When you were growing up, did you dream of playing for USC?
Actually growing up in the Westside, in Santa Monica, I was a huge UCLA basketball fan because it was during the Wooden years. So I was more of a UCLA fan because I loved basketball. I played in this basketball league where the guy who was the director of the league also ran the scoreboard and timer (at Pauley). We would get free tickets sitting around arena level. So I loved UCLA hoops.
Who was your idol ?
Hmm, Coach John Wooden was one of my biggest idols. He gave me a book when I was in the 6th grade for my birthday and I still know him to this day. I'll tell you a funny story. When the timer for the UCLA games passed away, I saw Coach Wooden at the funeral. I hadn't seen him since I was 12 years old. I went up to him, very humbly because it was like being around deity, and said, " Coach, my name is Sam….". He looked me straight in the eye and said, " Sam, I know you. I got so mad at you for going to USC instead of UCLA out of high school". I was thinking, What? This is John Wooden saying he knows me, knows my story, and my history. He was definitely one of my idols. That's the only good thing I've got to say about UCLA.
Who were you recruited by?
I took trips to UCLA, Arizona, Colorado, and USC. I just kinda narrowed it down to them. I didn't want to take any other trips. I was going to Cal but I decided not to take that trip. When I came out of high school, I was recruited as a tight end too. Arizona and UCLA wanted me to play tight end. Colorado and USC wanted me to play linebacker. So what do I do? Where do I go? I took my trip to Colorado and that was Bill McCartney's first year. And that would have been a neat situation because it was brand new and all that but I didn't want to go through losing so soon on a rebuilding team. I went to Arizona and Larry Smith was down there. He turned me off totally. I didn't know a lot but even at that young age, I didn't like this guy. Then when he went to SC, I said, "Oh no!" But I had already left. See, if I had redshirted, I would have played for Larry.Everyone I know who played for Larry hated him. He won those Rose Bowls with Toller's group. There were a couple of good coaches on that staff. One was Mike Riley who went to Oregon State then on to San Diego. Larry Smith was not my cup of tea.
The linebacker coach was Artie Gigantino ( now a Fox Analyst). Tell us about him.
I haven't talked to Artie in a long time, I knew he was doing stuff for the Raiders, etc. I think he's enjoying doing TV. He was a really good coach and I enjoyed playing for him.
What was it like playing for USC?
My first memory is just walking down the tunnel with the team and all those cleats going CLACK,CLACK,CLACK. And just going into this huge arena and looking at the helmets with a Trojan on them, etc. That was wild. When you go from high school to college ball, the first thing you notice massive everyone gets. From college to the pros, it's not the size as much as the speed. But from high school to college, it's just a massive jump in size. Guys all of a sudden are 6'6". Good Lord! And they're good athletes too. Wow! So, in the beginning, it's overwhelming, looking at the size and strength of everyone. It was an overwhelming experience. You feel like, what am I doing here? Do I belong here? Then you start going out there and rolling around. You start thinking, maybe I do belong, maybe I can play here. Cool. It's weird.
Which game or games stand out in your mind?
Two big games that really stand out in my mind. When I was a sophomore, we played Ohio State in the '85 Rose Bowl. That was a huge game because they were a great team.They had many future pros. Keith Byars, Chris Spielman, Pepper Johnson, and Cris Carter. About ten guys, four of them All Pros, future Hall of Famers. So we knew we were up against a good, good team. And especially Byars, being the running back of the year, averaging 250 yards a game. He was about 250 lbs. We were like, this guy is going to be something, everybody better kick it up. I got a really big hit on Byars, a HUGE hit. My friends couldn't believe I stopped this big ol' guy. In the UCLA game my junior year, they were going to score and I just kinda gambled on this one play. It was on the goal line and they ran a Blast play. They lead with the fullback on you and the tailback follows. I don't know what I did but I knew we had to do something QUICK. They were on the one yard line, up 10-7. If they scored it would have been 17-7 late in the third quarter. Oh my God! Sometimes you just go off from what you're supposed to do. I just blitzed. If they had done something else, I would have been screwed. But it worked. I jumped over Mel Farr, Jr., who was the fullback, and hit Eric Ball. The ball popped out and Marcus Cotton ran it back about 50 yards. Then Rodney took us in for a touchdown later in the quarter. UCLA beat us in my freshman year although I didn't play much. In my sophomore year, they beat us again. I was thinking, what's going on here? I can honestly say that the games I had a lot of influence in, UCLA didn't win (laughing). My senior year, my knee was blown out so I couldn't play, you know, there you go…
After SC, you moved on to the NFL. Tell us about that experience.
I blew my knee out, I had two surgeries in my senior year. I blew out my left MCL ligament and then also my right knee had cartilage damage. So I got the MCL surgery then as soon as I was able to walk on the left knee, I got the cartilage surgery done. I was invited to the East/West Game, the Hula Bowl, etc., but I couldn't play. I didn't know what I was going to do. I was depressed because football was my life. When you play from the fifth grade on, the idea of it being over is overwhelming. So I was ready, just praying, that I would get some kind of chance. Just go. If I had the chance and it didn't work out, maybe I'd try again. If it didn't work out then, then I could say okay. But to know I didn't get a chance, then I'd really be on Skid Row, you know? I was so friggin serious that if it didn't work out, I'd be devastated and I'd get over it sooner or later, but who knows how long it would take or would I be feeling this remorse my whole life, an empty hole, etc. But I got a chance. Artie Gigantino went to the Rams. He said we'll give you a chance. I said that's all I need. So I signed with the Rams and made the team. That was the year we went on strike, in 1987. I didn't play during the strike, I didn't scab. So when I didn't play, the Rams got pissed off. I was a youngster, I was nothing to them. Alright, I'll stick to my guns. And I'm glad I did. When the strike was over and I came back, they cut me. The FIRST day. So I started flying around. Went to Minnesota, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, and St. Louis (when the Cardinals were still there). On the road, flying from place to place. My agent was great just getting me lined up. Then about a week and a half later, I signed with the Vikings. I stayed with them that year and the next year. Then after that, I went Plan B free agent to Tampa Bay. I was down there for three years. After that, I went Plan B again to San Diego for a couple of years. So I had a 7 year career in the NFL.
You were also Special Teams Player of the Year.
Yes, thank you. With Tampa Bay, 1989.
After retirement, what did you do?
When I first got out, I was burned out on sports, you know. The way I played sports, I had been a pro since I was 12 years old. That's the kind of pressure I put on myself. Probably too much, but that's all I knew. And so at 30, I said enough. I didn't want to get back into sports but what I did is I went to work for NBC, interning. I did that for a year but it was so much sports I wasn't into it at that time. So I got into acting and did that for about four years. That was my life. I did some commercials, did some movies, but financially it wasn't paying off. At the same time I was coaching high school football, first at Saint Monica, then at my alma mater, Santa Monica. But I did that for the duration, which was great because I love doing that. I coached on two different CIF championship teams. I've been in sales for an air filtration company for a couple of years now. Now I'm regular Joe and I hate it. (laughing).