There have been Heisman seasons so impressive, so monumental, as to be almost incomprehensible to the average football observer. One example of that phenomenon is Barry Sanders’ 1988 season, in which he rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns. Another came in 1990 when Ty Detmer put up 5,022 yards of total offense. Yet another amazing season happened in 2008.
In 2008, Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford turned in one of the finest-ever performances by a college quarterback. The redshirt sophomore from Oklahoma City accumulated a Heisman-record 53 touchdowns that year—a mark since equaled in 2014 by Marcus Mariota—with a record 48 of them coming by way of his arm. He also passed for 4,464 yards and threw just just 6 interceptions in 442 attempts. His passer efficiency rating of 186.28 was the best in Heisman history at the time.
It didn’t hurt that Bradford also played for one of the most explosive offenses in college football history. The 2008 Sooners averaged 51 points per contest and capped off their regular season by scoring over 60 points in each of the last five games. The Sooner offense featured two 1,000-yard running backs and a truck load of NFL talent. But it was Bradford who was the key to the attack; he was the straw that stirred the drink.
Looking back 10 years later, Bradford’s monster season turned out to be another landmark in the evolution of the quarterback position. While in 2007, Tim Tebow showed how to dominate by combining power running via the read option with a highly efficient aerial game, Bradford did so in 2008 by displaying an unparalleled mastery of the spread passing concepts just then coming into vogue. The intersection of his natural physical gifts—size, athleticism, arm strength and accuracy—plus the innovative offensive system to which they were wed, produced superlative results.
Bradford was born in Oklahoma City, where he attended Putnam City North High. The 6-foot-4, 218-pounder was an excellent all-around athlete, starring in football, basketball, baseball and golf. He was also an accomplished cellist with a 4.2 grade point average. As a senior, he was named to the 2005 all-state team after throwing for 2,029 yards and 17 touchdowns. Despite his athletic gifts and accolades, Sam was not highly recruited on a national level; even the Oklahoma coaches weren’t too high on his prospects at first: “Sam was brought in because we needed quarterback depth,” Chuck Long, Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator at the time, told the New York Times.
That opinion didn’t take long to change. Sam sat out his first year in Norman, redshirting while he learned the Oklahoma offense. He won the starting quarterback job in 2007 and was an immediate virtuoso, completing 21 of 23 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns in a little over two quarters in his debut against North Texas. He finished the 2007 season with 3,121 passing yards and 36 touchdowns, an NCAA freshman record, and led the nation in passing efficiency.
Bradford was even better as a redshirt sophomore. Among the highlights: he threw 4 or more touchdown passes eight times during that season. He had a passer efficiency rating of 285.88—the highest in Heisman history—when he threw for 304 yards and 5 touchdowns on just 21 attempts against Washington. He completed 4 touchdown passes on just 19 throws against undefeated Texas Tech. Thanks to Sam, the Sooners went 12–1, won the Big 12 and earned a spot in the BCS national title game.
“He might be the best kid I’ve ever seen on tape,” former college coach June Jones told the Times at the time. “He’s unbelievably accurate. He’s a gamer. When he has to make plays, he makes them, but his accuracy is maybe as good I’ve seen throwing the football.”
Heisman voters were also impressed by Bradford. They selected him as the fifth Sooner to win the trophy, joining Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims and Jason White. The sixth Sooner winner, Baker Mayfield, was just recently added to the list. Bradford narrowly beat out Colt McCoy of Texas and Tim Tebow of Florida, winning four of the six Heisman voting regions (2007 winner Tebow actually had the most first place votes). He was the second-consecutive sophomore—and the first redshirt sophomore—to win the Heisman.
“I was definitely surprised and I think it’s everything I imagined,” Bradford said of his Heisman win. “I think it will take a couple weeks to set in.”
After a loss to Florida in the national title game, Bradford did the unexpected and announced he would return to Oklahoma for his junior season. Could he repeat as the Heisman winner? He seemed to have a legitimate shot, but in his first outing of 2009 against BYU, Sam injured his AC joint and went on to miss several games. He returned later in the year but, after further injury, announced he would forego his senior year and enter the 2010 NFL draft. Bradford was the first overall pick by the Saint Louis Rams and he quickly made his mark in the NFL, garnering Rookie of the Year honors in 2010.