as a pro wrestler.
• The suicide rate for Native American youths is three times greater than that of Caucasians of similar age.
• Native American children are twice as likely to become victims of child abuse than non-Hispanic Caucasian children.
• Native American youth have higher rates of mental-health and substance-abuse problems than any other ethnic group.
BigFoot says the source of the problems can be traced back more than a century to the loss of land, language and culture that created an environment of despair and cultural genocide. That started destructive cycles, which have been repeated from generation to generation.
Attempting to end that cycle, she makes presentations and provides training sessions across the country. And in those presentations and sessions, she often talks about Bradford, a business major who has a 4.0 grade-point average.
"I promote him all the time," BigFoot says. "Most of the time I'm talking to adults, and I say it would be wonderful if all our children could benefit from the same kind of concern and care that Sam Bradford had. I don't think he was raised in what you would say is a 'traditional' Native environment."
Bradford grew up in an upper-middle class part of Oklahoma City with both of his parents – Kent, a former offensive lineman at Oklahoma, and Martha. He never faced many of the obstacles and issues other Native American youth deal with on a daily basis.
He acknowledges that while growing up he rarely – if ever – thought about his Cherokee heritage.
"It was never really a huge part of my life growing up," Bradford says. "My parents didn't talk to me a lot about it when I was younger. When I got to OU, I heard it was inspirational. But I probably haven't embraced it as much as I'd like to."
That hasn't stopped Native American youth from embracing him. Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah, Okla., is a boarding school owned by the Cherokee nation that serves students in grades 7-12 who are members of Native American tribes.
Brent Scott has been the football coach there for five years. In that time, he has witnessed first-hand many students facing the trials and tribulations BigFoot referenced.
"Everyone in our locker room has an issue, whether it's poverty, a broken home, divorce or whatever it may be," Scott says. "They all have a problem. It's amazing to sit down and listen to some of their stories. I didn't have to go through those things when I was 15 or 16."
Scott said he has 58 players on his roster and that only six have both parents in their homes. Some players' parents are in prison. Some parents are illiterate. Some abuse drugs and alcohol.
"I had a kid score a game-winning touchdown, and his mom and dad weren't there," Scott says. "After the game he told me, 'Coach, I don't know where I can stay tonight.' And you wonder why they have a hard time in school. But we don't let it be a crutch for them. We tell them there are better opportunities, and if they want better opportunities, they can change their situation."
Seeing Bradford excel has made that seem more believable.
"Regardless of whether they're athletes or non-athletes, Sam Bradford gives them something to identify with," Scott says. "They look on television at the NFL or NBA, and some of those things they can't identify with. When it became public that Sam was Cherokee, you could see it in the students that they could identify with him as a role model.
"He gave them an opportunity to see themselves and say, 'I can go to college.' "
Scott says he would like to invite Bradford to speak to the students at Sequoyah because he means so much to them and other Native Americans across Oklahoma. Until then, others such as BigFoot will be talking about him.
"A lot of Indian people, who not necessarily are involved with football, are watching him more and wanting to know more about his performance," BigFoot says. "Even the ones marginally interested in football are highly enthusiastic and ecstatic.
"There is a lot of pride."
Olin Buchanan is a Heisman voter and a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.