NORMAN, Okla. - Sam Bradford was the kind of kid everyone knew and nobody noticed.
He played every sport, and played most well, but Oklahoma already had its quarterback of the future in Rhett Bomar, and Bradford just didn't have the credentials.
Bomar was considered the nation's best coming out of high school and a surefire NFL prospect to boot. Bradford was the local kid, not even considered the best in his own state.
A three-star recruit, a middle-of-the-pack guy - that was Bradford. A Heisman Trophy candidate? No way.
But come Saturday night, there he'll be, on a stage in New York with some of college football's other top players as the sport's top individual honor is handed out. He's likely to be joined by conference rivals Colt McCoy of Texas and Graham Harrell of Texas Tech, along with Florida's Tim Tebow - last year's winner.
No longer underrated, Bradford earned his spot by shattering every school passing record and leading the most prolific offense college football has ever seen. In winning an unprecedented third straight Big 12 championship and earning a shot at the national title against top-ranked Florida, Bradford's Sooners broke the NCAA season scoring record and topped 60 points for the fifth straight game - the first time that's happened in major college football since 1919.
In the process, he has made Bomar an afterthought, a bad memory from the lowest stretch in coach Bob Stoops' tenure.
Not bad for a kid who never truly devoted himself to football until he got to college.
'Back then, I was just happy that I had the opportunity to come here and play,' said Bradford, whose father, Kent, lettered for the Sooners in 1977 and 1978. 'And now that I have this opportunity, I'm just trying to make the most of it.'
Bradford leads the nation with 48 touchdown passes and a 186.3 quarterback rating, throwing for 4,464 yards with only six interceptions in 442 attempts. He hasn't thrown a pick in the last four games - including wins against then-No. 2 Texas Tech, then-No. 11 Oklahoma State and then-No. 20 Missouri.
Coach Bob Stoops called him the best of his quarterbacks - a lot that includes 2003 Heisman winner Jason White and 2000 runner-up Josh Heupel.
'What this guy has done for two straight years now, I don't know how to explain it. The guy is just uncanny how accurate he is, how consistent he is,' Stoops said.
'It's just amazing, but he has that kind of ability. He has that little extra size than the other guys that we've had, he's got pocket presence, he's a better athlete as people see the more he moves out of the pocket than he ever gets credit for, and he's got that touch and precision to put the ball in different places different ways.'
Heupel, who won the Sooners' last national title in that 2000 season and is now the team's quarterbacks coach, calls Bradford 'the total package.' At least some NFL draft gurus agree: He's been projected as next year's No. 1 overall pick, if he decides to leave college after his redshirt sophomore season.
'He's got size, he's got plenty of arm strength, he's extremely smart. He's got all the tools that you need to be successful at this level and the next level,' said Heupel, who has seen his school records for passing yards in a game and a season fall to Bradford this year.
'He's very driven. He's very focused. He knows what he is as a player and as a person, and I think that's extremely important.'
But Heupel also remembers when Bradford showed up that first summer with an undeveloped 6-foot-4 frame and plenty to learn.
'He was a guy that probably sat back a little bit more and didn't want to go out there and make a bunch of mistakes,' Heupel recalls. 'He wanted to learn from sitting back. But he had the tools to become a good player.'
Bradford was all ears, even when Heupel was working with the other quarterbacks, and he was a quick study. He'd learn the first time Heupel told him something, and he had plenty of athleticism from all the sports he'd played growing up - including basketball, hockey and golf.
'I think I really enjoyed playing multiple sports in high school, but once I got here and finally focused on one sport, it really helped me progress probably quicker than I had in previous years,' said Bradford, who also carries a 3.95 grade-point average in pursuit of a degree in finance.
The first year, Bradford redshirted behind Paul Thompson - who had to move from receiver back to quarterback after Bomar got dismissed for breaking NCAA rules by getting overpaid for work he did at a Norman car dealership.
Then last year, he emerged from a three-man competition to win the starting job and showed what he could do in his second game. Bradford threw for 295 yards and tied the school record with five touchdown passes in a 51-13 rout of Miami, and he's only continued to get better from there.
He led the nation in quarterback rating last year, and came back this year with a stronger arm and a better ability to keep plays alive and create on the fly. He completes 68 percent of his passes, but Heupel still finds him in the film room each Monday, scouring for tiny details that can make him even better.
'People that are perfectionists by nature, I think sometimes that can maybe hold them back. They're not able to cut it loose when it isn't going perfect. That's never been the case with Sam,' Heupel said.
'The other thing is that he's very competitive. There's not a more competitive person out there, whether you're playing basketball, hockey, ping pong. Whatever it is, he wants to win.'
Bradford couples that with the ability to read five receivers in no time and the demeanor of a leader that gets stronger with each big play - none more memorable than his whirling flip on a headlong dive toward the pylon against Oklahoma State, when he'd already torn a ligament in his left hand.
'He's a great competitor, and you love it because the players see it. That's what makes him such a good leader because the players recognize it,' Stoops said.