A STAND IN AND STAND UP BROTHER: NFL BAD BOY JOHNNY SAMPLE!
Jim Bad News Barnes (NBA)
NFL New York Jet Co-Captain
Roy Jefferson, Willie Wood, Sonny Hill & HBell
John B. Sample Jr. was born and raised in Portsmouth, Va. and was known to friends as Happy, Blade, Reds, and Redball died suddenly in his hometown of Philadelphia in April 2006. He was sixty-nine years old. I received a call from Johnny’s close friend basketball legend Sonny Hill with the bad news. In a recent conversation with Coach Gaines’ wife Clara, she said, “Harold I never thought Gaines would die.” It was eerie because I had that same feeling about Johnny Sample even though I knew better. I had just spoken with Johnny before heading south to the memorial service for “Bighouse.” He said he was going to try to make it, but I didn’t look for him. Johnny was notorious for not showing up, but I don’t ever remember him giving me his word and not keeping it. He was always there for all of my celebrity tennis tournaments, media
panel discussions, award programs, radio and television talk shows, etc. Compared to today’s pro athlete, he was a Saint.
I first saw Johnny Sample in Washington, DC in 1954. He was a member of the Maryland State football team and they were in town to play Howard University at the Cardozo High School football stadium.
I was amazed that he didn’t wear thigh and knee pads, he worn his pants skin tight. The shoulder pads were so small it didn’t look like he had any on. His level of play that day was like a Man among boys, Howard
University was no match for Johnny Sample and his teammates. It was here that I came away with the impression that Johnny Sample was indestructible. It would be years later before I would meet Johnny face to face. It was at a Baltimore Bullets’ (Wizards) basketball game at the Baltimore Civic Center. He was a member of the Baltimore Colts football team. He was standing around outside of the bar during halftime laughing and talking with anyone and everyone. I decided to go up and introduce myself and we have been great friends ever since. It was easy to like Johnny Sample, he had an outgoing personality and he made you
feel like he had known you all of his life. There was nothing phony or pretentious about him. If you didn’t want to hear the truth you didn’t want to be around Johnny Sample.
Michael Cooper is one the greatest running backs to ever come out of Philadelphia and he was one of Johnny’s closest friends. He played at North East high school and Michigan State. Michael remembers when he was invited to the Washington Redskin camp in 1964 for a try out by then Coach Bill McPeak. It looked as though Michael was a sure bet to make the team until one day Coach McPeak decided it best he go on the Redskin taxi squad. Johnny disagreed with the coach’s decision and let him know in no uncertain terms. He would run through a brick wall if you were his friend. Michael recalls his many acts of kindness for his friends. He says, “Johnny Sample was not a fly by night friend, if you needed him, he was there.” When his friend and teammate the legendary “Big Daddy” Lipscomb was mysteriously found dead in Baltimore, the
NFL claimed he died of an overdose of drugs. Johnny knew for a fact he didn’t do drugs. He said, “Big Daddy was scared to death of needles.” He sued the NFL for $100, 000 dollars to clear his friend’s name and won the case.
Coming out of Maryland State College he was one the greatest running backs in the nation. In 1955, he was voted unanimously by The Pigskin Club of Washington, DC as its “Player of the Year” for the Central Inter-
collegian Athletic Association (CIAA). He was the first ever player from a Historical Black College selected to play in the College All-Star game in Chicago. His NFL career would be controversial, but his athletic skills
were superior. His mouth often got him into trouble, but his play on the field would often be his ticket out of the NFL doghouse.
During his eleven year NFL tenure he was one of the most feared defensive backs in pro football. Roy Jefferson a former teammate and All-Pro wide receiver says, “If you caught the football in his territory you were going to pay the price.” Hall of Fame All-Pro wide receiver Frank Gifford of the New York Giants was so fearful that he once saw Johnny on a New York street corner and ran to the other side against a red light to get away from him.
The Baltimore Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins and the New York Jets were all NFL homes for Johnny Sample. He earned two championship rings and one Super Bowl ring. He was the co-captain with QB Joe Namath of the New York Jets when Namath boldly predicted that the Jets would upset the Baltimore Colts and win the Super Bowl. He is the only player in pro football history to win World Championships in two different leagues (NFL and AFL).
In 1969 Johnny walked away from the game that he loved. He was much more than a great athlete he was a student of the game. Johnny could disrupt the flow of a game by calling out the offensive play as the opposing team came out to line up. The QB would immediately call a timeout and cuss Johnny out as he made his way to the sideline. There were many who thought he would have been a great NFL coach, but he had burn too many NFL bridges.
Immediately after retirement he went to work on his first novel, “Confessions of a Dirty Football Player.” This book outlined the mercenary world of professional football. In an interview on my television sports talk show “Inside Sports” NFL Legend Jim Brown asked the question, Johnny were you a dirty football player or
just a hard clean player?” His response, “I was never dirty, except when I played against you.” All Jim could do was laugh.
Johnny was not one to just sit around after his NFL career. He became an entrepreneur and owned a ticket agency and sporting goods store called, Sample’s End Zone. He later taught himself the game of tennis and quickly excelled. He was the number one player in the country in the United States Tennis (USTA), 45 and over category for several years running. He would later serve as a tennis official for the USTA, Wimbledon, U. S., French and Australian Opens and chair umpire, linesman and referee for the USTA. His inner-city
youth tennis program was one of the largest and best run in the country. Tennis to him was all about, love, love and more love.
In 1995 boxing promoter Don King would bring Mike Tyson to the city of Brotherly Love to fight Buster Mathis.
In February of 2004 he was inducted into the CIAA Hall of Fame in Raleigh, North Carolina. This was almost fifty years after he had graduated from college. The first question he asked when he took the microphone, “CIAA what took you so long?” Johnny and I had often talked about being “Blackballed” by the system is one thing, but to be “Blackballed” by your own people is a tough pill to swallow.
Johnny Sample’s induction into the Hall of Fame could not have come at a better time. In this case better late than never. This was definitely a highlight in his long distinguishing odyssey into the world of politics and sports. During his induction speech he asked me to stand up and be recognized as the pioneer in sports talk radio. He was always reaching and giving something back. Johnny also excelled as a sports talk show host on
W-H-A-T Radio in Philadelphia from 1988 to 2004. Johnny used his sports talk show as a vehicle to improve the growth of his community. As a community advocate, he was instrumental in several projects. The crown jewel was the Million Man March in 1986 when he organized seventy-three buses from Philadelphia and parts of New Jersey to Washington, DC. In my world he was a special man. I was pleased to see my name in the program as an Honorary Pallbearer for the great Johnny Sample. “Redball” it was my honor.