Big Red Royalty: Bradford, Griffin take similar paths to OU
It’s always been difficult to separate Sam Bradford and Blake Griffin. Both grew up in Oklahoma City, in houses five miles apart. They attended high schools separated by fewer than 20 miles and went on to have dazzling seasons as the leaders of their teams at OU.
And then Sunday, Griffin won the Naismith Trophy, awarded to college basketball’s National Player of the Year, 113 days after Bradford was named the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner, making OU the first school ever to win both trophies in the same academic year.
Now, the link between the two is tighter than ever, and maybe that’s fitting. After all, the two local kids who decided to take home-state scholarships took similar paths to where they are now...
In the beginning
Growing up, Bradford and Griffin knew each other through their parents. Griffin’s parents owned a trophy company that Bradford’s father used. Bradford’s father owned a gym where Blake and Taylor Griffin played basketball.
Bradford and Griffin occasionally played one another in Little League, and they were teammates in the summer of 2005, when they played on the same Amateur Athletic Union basketball team, Athletes First.
Bradford’s mother, Martha, said it was evident early on what kind of talent Griffin had.
“Blake is just like he was growing up, I promise you,” Martha Bradford said. “He loved to dunk the ball even when he was young. I mean that’s all he wanted to do was dunk, and it was just amazing to watch him.”
Sports came naturally to both Bradford and Griffin.
As an only child, Bradford busied himself playing football, baseball, basketball, hockey and golf. Bradford’s dad said it was easy to tell early on what made his son successful.
“In comparison to the other boys in his age group he was always talented, but probably what set him apart was he paid attention more,” Kent Bradford said. “He was into it more. That and he would have extra practice and extra time shooting or out hitting balls, all those things.”
Meanwhile, Griffin and his older brother Taylor were playing multiple sports themselves. Growing up, Griffin played football, basketball, baseball and soccer.
“That was what I did from the moment I was done with school until the moment I had to go to bed, pretty much,” Griffin said. “We were out in the yard or out in the driveway doing whatever, so it was a huge part of my [life].”
But after his freshman year of high school, Griffin dropped all other sports to focus on basketball. It was at Oklahoma Christian School, where his father coached, that Griffin began to prepare to play for the next level.
“It was really the time where I made my transition to being a lot more serious and really working on my game,” Griffin said. “Having my dad there, he was someone who really pushed me really hard and looking back on it, I’m so thankful for that now.”
Bradford was slower to select his primary sport. By the time he got to high school, he had stopped playing hockey but was still playing four sports. Knee problems led him to stop playing baseball, so Bradford focused on football, basketball and golf after his freshman year.
“To be honest, for a long time I thought basketball was what I wanted to do in college,” the Heisman Trophy winner said.
As Bradford and Griffin progressed in their high school careers, they began receiving attention from universities that wanted to offer them scholarships. Before long, they had decisions to make.
“I think probably after my sophomore year, that’s when I started getting letters from people,” Bradford said. “Then after my junior year, that spring, that’s when I started getting offers from different colleges, but in no way was it like Blake. He had every college in the country calling him and wanting to talk to him every night.”
Kent Bradford said it wasn’t until his son began receiving scholarship offers to play football that he finally chose football over basketball.
After a successful junior campaign, Bradford threw for 2,422 yards and 19 touchdowns his senior year of high school. He was named to the second-team All-State team and was a three-star recruit, ranked as the 17th best quarterback in the country.
Bradford said he received five or six official scholarship offers. Former OU offensive coordinator Chuck Long went to see Bradford’s first spring practice in May prior to Bradford’s senior year and called that night to offer a scholarship.
For Bradford, it wasn’t a tough decision. His parents were OU football season ticket-holders, and Bradford was an OU fan growing up. About a week after the offer was made, Bradford verbally committed to OU.
“He was at a basketball tournament, if you want to know the truth, and he was down in New Orleans and I guess he called coach Stoops and committed,” Martha Bradford said. “Then, I think [Kent] got a call from [Bradford’s] high school coach telling us that Sam had committed. So then he calls us later he goes, ‘Hey I just wanted to tell you guys that I did commit’ and we said, ‘Oh, we already know.’”
