View Full Version : 'Dirty' Sample finally at peace

04-28-2005, 04:46 PM
I loved watching Johnny play for the Redskins as I sat close enough to hear him talk trash. /ccboard/images/graemlins/smile.gif

By Dan Daly
Published April 28, 2005

web page (http://washingtontimes.com/sports/20050428-120351-5760r.htm)

You'd have to be a Redskins fan of long standing, almost back to the Griffith Stadium days, to remember Johnny Sample. He was only in Washington for three seasons, from 1963 to '65, holding down the left cornerback spot on teams that lost a lot more games than they won. That's how it was with Johnny -- a few seasons in Baltimore, a few seasons in Pittsburgh, a few seasons here, a few seasons in New York with the Jets. And then there would be a contract dispute or a personality conflict, and he'd pack up his gear and move on.
Hearing of Sample's death Tuesday at the age of 67, it was hard not to think of him as a man born too soon. He'd fit right in today with his trash talking and self-promotion, and he'd absolutely love free agency -- upset as he always was about the players' lack of bargaining power in his era, black players particularly.
"He'd be like Deion Sanders," his old Redskins teammate, Charley Taylor, reminisced yesterday. "I could see Johnny jumping from team to team every year, just like Deion. He'd say, 'Hey, you've gotta pay me or I'm gone.' "
In the '50s and '60s, the NFL wasn't ready for a player like Johnny. It wasn't ready for a player who would tell Giants golden boy Frank Gifford before a snap, "You're too pretty to play football, Gifford. I'm gonna mess up your pretty face." It wasn't ready for a player who would go up to an opposing coach during pregame warm-ups, a coach who'd denounced him as a cheap-shot artist, and ask him to take off the dark glasses he always wore.
"You no-coaching [son of a gun]," he yelled at the Eagles' Joe Kuharich, "we're going to kick the hell out of you today, and I want you to see every play."
Sample liked to play rough, no question. Indeed, he relished his nefarious image -- to the point of titling a book he wrote in 1970 "Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer." But there were plenty of players who were just as ruthless, Taylor said, if not more so. "Johnny would take a shot at you, but he'd just bring up the forearm. He wouldn't clothesline you like Chris Hanburger and Kenny Houston would. But he wanted to be known [as a dirty player]. He wanted people to fear him."
And fear him they did -- opponents, coaches and owners alike. When Colts coach Weeb Ewbank hit him with a $100 fine for some sideline unpleasantness between the two, Sample walked out and forced the club to trade him to Pittsburgh. When he and Steelers coach Buddy Parker butted heads over a contract after his first season there -- when Sample made All-Pro -- Parker suffered him for one more year and then shipped him to the Redskins.
Sample extracted his revenge in 1964. During a 30-0 rout of the Steelers at Pitt Stadium, he picked off a pass and ran 15 yards for a touchdown. "After hitting the end zone," he recalled in "Confessions," "I ran straight over to the Steelers bench and threw the ball at Buddy Parker's face." Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on your point of view -- "one of the players stuck his hand out and deflected it."
Sample considered '64 his best year as a pro. Not only did he rack up a career-high eight interceptions, he also helped keep rookie safety Paul Krause lined up properly. Alas, nothing lasted very long with Johnny. Late in '65 he had a run-in with coach Bill McPeak, got himself suspended for the final game, and then his worst nightmare came to pass: Otto Graham was hired as the Redskins' coach.
There was bad blood between Sample and Graham -- literally. It stemmed from the 1958 College All-Star Game, an annual exhibition pitting the best of the graduating seniors against the defending NFL champs. Sample, a star running back at Maryland State (now Maryland-Eastern Shore), was making history that night; he was the first player from a black school selected to play for the All-Stars. So he was bitterly disappointed when Graham, who coached the collegians, kept him on the bench until the last few minutes -- and then badmouthed him afterward to Ewbank.
Johnny couldn't understand it. All he'd done, he claimed in his book, was what Ewbank told him to do -- ask Graham to play him at defensive back (since that was where the Colts were planning to use him). Otto took exception, however, and decided Sample wasn't a team man.
A year later, Johnny was back in the College All-Star Game, only this time as a member of the club that had won the NFL title. He kept up a one-sided conversation with Graham all game long. "You wouldn't let me play in this game, Otto," he told him, "but I'm gonna play tonight. And every time one of your boys comes over my way, I'm gonna let him have it. I'm gonna hit him just like he was you."
When Graham took over the Redskins, well, that was the end of Sample's days in Washington. They hadn't seen the last of each other, though. In '68, Johnny's Jets stunned the Colts in the Super Bowl, meaning he'd get to play in the College All-Star Game again. And who was back coaching the All-Stars? None other than Graham, who'd washed out with the Redskins.
In the fourth quarter, Otto charged onto the field to complain about Johnny's roughhouse tactics against one of his receivers. Quite a scene ensued.
"We were standing nose to nose, shouting obscenities," Sample said in "Confessions." "... Suddenly, I saw his shoulder dip a little, and he swung at me with his right hand. I hardly felt it because it glanced off the top of my helmet. But I managed to grab his right hand, held my facemask with my left hand and butted him in the nose. It broke the skin and he started bleeding just as the officials came running up."
That, as it turned out, was Sample's last game. The next morning he woke up with a sharp pain in his back and never played again. He had a pretty good career, though, for a guy who never made the Pro Bowl -- another indication of how beloved he was by his peers. He played on three championship teams and intercepted 41 passes, only 13 fewer than Darrell Green (in nine fewer years).
"Growing up as a child in [Cape Charles] Virginia and seeing what was done to black people had a profound effect on my life," he wrote, "not only as a football player, but as a husband and father as well. The agony and embarrassment that I've seen black people suffer put a hardness in me that made me what I am. And it's still there."
Now, perhaps, he can have some peace.