By Holly McCray
United Methodist News Service
NORMAN, Okla. — The story of David and Goliath is Sam Bradford’s favorite from the Bible.
Like David, he faces big challenges and super-sized expectations – especially on the football field as the quarterback for the University of Oklahoma. And like David, he is confident that God goes with him into battle.
“I think it’s a great story. It’s grown to become a big part of my life,” the Heisman Trophy-winning athlete told an audience at the United Methodist Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City, where he is a member. “With God, you’re so much stronger than you could ever be by yourself. Any time I step on the field, I know I’m not alone. He’s got my back.”
He was not always so sure.
From star to benchwarmer
Success in sports came early to Bradford, who was a three-sport star at Putnam City North High School in Oklahoma City.
Where his spiritual development took off was in confirmation classes, he said in a campus interview at the University of Oklahoma. “I spent a lot of time in the Word. I probably learned more about God in that eight-week period than I did in the first 12 years of my life,” Bradford said.
Confirmation included a weekend retreat, where high school students were among the leaders. “You have older kids there, working, setting an example, talking about living in the Word; that’s something I decided I wanted to do,” he said.
His family frequently traveled on weekends because he played junior sports extensively. “But when they were in town, they were at church,” said the Rev. Norman Neaves, retired pastor at Church of the Servant.
Bradford’s athletic prowess led him to become a top recruit for the Sooners, a perennial college football power. His first months at college were challenging for him as a Christian.
“I was just out of my comfort zone, away from my church, and out of my routine as far as spending time with the Lord,” Bradford said.
The transition to big-time college sports placed Bradford in another unfamiliar position – sitting on the bench. “I was waking up at 5 every morning and working out, but not really playing,” he recalled. “I thought I had made the wrong decision. I thought he (God) had led me to make this decision and felt he almost forgot about me. For a while, I kind of turned my back on him. I really struggled to get in the Word and spend time with him.”
Finding time for faith
Study requirements initially thwarted his participation in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But a fellowship leader persisted, encouraging Bradford to make time for the group. In his second semester, Bradford did.
“Seems like spending an hour a week listening to other athletes and speakers share about the Lord really got me back on the right track,” he said.
His football career also took off. Last year, Bradford led the nation with 50 touchdown passes and in pass efficiency. He ranked third with 4,720 passing yards. His 86 touchdown passes is an NCAA record for players after two seasons.
At age 21, the college junior and Heisman Trophy winner is a national sports celebrity — and an honor student.
To keep his life as a celebrity in proper perspective, Bradford said he tries to follow “the golden rule” – “Treat people the way I’d like to be treated” – and to spend time with Christian role models such as teammate Gerald McCoy. The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year “is definitely very open about his faith, and he does a great job,” Bradford said.
“Surround yourself with good people, who strive to do the right thing. That helps any battle you are fighting,” the quarterback said. “If you surround yourself with bad people, it doesn’t matter how strong you are, eventually you’ll slip or let them pressure you into something you don’t want to do. That could haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Giving God thanks
During his preseason appearance at Church of the Servant, Bradford was joined by Oklahoma State University quarterback Zac Robinson.
“They made Jesus Christ their priority tonight, and I think that says something about them,” said the Rev. Robert Gorrell, the current pastor. “There is a time to be united as Christians.”
Even on one of the top-ranked teams in the country, Bradford said he has his priorities straight. He starts every prayer by thanking God “for all the opportunities, all the blessings that He’s put in my life.”