Sams is quite the discovery

BALTIMORE -- Growing up in the heart of the Louisiana bayou, B.J. Sams was often overshadowed as the runt of his vast family. <br><br> As the youngest of 26 siblings, the Baltimore Ravens' electrifying rookie return specialist had to scrap and fight for recognition and his fair share at the dinner table.

Standing outside on a foggy Tuesday morning in Sandtown during a break from swinging a hammer for the Habitat for Humanity program, Sams recounted his odyssey from obscurity in Mandeville, La., to emerge as the leading punt returner in the NFL.

"It was hard being the smallest, always being told what to do and how to do it," Sams said. "My brothers and sisters would always say, 'You're hungry,' because I always wanted competition.

"I would bet them I could do stuff faster than them: riding bikes, running down alleys, anything. This kind of work brings me back to my roots."

In consecutive games, the unassuming, undrafted free agent from McNeese State (La.) introduced himself to the nation.

First, Sams scooted 58 yards for a touchdown on a punt in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on ABC's Monday Night Football. He caught the football cleanly, identified an opening and accelerated across the field until he reached the end zone.

Sams duplicated that feat on a 78-yard punt return for a score the following week in a Sunday night contest on ESPN against the Washington Redskins.

Now, he leads the NFL with a 14.8 punt return average and is drawing favorable comparisons to former Baltimore Pro Bowl return man Jermaine Lewis.

"It's like watching your little brother grow up into a man," said nickel back Deion Sanders, a mentor to Sams. "I'm so proud of him."

With a compact frame coupled with uncommon speed and agility, Sams darts away from defenders so quickly it appears the pursuit is standing still. He's the only player in the league with two punt returns for scores.

"People used to say B.J. was too small for the NFL, but he obviously isn't. The guy is just phenomenal," McNeese State offensive coordinator Matt Viator said. "What he did at our level was incredible. He always had great acceleration and that fearless attitude about running the ball.

"Like a lot of schools, we didn't recruit him until late because of his size. He's as tough a kid as I've ever been around. He's just a very grounded, quiet, humble guy."

Only a year ago, Sams was judged as too small, too slow and too likely to get hurt by the majority of NFL scouts.

An all-purpose threat at Division I-AA McNeese who amassed 4,903 career yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns, Sams weighed in at only 168 pounds in the spring of his junior year. The running back/wide receiver ran the 40-yard dash in a relatively pedestrian high 4.5 seconds.

"The scouts were not excited at all," Sams said. "I knew I had to work hard to get to the next level. They were looking at everybody else but me.

"People were saying, 'If he does get in the NFL, how long will he last weighing that much?'"

After working out with a personal trainer for a year, Sams bulked up to 187 pounds and reduced his sprinting time to 4.41 seconds by last spring.

The reaction from scouts was predictable: "It was like, 'Where did he come from?'" Sams said.

Searching for a replacement for fumble-prone incumbent return man Lamont Brightful, Ravens special-teams coordinator Gary Zauner's search brought him to the McNeese campus in Lake Charles, La.

Soon, Zauner was shaking his head and smiling at his discovery.

"From what I saw, from what his coaches said about his character, from the highlight tape I watched, I had a feeling about this kid," Zauner said. "I really thought he caught the ball very securely, the best punt catcher I had seen in years. I worked out about 12 to 15 guys, and he was the top guy on the list.

"He just fell through the cracks. I fell in love with this kid immediately."

In 2003, Sams ranked ninth in the nation with 166.9 all-purpose yards per game and was named the Southland Conference Player of the Year. He averaged 11 yards per punt return for his career with three touchdowns and 24.6 yards per kickoff.

"We used every way imaginable to get B.J. the football," Viator said. "He can do things with the football that are incredible."

When Zauner met Sams, he asked him how many punts he would be able to catch out of 100. When Sams replied, 'all of them,' the coach became convinced that the diminutive small-college standout had the self-confidence to survive in the NFL.

Reading from a report he filed on Sams after his scouting trip last spring, Zauner recited a series of platitudes about his special-teams ace: "Excellent athlete, nice person, hard worker, coaches say he doesn't look strong but has natural strength, all-purpose threat, a natural punt catcher, tough kid."

Once Sams arrived in Baltimore for a rookie minicamp, he ran the Ravens' drills faster than everyone else and didn't drop a football for 23 consecutive days, Zauner said.

Sams said he didn't receive a signing bonus, merely a room at the team hotel, meal money and a chance to prove himself. He was the only undrafted rookie to make the 53-man roster.
"He's paying dividends," Zauner said. "He's underpaid. It's very lucky for us."

Through five games, Sams is averaging 21.7 yards per kickoff. Besides his two touchdowns, he has registered returns of 33, 63 and 44 yards.

"He has that explosive element that adds to the defense and run game that gives us the great field position, that element you have to have to impact a game," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He is a great young man and will be here for a long time."

As for the Jermaine Lewis benchmark, he returned two punts for touchdowns in 1997 and averaged 15.6 yards per punt return. Lewis also returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Ravens' 34-7 win over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

"That's such an honor to be compared with Jermaine Lewis," Sams said. "He's the best."

The Ravens have even installed a set of offensive plays for Sams called the 'Stallion' package, consisting of reverses, sweeps and swing passes. He has carried the ball once for eight yards.

Heady stuff for a 24-year-old more worried about public speaking than an incoming linebacker with mayhem on his mind.
During the Ravens' bye last week, Sams went back to McNeese and had to be coaxed into saying a few inspirational words to the football team before kickoff. He said very few words.

"He's very low-key, quiet and always ran away from the cameras after games," Viator said. "He doesn't want the focus to be on him. What he's done has been great for our program and great for a guy like B.J that everybody loves and respects so much."
Only a few months ago after Sams broke his thumb during training camp in the midst of a battle with Brightful, he thought he was about to be fired or placed on injured reserve.

Instead, he recovered quickly enough to beat Brightful out and earn a starting job. Since then, he's created a niche as the Ravens' not-so secret weapon.

"I was so worried, because I didn't know what to think and I didn't understand the business aspect of football," Sams said. "It's overwhelming for me to be in this position because I never expected it.

"I was just hoping to make the team. I've definitely come a long way."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times and


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