When Sam Howard was a young boy, his parents brought him to watch Vanderbilt basketball games in Memorial Gymnasium.
Howard was there the afternoon in 1990 that Scott Draud led Vanderbilt to a classic duel to the death with LSU's Chris Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal. The 12-year-old Howard came to idolize Draud for his 3-point shooting ability and his lightning-quick release. And he adored the electricity that filled the old gym on cold winter days and nights.
A few years later, in 1993, Howard was in Memorial Gym the night Vanderbilt upset Rick Pitino's top-ranked Kentucky team 101-86, behind Billy McCaffrey's 14 assists. It was another one of those nights that the historic old gym was supercharged with emotional energy.
Somewhere along that time-- Howard doesn't remember just when-- the young boy decided that one day he'd like to follow in the footsteps of players like Draud and McCaffrey. He had the same dreams shared by countless other boys growing up in Metro Nashville-- he wanted to wear the black and gold and electrify the Memorial Gym crowds on cold winter nights.
The young boy grew to be 6-foot-3. He became a prep star at Goodpasture Christian School, where he played alongside college prospects Ron Mercer and Drew Maddux. College recruiters came by the droves to watch those two, but couldn't help but notice the underclassman with the sweet jumper. By his junior year he had developed into a 3-point shooter almost as deadly as Draud. That year he averaged an astounding 27 points per game.
Vandy Coach Jan Van Breda Kolff sent assistant Buzz Peterson (now head coach at Tennessee) to recruit the young Goodpasture star. It was probably the easiest sales pitch Peterson ever made. Howard had a number of other schools interested in him and likely would have had more, had he not decided to make a very early commitment.
The young boy would accept a scholarship offer from Vanderbilt. He would get to live out his dream.
Howard's college career has been one of ups and downs. A foot injury forced him to take a medical redshirt his first year on campus. In his first redshirt freshman year, a disappointing 14-15 record led to the forced resignation of Coach Jan Van Breda Kolff. Kevin Stallings replaced him in April, 1999.
"Coach Van Breda Kolff was a really good coach," said Howard. "He knew the game really well. But Coach Stallings brought an extra, added discipline to the team that was needed.
"Sometimes when you have 13 guys, they all have different agendas. Coach Stallings got us on the same wavelength right away, and we had a good year his first year-- should have gone to the tournament, but didn't."
In a home game against Florida in January, 2000, Howard had one of those unforgettable nights when the mojo was working and old Memorial Gym rocked to its rafters. He hit on 7-of-8 3-pointers to help upset the 6th-ranked Gators. It was as magical a night as any Howard had witnessed as a boy.
"I had always wanted to have a big game against a top-ranked team," says Howard of that game. "I was just excited and got off on a good streak. When I started making my shots, Dan Langhi started making his, and everybody just played well. We beat a good Florida team."
Howard averaged in double figures in 1999-2000. But in 2000-01, his junior year, Howard unexpectedly saw his minutes begin to dwindle as the season wore on. Some unforeseen things happened that hadn't been part of the script.
"I started off the season with an injury," Howard said. "Before the season I broke my left foot. I had started the first half of the season playing well. After the South Carolina game I had hurt it, and re-injured it. With me not being able to play up to my ability, Coach had to find some guys that he felt like could produce.
"My minutes diminished to less than 5 a game. I don't ever fault Coach for that. He had to find somebody who was going to produce when it wasn't me. This year I've just worked on staying healthy, and being able to overcome any challenge I've had mentally."
Now the young boy who once dreamed of being a Commodore is a senior on the verge of graduation. He knows it's his last time around.
As he approaches his senior year, Sam Howard is, to use his words, "on a mission." His hard work in the offseason has not gone unnoticed by Coach Stallings. "I think Sam is closer to the mental framework that he was in as a sophomore than a year ago," Stallings said. Vanderbilt fans certainly hope so.
Lots of us have had our childhood dreams of athletic stardom shattered somewhere along the way. But Sam Howard lives out his boyhood dream every time on the court. And he realizes how blessed he is.
And in the grand circle of Vanderbilt basketball and Memorial Magic-- who knows? Perhaps somewhere in the Memorial Gym crowd this season, there's a 12-year-old boy who goes to bed dreaming of becoming the next Sam Howard.