The Quiet Ones
Shaun Alexander’s bodyguard: That’s what I always remember when I think of Chris Samuels. Chris was responsible not just for protecting the quarterback at Alabama, but for opening holes bigger than the Grand Canyon for running back Shaun Alexander as Alabama made their run for their 21st SEC championship. I can remember thinking our season was over when Chris got hurt. Most people would have pinned our hopes and dreams on Shaun Alexander’s cuts through the field, but no…I knew our bread and butter was with Chris. What I didn’t bank on was Chris Samuels so seamlessly transitioning to the role of coach and leader during his recovery. But what comes to mind after I daydream about how incredible he and Shaun were together during that 1999 college football season, is the kind of person Chris is.
Lately there has been speculation that Chris is close to retirement after 10 seasons in the NFL, and with his recent addition to the Washington Redskins Injured Reserve list, it seems all but confirmed. When I first heard about his neck injuries that could cause him permanent damage if he didn’t retire, I wanted to cry. Chris is one of the good guys…The guys that you don’t hear about because the players in the NFL who are the bad guys are much louder. You don’t hear about Chris staying out at a strip club throwing money in the air until the crack of dawn, but you also don’t get to hear what he’s really doing, such as constructing a mixed-income housing development in Selma, AL. It’s only when players like Chris retire that we get to hear the great stories about the person they are instead of the helmeted football player we see 16 weekends a year.
Take this story from Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback for example:
Samuels was drafted by the Redskins third overall in 2000 to be their left tackle for a decade. He almost made it. He’s started 141 of 150 games, playing through painful shoulder, knee, ankle, back and neck injuries. But now, having been advised he risks his long-term health if he continues to play with a neck injury, he’ll sit the rest of the season. Many of his teammates think he’s played his last game.
I followed Samuels in 2000 during the run-up to the draft and through training camp — in part because SI wanted to do a you-are-there story on a top prospect as he prepared to leave the cocoon of college and enter the pressure of playing right away in the NFL, and in part because of the rise in importance of left tackles. Michael Lewis tells the tale of the value of a left tackle superbly in The Blind Side, and I credit him for seeing what the game has become. Tackle has joined quarterback and pass-rusher as the three most important cornerstone positions for NFL teams.
But as I followed Samuels, I saw not only a good player but also a compelling and conscientious person. The day before the draft, at the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Broadway, he twice turned away the housekeeper who wanted to make up the room. “It’s OK,” he said. “I got it.” He’d already made his bed, tidied the room and straightened up the bathroom, hanging the towels neatly on the rack.
In training camp, Bruce Smith and Dana Stubblefield took it upon themselves to school the rook and make his life miserable on and off the field. He took the taunts and the hazing through mini-camps, but determined he wouldn’t take it once the real practices started. It took just one practice for Samuels to fight back, taking Stubblefield on a wide rush and, when Stubblefield popped him in the forehead, Samuels cold-cocked him with a roundhouse right to the neck, just below the helmet. He knew as the cornerstone of the offensive line, he had to be a fighter and defend not only his turf but his peers’. He became one of the go-to guys on the team.
When Sean Taylor died senselessly, Samuels vacillated between outrage, fury and leadership — knowing he had to be there for the grieving, mostly younger guys in his locker room, which he was.
“I’ve been here six seasons,” Chris Cooley told me, “and three of those six seasons we’ve had some significant turmoil. But I never saw guys quit or try less, and part of that is because of Chris. He set such a great example with his work and his play. Part of being a leader is just showing up every day and working hard, and that’s all he’s ever done.
“It’s just so unfortunate that we lose him. He’s been the solid rock of the Redskins for 10 years. Cherished by the community. So respected by everyone in the locker room. He’s the kind of guy who would have made a great Hog. That’s about the greatest thing I could say about him — he would have fit in with those great Redskins of the past.”
If Samuels and Jones are forced to retire, the league will be diminished without them, and without players like them.