Bradford’s return may prove to be costly decision

Seven months ago, I stood next to Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford and saw a young man on top of the world.

With a Heisman Trophy nestled under his arm, a mass of reporters circled around him and a date set with Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators for the 2008 BCS Championship up ahead, it was one of those “Could it get any better than this?” moments.

Bradford was in New York City for the Heisman ceremony that evening but really was in another universe altogether. On that frigid December evening, the Oklahoma sophomore was in rarified air.

Fast forward just a few months later, and the image of Bradford — pacing the sidelines in a grey tee shirt, with the very same arm that was holding the Heisman in December, now wrapped in a sling — helplessly watching from the outskirts during No. 3 Oklahoma’s upset loss to No. 20 BYU, and well, it was the furthest thing from a young man sitting on top of the world.

That image — even more than the ghastly Oklahoma product on the field — was the hardest thing to stomach on Saturday night.

The injury to Bradford’s throwing shoulder, suffered late in the second quarter of the 14-13 loss, was being described as a strained AC joint on Sunday. Though early reports have the Heisman gunslinger’s recovery time listed at 2-4 weeks, who really knows? Any injury to a throwing shoulder is a giant question mark. And one suffered during the season?

It’s not as simple as stamping a timeframe down and expecting all to be well when that return date suddenly arrives on the calendar.

Former Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter, now playing for the Indianapolis Colts, suffered a similar injury last season and was never quite the same upon his return to the lineup. In and out as first a reserve and then a starter, Painter did not put up the same prolific numbers as he did in previous seasons. Purdue wasn’t nearly as successful, either.

The Sooners will be fine with what they’ve got under center in upcoming games vs. Idaho State, Tulsa and Miami. But it’s the Big 12 schedule — nothing short of a gauntlet in ’09 — that causes reason for concern. The offensive line looked horrendous on Saturday night, committing false start and holding penalties by the bushel. Key offensive playmakers couldn’t hold onto the ball, as fumbles seemed to plague the Sooners every time they were in business. And the defense? BYU quarterback Max Hall threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns.

As for Bradford — I don’t care if you’re the biggest Texas Longhorns fan in the land — you’ve got to feel for the kid.

His decision to return to OU, despite being considered a near lock to be the first selection of last April’s NFL Draft, was lauded by sports fans and media members alike. Bradford came back with a purpose. Unwavering, he told reporters in a press conference on Jan. 15, “I’ve dreamed about playing at Oklahoma since I was little, and my three years here have been probably three of the best years of my life, and I really feel that there’s no need to cut this experience short.”

“I’m really looking forward to coming back and competing for a fourth straight Big 12 championship and another opportunity at a national championship.”

Bradford’s resolve and decision to come back was all we love about college athletics. In a world where high school kids circumvent NCAA and NBA rules and spend their teenage years serving as anonymous cogs on European basketball teams, Bradford turned down millions to do what he loved most — play college football.

And yet, here we are — the second week of September and any realistic dreams of a national championship or a second Heisman Trophy are all but squandered. Texas has to be considered the Big 12 favorites now as well.

And it all happened before halftime of the season’s very first game? It almost seems unfair.

Perhaps even more captivating here is what’s currently going on in Detroit and New York. First-year quarterbacks Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez, the respective first and fifth selections of April’s draft, are preparing for their first games as NFL quarterbacks this weekend. Whereas Bradford’s 2009 dreams and goals have all but been destroyed by Labor Day, Stafford and Sanchez — neither of whom were the accomplished or lauded college quarterbacks Bradford was in ’08 — are the princes of two of the country’s biggest sports cities. They’re also both multi-millionaires. Stafford signed a six-year deal worth $78 million, an NFL record $41.7 million of that guaranteed. Sanchez, playing in the country’s largest city, inked a deal worth close to $45 million, $28 million of which was guaranteed.

Bradford’s not the first quarterback to return to college despite the promise of big money, big endorsement deals and an immediate big NFL future. Peyton Manning was the most decorated college quarterback of the decade, yet returned to Tennessee for his senior year in ’97, instead of heading to New York to play for the Jets. Several years later, USC quarterback Matt Leinart shocked the world by returning to school, leaving Alex Smith of Utah as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft. In January, both Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow — the runner-up and second runner-up to Bradford in the ’08 Heisman race — opted to return to their respective schools as well.

At the very least, Bradford’s situation is unfortunate. It’s crummy. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be like this. When a kid does what’s right and comes back to school, you want to see him rewarded. You want to look around to the naysayers and say, “See, I told you so.”

But it doesn’t always end up that way. And in the case of Leinart — who neither won the national title the following season or was the top pick of the next year’s draft — it ended up quite differently. In hindsight, perhaps the USC cover boy would have been better off entering the ’05 Draft. Now buried on the Arizona Cardinals’ bench, you’ve got to assume the thought at least has crossed his mind.

