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But it was also Kent who spoke with Dr. James Andrews on Sept. 6, the morning after last year's Oklahoma-BYU opener. Sam had sustained a third-degree sprain of his AC joint in the second quarter of that game, the first sign that his junior year would not follow the form he had hoped it would. Says Kent, down home, matter-of-fact, "Everything doesn't always go as planned."
Sam had won the Heisman Trophy in 2008, only the second sophomore, after Tim Tebow the previous year, to do so, but in the BCS title game, a showdown with Tebow's Florida Gators, the Sooners lost 24--14. So Bradford had chosen to forgo the NFL draft and return to Oklahoma in 2009 in search of a national championship.
After the BYU game, Sam and Kent traveled to Birmingham, where they discussed treatment options with Andrews over dinner at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse. Bradford could have the shoulder operated on, ending his junior season and maybe his college career, or he could rehab the injury and play. He decided on the latter and missed only three games, returning on Oct. 10 to pass for 389 yards in a blowout win over Baylor. Then it all went bad.
The next week, in the first quarter of the Red River Shootout against Texas, Bradford faked a handoff, turned to throw and was met by Longhorns defensive back Aaron Williams, who forced the quarterback to the ground. Bradford fell hard on his right shoulder. He rolled onto his back, stood up and fell again, this time to his knees. In what would be Bradford's final play as a collegian, he sustained a grade-three shoulder separation.
His college career now clearly at an end, Bradford underwent surgery and embarked on a nine-week rehabilitation program at the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Gulf Breeze, Fla., the longest stretch he'd spent away from home. Living alone, Bradford sent text messages back to his family and friends by the dozen, and wondered if his arm would ever be the same.
On most days he would arrive at the facility shortly after 8 a.m. to begin a workout program with Andrews, his trainers and the quarterback guru Terry Shea. "We had four weeks to ourselves, just working with his lower body, all the fundamentals of a drop-back passer without worrying about throwing it," Shea says. "I related the story to Sam about Bill Walsh bringing in Joe Montana from Notre Dame. Joe told me that for three days in a row, two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon, all they worked on were drops, and he didn't have a football in his hands. That legacy was passed on to Sam Bradford."
Bradford says the focus on footwork served two purposes. Josh Heupel, his quarterbacks coach at Oklahoma, had always stressed that poor footwork led to poor throws. That lesson would be doubly important following surgery. "If I'd just tried to throw without working on my feet, I probably could have put some more pressure on my shoulder," Bradford says. "It would have turned into more of an arm throw instead of getting my lower body into it."
Even as he got stronger and tightened his footwork, Bradford was thinking about his shoulder. He'd exchanged text messages and phone calls with the Saints' Drew Brees and the 49ers' Alex Smith—two quarterbacks who'd undergone similar procedures with Andrews—but Bradford couldn't know if he'd heal with the same success. As he put on weight (about 13 pounds of muscle), he still wondered what the 10- and 12-hour days would lead to. "The whole time you're doing rehab, you're just thinking, I hope this pays off," Bradford, 22, says.
At last, after three months, it was time to throw. Bradford gripped a ball, brought his arm back and tossed a pass 10 yards, not an inch longer. Little by little his range and workload increased, with Shea wary of pushing too hard and Bradford wondering when the strength would return. At the February combine the quarterback met with NFL teams for his rounds of interviews but was not ready to showcase his arm. Soon after that, however, Andrews finally told Shea to cut Bradford loose.
In the weeks that followed, Bradford started winging it, 80 passes, 90 passes, some days more than 100. "He was like a thoroughbred," Shea says. "The more he lathers up, the stronger he appears to get. You can just tell he has a real knack for throwing a catchable ball. Sam's ball just melts in your hands."