Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer didn't know much about Sam Bradford's pre-NFL background when the quarterback arrived in Minnesota last year. And with less than a week before the start of the season, there wasn't much time for small talk.
But Bradford impressed Zimmer from the moment he stepped into the Vikings huddle, and the more Zimmer watched him play, the more he recognized a unique and well-balanced skill set.
The beginning of Bradford's career in Purple was a whirlwind, with the Vikings acquiring him eight days before the 2016 season opener. But when the dust began to settle several weeks in, Zimmer sat down across from the play caller and asked him a question: "Did you play basketball?"
Call it a coach's intuition.
Bradford's background confirms Zimmer's hunch.
As a senior at Putnam City North High School, Bradford averaged 18.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. He also garnered plenty of attention playing small forward on an AAU basketball team in Oklahoma City – there, he stood out alongside former NFL cornerback Dominique Franks and current NBA players Blake Griffin and Ekpe Udoh.
"It's crazy," Bradford said. "That team I played on that summer – I mean, there were a couple of us from Oklahoma City or Tulsa that made it to the highest level of our sports. Which, when you're growing up, that's every kid's dream."
Bradford's dream at the time, however, looked a little different.
Oklahoma wasn't yet home to a professional team – the Thunder were established in 2008 – and Bradford envisioned neither the NBA nor the NFL. Rather, he wanted nothing more than to suit up in Sooners Crimson and Cream.
"[Having] season tickets growing up, being able to go down there and watch those games on Saturdays, I knew that if I ever had the opportunity, I wanted to be able to run out of that tunnel and play for the Oklahoma Sooners," Bradford said. "There's nothing more that I wanted than to be able to do that. I was able to make that a reality … and it's just something that really was kind of a dream come true for me."
Bradford couldn't think of someone that he'd rather play for than former Sooners Head Coach Bob Stoops, who identified the quarterback as an extremely special player.
"He was a great student, great leader, worked hard," Stoops said. "He had all the attributes that you want in one of your leaders."
Bradford dialed in his focus on football and led the nation in passing efficiency as a redshirt freshman when he passed for 3,121 yards and 36 touchdowns. In 2008, the Sooners were the highest-scoring offense in NCAA history, fueled by 4,464 passing yards and 48 touchdown tosses by the Heisman Trophy winner.
Stoops, who retired following the 2016 season, said that the same football IQ, toughness and athleticism recognized by Zimmer were present early on at the college level.
"Well, he's really accurate, number one. And he knows where to go with the ball the majority of times," Zimmer said. "I think he just has a good feel for … maybe the word is throwing the guys open. Leading them to the right spot. He knows he's going to get hit, but he's going to stand in there and take it. He's a tough guy.
"I think he's impressed all of the players in our locker room by the things that he does and the way that he works," Zimmer added. "I think he's a tough guy, and he's committed to being a good player."* *
Stoops said he's "always known" how dedicated and bright Bradford is, whether on the field or in the team meeting room.
"He just really picks up things quickly," Stoops said. "And then I've always known of his toughness. The guy has stood in there and fought through a lot … but still stays in there and delivers the football and competes to win.
"He's serious about his work and about competing," Stoops added. "Just his overall attitude demonstrates that this is important to him, and other people follow it."
Bradford's football dreams continued when he was drafted No. 1 overall by the St. Louis Rams in 2010.
Bradford's AAU coach, Gary Vick, has seen a number of his players go on to play in the pros. While Vick believes Bradford could have gone on to play Division I basketball, he's quick to tell you he's not a bit surprised that Bradford is entering his eighth season in the NFL.
Vick defined Bradford as an incredibly coachable and well-rounded young athlete.
"He could do a lot of different things. And football players, in my experience, have always had a little different mentality on the basketball court," Vick said. "When you're a quarterback, you're going to get hit a lot. So to go up for a layup and get hit … that probably didn't bother him as much. You just take it with a grain of salt and keep playing.
"The rough stuff didn't bother him," Vick added.
Reflecting on his journey to the NFL, Bradford credits his background as a multisport athlete.
His grandfather taught him to play golf at just 5 years old, and Bradford is as accurate when aiming at greens as he is on the gridiron.
"When you're younger, I think you should be able to play everything," Bradford said. "If you're able to play multiple sports and able to develop multiple skills and train your body in different ways, there does come a point in your life where you have to decide, 'What sport do I want to play?'
"I think when it comes to that time and you make that decision, having played other sports, you'll be better off for it," he added.
Multitalented in Minnesota
Vikings quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski has worked with multiple position groups over his 11-plus seasons in Minnesota. After serving as assistant quarterbacks coach from 2009-13, he coached the Vikings tight ends from 2014-15 and then running backs in 2016. This year, Stefanski has moved back to quarterbacks and appreciates the opportunity to work with Bradford.
Stefanski – whose father has been a longtime executive in the NBA – also appreciates coaching players who bring a broad skill set to the table.
"At quarterback, I think you're really looking for an athlete in all sports," Stefanski said. "Some of the best quarterbacks, they can pick up a club and go play 18 holes and shoot par, or they can go out [and throw] darts and are great at that. There's just something with the hand-eye coordination, certainly, that [corresponds] with the quarterback position."
Bradford in 2016 completed 395 of 552 passes (71.6 percent), setting an NFL record for single-season completion percentage, and passed for a career-high 3,877 yards. He threw 20 passing touchdowns and only five interceptions. All came in the wake of no offseason with his teammates and playing behind an ever-changing offensive line ravaged by injuries.
Stefanski said Bradford's even-keel personality is "very important" for a passer to possess and helped him to succeed and earn the trust of his teammates.
"Your teammates … they want to see how you handle adversity, see how you react to the good times," Stefanski said. "So Sam, you'll see in his personality, his sideline demeanor – I think it's on purpose, and I think it's part of who he is. It really helps him create this leadership aura about him that I think his teammates respond to."
Bradford is entering his second season in Minnesota's huddle but fourth under Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur, who coached Bradford during his 2010 rookie season in St. Louis and again with the Eagles in 2015.
Shurmur emphasized the value of Bradford's well-balanced makeup, saying that Bradford has "all the components" of a successful NFL quarterback.
"He's an outstanding leader, he's a tremendous decision-maker … and he's actually more aggressive on the field than he gets credit for," Shurmur said last year. "He's an extremely accurate passer – short, intermediate and long – and accuracy really goes into two boxes: there's the ball placement and then the touch. And I think he has both of those."
It's been more than 10 years since Vick coached Bradford, but when he watches him take the field in Purple, Vick recognizes the same character and talent that he spotted on the basketball court.
"He was a hard-working guy," Vick said from his office in Oklahoma. "Hard-working guys, they kind of set themselves a little bit above. It's not an accident that [Sam is where he's at].
"I don't remember Sam ever raising his voice or doing any of those things," Vick added. "He was kind of quiet, but boy, he was a competitor."