Now, rest assured, Bradford took out an insurance policy after he decided to pass up the chance to enter the NFL. And in truth, the money and the chance to play at the next level will be there. He’ll recover from this injury, and he’ll throw plenty of touchdown passes upon his return. I have no doubts.

But that national title? The one that would be Oklahoma’s first since 2000? The one he came back to college for?

Well, those dreams and visions now rest in that very sling wrapped around his golden arm. So, for that matter, are those back-to-back Heisman thoughts. And in all likelihood — the luxury of being the top pick in next year’s draft.

You’ve got to feel for Sam Bradford. On top of the world in December, on just about every conceivable magazine cover over the summer and leading his team on to the field around 7 p.m. ET on Saturday for the first nationally televised game since he valiantly led his Sooners vs. Florida in January — he’s now on the sidelines watching. Waiting. Wondering.

Whether he tunes in to Stafford and Sanchez’s respective NFL debuts on Sunday or not, Bradford’s time at the next level will come eventually. But you can’t help but question — seeing Stafford and Sanchez among the top 10 in NFL jerseys sold since April, and Tebow and McCoy and their respective 1-0 records after Saturday — if he ever prepared himself — in a million years — to be in the position he is now, just one week into what was supposed to be a dream season.

You want it to all work out. You want college football to have one of those quirky seasons where somehow, Oklahoma finds itself in the BCS Championship Game in January, with Bradford — fully recovered — at the helm. But that likely won’t be the case.

At the very least, Sam Bradford will be a stronger man — and perhaps the better player and leader — because of Saturday’s injury.

But man, you just hate seeing it go down like that.

Quick hits

The Big Ten still stinks.

I don’t care about the fact the conference only lost one game this weekend (an embarrassingly bad Illinois defeat to a rebuilding and bare cupboard Mizzou team). Ohio State looked flat in the second half of a near all-time upset home vs. Navy, Minnesota should be able to handle Syracuse in regulation, and Iowa shouldn’t need blocked field goals and crazy good fortune to get by Northern Iowa. Add in Eastern Kentucky having a chance to knock off Indiana in the final minutes and Wisconsin only topping Northern Illinois by 8 points — and it was anything but a good weekend for the conference.

Michigan and Penn State looked solid and Purdue, Northwestern, and Michigan State took care of overmatched opponents.

We’ll see where the conference stands on Saturday. If USC really comes into the Horseshoe with a freshman quarterback and nine new defensive starters and knocks off Ohio State, I’ll be stunned. If Notre Dame really blows out Michigan — again — I’ll be disappointed.

C’mon, Big Ten. College football needs you. Pick it up, will ya?

What the hell do summer practices in Virginia look like?

For the second straight year, the Virginia Cavaliers started the season off with an ugly loss. For as bad as 2008’s 52-7 loss at home to USC was, Saturday’s 26-14 defeat at the hand of William & Mary was worse. Like, 10 times worse.

The defeat was Virginia’s first to a Football Championship Subdivision school since 1986, when it lost 41-37 to the Tribe.

William & Mary, meanwhile, hadn’t beaten a I-A school since 1998, when they beat lowly Temple.

The Cavaliers followed up last year’s USC drubbing by barely getting by Richmond, and then getting blown out by UConn and Duke to the tune of a combined 76-13 score.

Clearly, September isn’t this program’s month.

Next week? The Cavaliers get No. 17 TCU.

October, as apparently always is the case in Charlottesville, couldn’t come soon enough.

Lane “Kid Smirk” Kiffin looked pretty good on the sidelines Saturday.

So did his quarterback Jonathan Crompton. Long considered a disappointment in Vols country, Crompton threw five touchdowns in Tennessee’s 63-7 walloping of Western Kentucky. Crompton’s five TD passes were one more than he threw all last season. Kid Smirk and his young gunslinger! Gators, watch out.

Then again, it was Western Kentucky.

Sam Bradford wasn’t the only player to suffer a heartbreaking injury on Saturday evening.

Georgia left tackle Trinton Sturdivant will miss the entire 2009 season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the Bulldogs’ 24-10 loss to Oklahoma State.

It’s the same knee Sturdivant injured in a preseason scrimmage last year, forcing him to miss the entire 2008 season.

Sturdivant started all 13 games as a freshman in 2007.

“Mentally would be the only thing that would keep him from coming back to a full recovery,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said on Sunday. “If he rehabs the same way he did a year ago, he’ll be able to come back again.”

Let’s hope he does.

Cal’s Jahvid Best got his revenge on Maryland.

When Cal played Maryland in 2008, Best ran the ball ten times for 25 yards and was hit so hard on a pass reception by Maryland defender Kevin Barns that ESPN cameras caught him on his hands and knees vomiting on the field afterwards.

On Saturday, Best ran the ball 10 times against Maryland, again.

This time, it was for 130 yards and two touchdowns. And, thankfully for all of us, there was no vomiting.

Cal took care of business 52-13.

The Golden Bears are good, folks.

Very good.