In the end, Vance Sams proved to be the best football player for the Central Section’s best team, Edison High.
Simply, powerfully, historically — as the Tigers won their first top division section title in 39 years — the two-way starter is The Bee’s Player of the Year.
But to think, for Sams, there was nearly no beginning.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound as an offensive tackle and middle linebacker was inches from walking away from the game in the summer, disheartened, confused and emotionally defeated.
He had a troubled relationship with his mother.
His father had been removed from the picture a month earlier while jailed for an alleged major crime, and has been detained since.
For Sams, life had become a frightening combination of instability, uncertainty and, ultimately, failure.
“I didn’t know if I would make it home safe at night,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was going to eat. Mentally, I didn’t know what to do; I just wanted to find myself.”
He turned to Matt Johnson.
“Crying,” the Edison coach says. “He says, ‘None of my family is going to make it. … I’ll end up being a gangster. … Things are not going to happen good to me.’ He wanted to quit football.”
Just weeks from a duel with the state’s winningest program, Bakersfield, and from the beginning of a season framed with but one picture — to win the first big one in four decades for Edison, for the west side — Johnson linked with Tigers booster Mike Ryan to draw up an emergency playbook: How to save Vance Sams III.
“We knew we couldn’t let this kid fall by the wayside,” says Ryan, whose son, Michael, was a Tigers quarterback who graduated in 2005. “I had seen too many good and talented Edison kids fall by the wayside over the past 15 years — some by their own doing, some because of bad breaks.”
Ryan established a routine by treating Sams to Wednesday dinners. He provided school clothes, shoes, a family Christmas tree and a letterman’s jacket that trumpets a jersey number found terrifying for opponents: 51.
Let there be no doubt for the player Johnson estimates played 90% of the team’s total snaps — offense, defense and special teams.
“I had a support group,” says Sams, citing Ryan, Johnson, Edison principal Lindsay Sanders and Fresno Unified superintendent Michael Hanson. “I don’t know where I’d be without them. Mr. Ryan was a great influence. Every time I needed to sit down and talk about issues at home, every time I needed something, he was like a father figure. And I could tell he was genuine, from the heart. He really cared.”
Ryan reflects not on Edison’s 12-2 season, a 21-14 section Division I title win over Liberty-Bakersfield and Sams’ County/Metro Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year award, but Sams’ exchanges over a burger, steak or his favorite entree, shrimp: “Vance has a wicked sense of humor. He’s quiet, almost reserved at times. And yet he is respectftul, very intelligent, polite and thankful. He cares very much for his teammates and he respect his opponents.”
Above all, Ryan says: “Vance didn’t lose sight of his future with all that was going on in his life, that he had a way out, that it was right in front of him if he stayed focused.”
It remains in front of him, promisingly, yet with uncertainty.
Sams’ skills and size — light for a college offensive lineman; a tick slow for a linebacker in an era that often requires that position to defend receivers in spread offenses — peg him as a “tweener,” making it difficult for college coaches to project his role.
But there’s little doubt he’ll have an opportunity to play on Saturdays, likely as a linebacker, with schools such as UNLV, Idaho State, Northern Arizona and Miami (Ohio) expressing interest.
Johnson, a former USC safety, found something unique in a player who made 97 tackles, including 12 for losses, recovered three fumbles, forced four and intercepted two passes: “Vance flows, looks for that small hidden door, bursts through and — bam! — collision. He’s the most instinctual linebacker I’ve ever been around. When he hits, baby, he’s an assassin, wanting to knock your (teeth) fillings out. And he came into the season with some bad intentions.”
Meaning, Sams transferred personal hardships into Friday night lights out.
“Traumatic,” Johnson says.
Triumphet, says Sams, who wants to pursue a career in law enforcement: “I don’t know if a lot of people in my situation could do what I did, to put all that emotion, all that anger, all that whatever I had inside, to keep pushing, hit somebody harder on a Friday night and feel the pain after the adrenalin.
“It does push you. (Coach) Matty J told me, ‘This is your ticket out, this is going to pay off.’ And that’s pretty much it.”