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COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Shock and 'aw, no'

Stanford's Bradford forgot to keep the ball after his winning catch against USC. He's keeping the dream alive by signing with the 49ers.

November 14, 2008|Sam Farmer | Farmer is a Times staff writer.

Mark Bradford had just made the catch of his life, Stanford's do-or-die touchdown that last season beat 41-point favorite USC. Then, came a mistake that even now, a year later, makes Bradford cringe.

He committed a turnover -- the kind that doesn't show up in the stats.

"I gave the ball to the ref," he said. "I asked myself later: Why didn't I keep it? After the game, I knew it was lost, man. I'd never see it again."

As long as YouTube is around, Bradford will always have something to show his grandkids. He's in the NFL now -- he was signed to the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad this week -- but that shining moment in the corner of the Coliseum end zone still occupies the top spot in his list of athletic accomplishments.

Stanford sealed the stunning 24-23 victory with Tavita Pritchard's touchdown pass to Bradford on fourth and goal from USC's 10-yard line with 49 seconds to play. Bradford, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Fremont High, made a leaping grab over cornerback Mozique McCurtis. The Stanford star showed the jumping ability he displayed as a Cardinal basketball player early in his college career.

That touchdown hushed the crowd of 85,125, which hadn't witnessed a USC home loss in six years.

The Trojans held the top ranking in the college football coaches' poll at the time, and were No. 2 in the Associated Press media poll. Stanford was 1-3 and had been outscored, 141-51, in three Pacific-10 Conference losses.

"Everyone tells you you have no chance," Bradford said. "You always think you have a chance to win a game. To prove everybody wrong is just an amazing feeling."

Making the catch even more emotional for Bradford, it came less than two weeks after the death of his father.

"In my head all I heard was my dad's voice," he said after the game. "He always told me that if I wanted to be a wide receiver, I had to hold onto the ball."

A year later, Bradford isn't letting go of his dream. Because he ran a relatively slow 4.7-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, he slipped through the cracks on draft weekend and wasn't selected. However, just as soon as the draft ended at least six teams were jockeying to sign him as a free agent: New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, Arizona, Seattle and Dallas.

Bradford signed with the Cowboys and stayed with them through training camp. He was among the last players cut before the start of the regular season. Instead of keeping Bradford, Dallas opted for rookie receiver Danny Amendola of Texas Tech, whose story also happened to be one of the focal points of this season's "Hard Knocks" documentary.

"Mark outperformed all of the receivers there," agent Jerome Stanley said. "But we ran into a hometown hero and an HBO show. They weren't going to keep [Bradford]."

So, for the first 10 weeks of this NFL season, Bradford kept in top condition and waited for interested teams to call. Each week, Stanley scoured the injury report and waiver wire looking for the right opportunity. Seattle and Miami showed interest, as did Green Bay, which brought him in Monday for a workout.

Then came the call from the 49ers, a team Bradford watched closely throughout his college career. He was added to their practice squad and donned the San Francisco jersey Wednesday for the first time.

"Sometimes, you just need a break," Stanley said. "He can play and be very productive in the NFL. There's no doubt in my mind about that. He's too good not to get a chance to make it."

This weekend, at least for a few hours, he'll head back to college. He plans to be on the Stanford sideline Saturday to watch as a spectator, soaking in the sights and sounds -- even when the Trojans' Marching Band plays "Tribute to Troy."

"I actually kind of like that song now," he said. "They play it all day and you kind of get sick of it. But once we got that victory, I don't mind it at all."

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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