OU quarterback a role model for Native Americans
Published: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 11:14 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 11:14 a.m.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith likes to sport his "OU" hat with the letters written in the tribe's alphabet.
These days, the longtime Sooners fan is even more proud.
Word that Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford has a Cherokee ancestor has given the tribe a special reason to pull for OU while turning the redshirt sophomore into a role model.
"What's great about his leadership style is he's humble and sincere and he's genuine," Smith said. "At the Heisman thing, somebody asked him about being a Cherokee, and he said, 'Well, it's a great blessing.' That's a masterful way (of handling it). ... It came from his heart."
Larry Grigg is the athletic director at Sequoyah High School, a boarding school for American Indians run by the Cherokee Nation in the heart of what is known in Oklahoma as "Indian Country" — where many of the state's 38 federally recognized tribes are based. He's watched as Bradford's local fan base has grown.
"They're looking for a hero, and he is," Grigg said.
Bradford's father, Kent — a former Oklahoma offensive lineman — had a great-grandmother, Susie Walkingstick, who was a full-blood Cherokee, making Sam Bradford of one-sixteenth Cherokee descent.
Bradford certainly knew of that heritage, but it wasn't a major part of his life while growing up in northwest Oklahoma City, about 170 miles from the Cherokees' tribal headquarters in Tahlequah.
Oklahoma athletic department officials began publicizing Bradford's Cherokee ties when he became the Sooners' starting quarterback in 2007. This season, the questions about his heritage became more frequent for Bradford.
After a win on Oct. 4 at Baylor, the quarterback was seemingly surprised when asked how proud he was of his Cherokee heritage, answering, "Uh, very."
He's since become more comfortable talking about it.
"At first it was a little overwhelming to have so many people talk about that and want to talk about it," Bradford said. "But I feel I have learned a little bit more about my heritage and I hope to learn more about it in the offseason, when I have more time to actually sit down and talk to some people about it."
The Cherokees take particular pride in their history, which includes an alphabet developed by the famed leader Sequoyah in the early 19th century. Signs around Tahlequah have both English and Cherokee markings and the local university, Northeastern State, has developed a Cherokee Education degree program. The new gymnasium at Sequoyah High School features Cherokee-language markings on the court.
That Bradford has chosen to embrace, rather than ignore, his Cherokee background is encouraging, Smith said.
"That's one of the reasons he resonates so well in Indian Country," Smith said. "He's not there to capitalize on it or cash in on it. It's something that's obviously very meaningful to him and our folks understand that."
Bradford's demeanor even has won over Sequoyah junior Jarrett Travis, who describes himself as a fan of the Sooners' archrival, Texas.
"I like watching anybody good, but he stuck out to me," said Travis, who added that "it's pretty cool" that he and Bradford share a common Cherokee heritage.
Bradford isn't the only American Indian playing major-college sports. Nathan Stanley, a Sequoyah graduate, is a freshman quarterback at Mississippi, and his former classmate, Angel Goodrich, is a freshman point guard at Kansas.
But the list of star American Indian athletes is short. Perhaps the greatest of all, Jim Thorpe, was, like Bradford, born in Oklahoma, but his exploits were nearly a century ago. It has been more than 44 years since Billy Mills, a Sioux, won a gold medal in the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Olympics.
Smith said American Indians latch onto positive athletic role models like Bradford more than those athletes might imagine.
"I'd give you odds that 99 percent of the Indians in this country know who Sam Bradford is, from California to Maine," Smith said.
Before Bradford, perhaps the most prominent American Indian to play quarterback for a major-college program was Sonny Sixkiller, a Cherokee who starred for Washington from 1970 to 1972.
Like Bradford, Sixkiller — who was born in Tahlequah but spent most of his childhood in Oregon — didn't grow up around the Cherokee culture, but was thrust into the national spotlight because of his heritage.
Growing up, "I didn't have anybody to look up to as a role model from the Native community in athletics," said Sixkiller, who is now an associate general manager for ISP, the University of Washington's sports licensing properties division.
As word of his exploits spread, Sixkiller became that role model, something he said he didn't comprehend at first.
"I didn't understand the impact I would have because of the way I was brought up," he said. "You never thought of yourself as Cherokee, you just thought you were like everyone else."
The reaction of others "made you aware instantly of the impact you could have on young people in the Native American community."
Bradford has handled the attention surrounding his Cherokee heritage remarkably well, said Brent Scott, a Cherokee who started at quarterback for both Oklahoma State and Louisiana-Monroe in the early 1990s.
"A lot of people don't know how to handle it because it hasn't been a part of their life," said Scott, who is now the football coach at Sequoyah. "But he has embraced it and pursued it and asked questions."
Scott said he's heard more talk about Oklahoma football than usual this season from his students as they followed Bradford's progress. The sophomore has passed for 4,464 yards and 48 touchdowns for No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1), which will play No. 1 Florida (12-1) Thursday in the BCS championship game in Miami.
Smith said he's been in touch with Bradford's family and that he'd love for him to someday visit Tahlequah.
"I think he's beginning to understand more and more the great platform and the great opportunity he has," Smith said.
"It's a very simple message, but it's a very powerful message: If I can do it, you can do it."
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