For Griffin, the decision was a bit more complicated.
Griffin won four state championships at Oklahoma Christian School, going 106-6 in the process. His senior year, he averaged 26.8 points, 15.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.9 blocks per game. He was a McDonald’s All-American, the top player in the state and ranked as high as No. 13 in the country by some recruiting services.
Griffin had the advantage of watching his brother go through recruitment two years prior, but Griffin still had a tough time deciding which school to attend. He had around 10 to 15 offers from schools like Kansas, Florida, Texas, Duke and North Carolina.
Whitney Bryen, The Oklahoma Daily
Taylor Griffin was already at OU, but the situation wasn’t ideal. Coach Kelvin Sampson had recently resigned and recruits were pulling out of the program. Under new head coach Jeff Capel, OU went 16-15 during the 2006-2007 season. But late in the recruitment process, Taylor Griffin went home with a pitch for his brother.
“I just said my thing and just told him we had a lot of fun playing in high school and I think we would do the same here,” Taylor Griffin said. “I really believed in coach Capel and … I think Blake felt a lot of the same ways and he went with it.”
It was shortly after that, in May 2007, that Griffin committed to OU.
“Blake liked what coach Capel said to him,” Griffin’s mother, Gail Griffin said. “They both were achievement-oriented. Then Taylor coming home and telling Blake that Oklahoma is a good place for him and he felt like it would be great to play together again, I think that was probably what did it.”
College careers begin
When Bradford came to OU, there weren’t many expectations for the Oklahoman. Rhett Bomar, a former top-rated high school quarterback from Texas, had just finished his freshman season and was expected to be the quarterback of the future. However, Bomar was released from the team in fall 2006 after violating NCAA rules, and suddenly Bradford was in the thick of things.
He red-shirted his first season, a year Bradford called “frustrating,” because he had never been a backup before. In Bradford’s second year, though, he emerged from a three-way quarterback battle to win the starting position.
Bradford’s first game was Sept. 1, 2007, against North Texas. In the game, he broke former Heisman runner-up Josh Heupel’s OU record for passing yards in a half and Heisman winner Jason White’s record for consecutive completions. In his first two games, Bradford had as many touchdown passes as incompletions, going 40-48 for 568 yards, with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Obviously you’re kind of apprehensive about it, you’re anxious about it, you’re hoping everything ends up OK for him,” Kent Bradford said. “It ended up great for him. He just hopped in there and just played and played well.”
Griffin’s first collegiate game came on Nov. 8, 2007, against San Francisco. He went 7-9 from the field and scored 18 points while grabbing 13 rebounds in the game. Capel said he knew from the start how good Griffin could be.
“I knew he’d work, and that’s the thing that impressed me most about him,” Capel said. “Obviously his talent, but when you have that talent and then you have something inside you – you’re driven like he is – that’s what makes a guy special.”
An award-winning year
Both Bradford and Griffin had a lot on their shoulders during the 2008-2009 season.
Before the year even began, OU’s football and basketball teams were expected to perform well and Bradford and Griffin were expected to perform even better.
The OU football team installed a no-huddle offense for the 2008 season, and the Bradford-led offense became one of the most productive in history.
Bradford set the tone for his season early with a 395-yard, five-touchdown performance in the second game of the year against Cincinnati on Sept. 6. Kent Bradford said he couldn’t have predicted Bradford’s success.
“I was always confident in Sam, but as a parent, you normally look just play-to-play,” Kent Bradford said. “It’s all ended up that he’s playing at the school that he’s always dreamed of and he was obviously there at the right time, and he’s had great coaches and great teammates and it’s all worked out.”
Griffin’s tone-setting game came 62 days later, against American University in OU’s 2008 season-opener. Griffin scored 24 points and pulled down a then-career-high 18 rebounds. Capel said that it takes more than talent to play at Griffin’s level.
“There are a lot of really talented guys, but they don’t ever reach their potential because maybe there’s a flaw,” Capel said. “Maybe they don’t work, maybe they’re soft, maybe they think they know everything, maybe they have all the answers, maybe they’re using college, maybe they have one foot in the door and one foot already out. What makes Blake unique and so different is that all those things I just mentioned, he’s the complete opposite.”
