Former HBCU star played key role on Colts’ first NFL title and Jets’ Super Bowl win
By Tony McClean
Black Athlete Sports Network
NEW HAVEN, Ct (BASN) — Back in 2008, ESPN took a nostalgic look back at the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts.
That championship is still often described by many as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The Colts won the contest 23-17, the first and still only title game to ever go to overtime.
One of the men who played in that contest would go to play in another one of the NFL’s most important and memorable games of the 20th Century and was on the winning side in both contests.
As a rookie in 1958, defensive back Johnny Sample played on the Baltimore Colts team that beat the New York Giants to win the NFL title. Sample, who was an All-CIAA running back for then Maryland State University (now Maryland Eastern-Shore), was on a Baltimore squad that including Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, and Art Donovan.
Over 10 years later, he was part of defeating the Colts in one of the most memorable Super Bowls ever. In 1969, Sample had an interception for the New York Jets in their 16-7 upset of Baltimore in Super Bowl III at Miami.
That game, which is most remembered for the Jets’ Joe Namath “guaranteed” victory, established the old American Football League on a par with the NFL after the two leagues had merged.
Following the game, Sample boasted, “They panicked. They were so shaken up that they forgot their game plan. We’re the greatest team ever, better than those title teams (1958-59) I played on in Baltimore”.
It’s been [five] years since Sample passed away in April of 2005 died of heart disease at the age of 67.
I was lucky enough to meet Johnny Sample early in my sports reporting career. I knew of his on the field exploits. But when I got a chance to really converse with him, I found out that Mr. Sample was one of the most passionate and caring people I ever met.
At the time of our meeting, he was in another sporting field — tennis. He was serving as a linesman for the USTA. He was also running his own junior tennis tournament in his hometown of Philadelphia.
At the time, it was one of the largest minority tennis tournaments in the country. This was long before the Grassroots programs that became a part of many inner cities in the 90’s. “We have more kids playing tennis in this tournament now than playing basketball”, Sample told me at the time.
“When you realize something like that happening in this city, it’s really amazing. I’m glad that I’ve been able to help a lot of kids through sports”. That tournament still exists today with nearly 25,000 youngsters competing in the event.
Not bad for a guy who went to attended Overbrook High School. In fact, Sample was at the school when a certain Hall Of Famer was there also. His name? Wilt Chamberlain.
Later in his life, Sample would devote even more time in causes for social change. In 1995 while serving as a radio personality in Philly, he was instrumental in getting busloads of African-American men to attend The Million Man March.
During his playing days, Sample was one of the few athletes that spoke out about the racism that he encountered as an athlete. As a rookie, he was also the first player from an HBCU selected to play in the now defunct College All-Star Game against the pros.
In his book from 1970, “Confessions Of A Dirty Ballplayer”, Sample fought with players, coaches and owners while garnering the questionable reputation as one of the league’s dirtiest player along the way.
Much like Anthony Prior’s book “Faith On 40 Yards” which was released in 2004, Sample pulled no punches about the treatment of black football players during his playing days. Some close to Johnny felt that he was unofficially blackballed by the NFL following the release of his book.
A fond farewell
The last time I talked with Mr. Sample was during the 2004 NBA Draft. I was doing updates for his popular radio show in Philly. Unfortunately, Mr. Sample’s show would be taken off the air a year later.
I’m not sure what the reason was, but I’m glad to say that I appeared on it one time. Johnny Sample was a true pioneer for African-Americans athletes on and off the field.
He is still missed by a loyal legion of fans and friends, including myself. While I’m saddened that he’s gone, I’m proud to say that I knew him well and I could call him a true friend.
“He will always have a special place in Jets’ history as a member of the Super Bowl championship team,” Jets coach Herman Edwards said at the time of his passing.
“The Jets and the NFL community have lost a friend in Johnny Sample.”