HOUSTON -- Victoria McGuffie looked back one more time at her oldest son. The weekend visit to Ann Arbor, Mich., was over, and Victoria and the rest of the family had to leave for Houston. Sam McGuffie stood and waved goodbye slowly, his head drooping lower as his family grew smaller in the distance.
"I saw that," Victoria said, "and I wanted to throw up."
By all accounts, the early part of Sam McGuffie's freshman season at Michigan in 2008 was a raging success. Even though the Wolverines played poorly as they adjusted to first-year coach Rich Rodriguez, McGuffie was a bright spot. He started the season opener against Utah. He gained 178 all-purpose yards in a loss at Notre Dame. He needed to polish his running style, and the line in front of him needed work. Still, it seemed McGuffie had the tools to make the transition from recruiting legend -- thanks to 5,847 yards and 83 career touchdowns at Cy-Fair High and a series of spectacular YouTube clips -- to bankable college football star.
McGuffie should have enjoyed his early success, but he didn't. Sam's father, Terrie, returned to his native Michigan for a while to give Sam some family support. As the season wore on, Terrie noticed a profound change. "It was his demeanor," said Terrie, who has been divorced from Victoria for more than 10 years. "He lost about 10 pounds. He had circles under his eyes. He didn't look happy."
Flash forward to last Saturday, when a cool breeze blew and the sun shone on the largest city in Texas. Rice's spring game had been over for almost an hour, but Sam McGuffie still sat on the field with a circle of family around him. Terrie was there. So was Sam's uncle, Shane. So was Victoria, a Continental Airlines flight attendant who wore a pink shirt she had "Bedazzled" with rhinestones in the shape of a running back carrying the ball. Sam smiled. He laughed. "It's 100 percent better," Terrie said.
After wrestling with the decision to leave Michigan, Sam finally made it after he returned home from a funeral late in the 2008 season. The Wolverines still had to play Ohio State, but McGuffie knew he wouldn't be back. He had decided to come home, because his family needed him. "Sam came back mainly for his family," Victoria said.
During an interview with McGuffie in 2008, he wondered how his departure might affect the lives of his younger brother, Jacob, and sister, Haley. Sam loved being a big brother, and he wondered if he could offer the same support to his siblings so far away.
Sam was prescient. With him gone, Jacob struggled. Victoria said the family even discussed moving to Michigan to reunite the siblings. "Sam has always been the heart of the family," Victoria said. "He's like an old soul."
So Sam decided to come home. Other schools were interested, but McGuffie wanted to stay within 100 miles of his home in the Houston suburbs. In the FBS, that limited him to Houston, Rice and Texas A&M. When he visited Rice, the Owls were preparing for the Texas Bowl, which would cap the stellar careers of quarterback Chase Clement and receiver Jarrett Dillard. McGuffie liked the offense, and he liked Rice's academic reputation, so he became an Owl. "It's been a little different," he said, "but I've had a lot of fun." And that's the difference.
Between the issues back home and the pressure of starting so soon, McGuffie never quite felt comfortable at Michigan. "You're going into Michigan playing in front of 110,000 people," he said. "You start your first game as a damn freshman at running back. At Michigan, that's a big deal. And Mike Hart had left, so there were big shoes to fill."
McGuffie said he didn't shrink from the competition, and Rodriguez said the same during a conversation at the American Football Coaches Association Convention in January. For McGuffie, the transfer was strictly for personal reasons.
Rice coach David Baliff was thrilled. Baliff has collected a few high-profile transfers in recent years. Quarterback Nick Fanuzzi came to the Owls from Alabama before the 2008 season. Quarterback Taylor Cook ran the scout team last year as he sat out after transferring from Miami. Still, McGuffie may be Baliff's biggest get. He's a local legend who seems to have the tools to thrive in Conference USA. "He loves the game of football," Baliff said. "He's the first in. He's the last out. We have to convince him to go take a shower."
Baliff and McGuffie are quick to rattle off names such as Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Kevin Smith asbacks who dominated the league and then went on to NFL success. In a league where most teams run wide-open passing offenses, a quality back is a change-up most defenses aren't prepared to face.
Baliff hopes to use McGuffie in a variety of ways. The Owls will line him up next to the quarterback, behind the quarterback in the pistol and in the slot. "He's electrifying," Baliff said. "The first time he touched the football [during spring practice], he went 50."
In Saturday's spring game, McGuffie showed once again why so many colleges wanted him. He took one shovel pass and darted down the right sideline. When a defender dove for his knees, McGuffie hurdled him, drawing an "Ooooooh" from the sidelines and the stands. Later, McGuffie caught a pass in the flat, took a stutter-step and zipped down the sideline for a 63-yard gain. The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder also made some runs that should raise the same question that has dogged McGuffie since high school. Will his running style get him killed? McGuffie has no qualms about reversing field, and on several occasions Saturday he turned and ran smack into a tackle.
Baliff would love to let McGuffie return kickoffs, but he worries McGuffie will change directions one too many times and get blindsided by a special teams kamikaze with a full head of steam. Still, both Baliff and McGuffie are reluctant to make too many changes, because that style also makes McGuffie a threat to score whenever he touches the ball.
"If you run that way your whole life, you're not going to change that much," McGuffie said. "It's like Tim Tebow and how he throws. You're not going to change it that much, even if you really want to."
But McGuffie could change one thing. He was miserable in Michigan. Now he's happy in Houston.
As the rest of the Rice players and their families filtered into the locker room Saturday, Baliff pointed to the end zone where the McGuffies held an impromptu family reunion. "Look at them," Baliff said, smiling. "They'll be the last ones out of here."