Both Bradford and Griffin had memorable games against Texas Tech during their award-winning seasons. Bradford’s was Nov. 22 in Norman. He threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns in OU’s 65-21 stomping of Tech, putting OU back in the hunt for the Big 12 South title.
Then, 84 days later came Griffin’s record-setting day. The Red Raiders didn’t double-team Griffin, and he responded with a career-high 40 points and 23 rebounds as OU crushed Tech, 95-74.
And then there was the flip.
Bradford’s flip came on Nov. 29 in Stillwater. Late in the game, as Bradford tried to seal a Bedlam victory, he sprinted toward the corner of the end zone and left his feet. As he lunged for the end zone, he was hit low by an OSU defender, upending Bradford. He fell short of the end zone, but the image of Bradford, feet in the air, reaching toward the goal line is what many called his “Heisman moment.”
“I think that’s kind of weird … just one moment,” Bradford said. “I think there’s a lot more to my season and to that award than just one moment, especially in that game.”
Griffin’s flip came two weeks after his Texas Tech game. On Feb. 28, again against the Red Raiders, this time in Lubbock. Griffin was playing his first game after suffering a concussion a week earlier. If 20 points and 19 rebounds weren’t enough to convince fans he was healthy, Griffin provided one of the most memorable plays of the season.
While trying to chase down a loose ball, he sprinted across the court and leapt out of bounds, diving over the scorer’s table and into the stands.
The hustle play drew applause from the Texas Tech crowd.
“He only knows one way to play,” Capel said after the game. “You’re talking about a kid who hadn’t played because of a concussion. He was just so happy to be out there playing today. Just glad to see that he was OK because that one over the scorer’s table was a pretty nasty fall.”
Bradford finished his 2008 season by leading 12-2 OU to its third-straight Big 12 Championship. The Sooners went on to play Florida for a shot at the BCS National Championship but lost 24-14. Bradford finished the season passing for 4,720 yards and 50 touchdowns.
“I think it sinks in every time someone asks me about it and the more I’m around it, but it’s taken me a long time to really grasp what’s happened,” Bradford said. “I grew up watching Oklahoma football. I grew up watching coach Heupel, Jason White and all those guys. The things that they did, for me to be mentioned with those guys it’s still kind of hard for me to grasp.”
Griffin’s season finished in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament after a 30-6 season. Griffin finished the year averaging 22.7 points and 14.4 rebounds per game.
Bradford received his trophy on Dec. 13. Griffin received his Sunday.
“People always ask me what my favorite moment of this year was or last year was but really its just the process, it’s the whole year,” Griffin said. “It’s winning games, winning close games, pulling it out, watching teammates do this and do that. … I think those are the things I’ll look back on and be like, ‘Man, that was a good time.’”
Both Bradford and Griffin have stood out because of their accomplishments, but both have been strong representatives of the university, as well. That’s something Taylor Griffin said his family takes pride in.
“Playing football or basketball here is a lot bigger than just Blake Griffin, it’s a lot bigger than just Sam Bradford. It’s about this whole program and the legacy and everything that’s come before it and all the people involved,” Taylor Griffin said. “I think those guys both understand that and that’s why they realize there’s no room for them to be doing anything but being a class act and acting how they have been.”
For Bradford, the near future is certain: he will be at OU for at least one more season. Griffin is still weighing the pros and cons of heading to the NBA next season. However, both have already left their mark on the OU program.
“I know Sam and he deserves everything he’s gotten,” Griffin said. “To have [the awards] at the same school in the same year, it’s kind of cool. I’ve lived in Oklahoma City my whole life and to kind of do that and for people to know I’m from Oklahoma City, it makes me proud because I’m definitely proud to be from where I’m from.”
Although Bradford and Griffin have been close in proximity their whole lives, that will likely change once one or both of them begins playing professionally. However, the two officially made history on Sunday and will be linked forever because of it.
“I think it’s really cool,” Bradford said. “Growing up with Blake and watching the things that he’s done and playing with him and to see him have the success he’s had, to be a part of it with him makes it even more special.”