Coach Chris and the Young Guys
MANASSAS, Va. — Watching Chris Samuels somehow maneuver his way into his seat, it’s clear the school’s cafeteria tables weren’t designed with his 6-foot-5, 300-pound frame in mind.
He devours his pre-game meal, a Chick-fil-A classic chicken sandwich. At the other end of the table, a rowdy group of players huddle around the steaming box of sandwiches provided by their coach, pushing and elbowing each other to grab one first. “Ya’ll can clean all the crumbs off this table when you’re finished,” Samuels yells playfully, shaking his head.
It’s a typical scene on a gameday in mid-October. And as it plays out it’s hard to believe the former All-Pro tackle passed on offers to join the staffs of the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to coach here, at Osbourn High School, a public school in Northern Virginia.
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“I thought about the NFL offers, but I like working with the young guys,” Samuels says between bites of breaded chicken. “I just felt like high school would be the best fit for me. I’m trying to connect and help these kids so they can be successful in life.”
Samuels spent the past three seasons as an assistant offensive line coach under Nick Saban at Alabama, his alma mater. He was tired of the long days, which sometimes lasted 16 hours. He knew he wanted to spend more time with his family. “At the end of the day when you are on your deathbed,” Samuels says, “are you going to want to work another three weeks or spend time with your family?”
Samuels and his wife, Monique, have a two-year-old son (Chris) and three-month-old daughter (Milani). He doesn’t need the money, and he was looking for a reason to return to Virginia, where he lived during his 10-year career as Washington’s left tackle. He never sold his home in Vienna, Va.
Still, Osbourn athletic director Ira DeGrood didn’t know what to think when Samuels’ application landed on his desk last winter. “You see the name, but you wonder if it is the Chris Samuels,” DeGrood says.
Then DeGrood saw the references on Samuels’ résumé: Joe Gibbs, Daniel Snyder, Nick Saban. (“I know how busy they are, but I did leave a voicemail for Coach Saban,” DeGrood says with a laugh.)
The experience has been similarly surreal for the players. Cameron Lane, an offensive lineman and linebacker, dug out an old version of Madden. “It was old, the graphics were terrible, but he had like a 98 overall rating,” Lane says. “I was like, Wow, he’s pretty good!”
Samuels called on NFL connections to fill out his staff. Khary Campbell, a linebacker who played five seasons with Samuels in Washington, is the defensive coordinator. Marcus Washington, a former Pro Bowl linebacker and also a former teammate of Samuels’, coaches the defensive line.
For the players, most of whom are Washington fans, it is too good to be true. “It will be cool to tell my kids someday that I was coached by NFL players,” senior linebacker Auston Riemer says.
“Yeah, my brother is pretty jealous,” Lane adds.
• BENTON HARBOR NEEDED ELLIOT UZELAC: A grizzled coach with more than four decades of big-time college and pro experience came out of retirement to take over a troubled high school program in a distressed Michigan town. Instilling discipline and providing direction, he’s changed the Tigers’ fortunes—and changed some lives.
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Samuels inherited an Osbourn program coming off consecutive 3-7 seasons. Their last playoff appearance was 2011, and the program peaked in 2006 with a Virginia AAA state title.
But since then, the interest in football has declined as the school’s demographics shifted. A 2014 census puts Manassas at 33.7% Hispanic, and DeGrood estimates Osbourn’s student body is around 60%. “We’re a soccer demographic, not a football one,” DeGrood says. One-hundred kids showed up to the football interest meeting last year, while attendance at the soccer meeting was more than double that.
The limited numbers makes it a challenge for Osbourn to keep up in Class 6A, the division for Virginia’s largest schools. Osbourn’s best players, at least seven of them, played both ways this season. When Osbourn faced Hylton, a Conference 8 powerhouse, “It looked like David and Goliath,” Samuels says. “We’ve got all these short kids, but I love them because they are tough and scrappy and they fight.”
For Samuels, the goal was playoffs in his first year as head coach. Osbourn fell short, finishing 4-6, but he wouldn’t consider the season a disappointment.
Consider his pregame speech before the Eagles took the field for their final home game: “I just want to save your lives because some of you guys have been headed in the wrong direction. I want to drive home discipline so you guys can make it.”
Samuels is dedicated to saving his players because a high school coach once showed him the same compassion. When he was a sophomore at Shaw High School in Mobile, Ala., Samuels almost quit football. He was 15 years old, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, and riding the bench at tight end—behind a freshman. He was bored, unmotivated and embarrassed. “I didn’t see the payoff,” he says. “I was getting discouraged, kids tease each other, so I was getting ragged on for riding the bench.”
One day he showed up at the coaches’ offices, shoulder pads and helmet in hand. Danny Smith, then Shaw’s offensive line coach, refused to let Samuels hand in his equipment. “I stuck my finger in his chest, got on my tippy toes, looked in his eyes and said, ‘You are not a quitter.’ And he said, ‘Yes Sir.’”
The next season, Samuels became Shaw’s starting left tackle and never looked back: Outland Trophy as college football’s top interior lineman, third overall pick of the 2000 draft, six Pro Bowl selections.
Samuels’ speech resonated with one player in particular. And as he finished, Auston Riemer stood up with him.
When Samuels arrived at Osbourn, he kept hearing about Riemer, a talented linebacker who was injured last season and then left the team because of issues with coaches and teammates. “I wasn’t talking to people on the football team,” Riemer says. “I’d walk past them in the hall and wouldn’t even make eye contact because I was told that they voted me off the team. I even stopped going to class. I just didn’t care.”
It reminded Samuels of the second chance he had once needed, and gotten, when he was in high school. “Auston had a clean slate with me,” he says, and he reached out to the troubled 17-year-old to deliver his message.
“Chris told me, ‘I want you to come back here and prove these people wrong. They don’t know who the real Auston is. Don’t leave your name how it is.’”
Riemer was the team’s leading tackler and a respected leader. Moments before he took the field on senior night, he says that if it weren’t for Samuels, “I don’t think I would be here.”
For Samuels, the mentoring role is similar to the one he served in at Alabama. But not every player buys in to Samuels’ purpose, and instilling a culture of discipline at Osbourn has been his biggest challenge. When he arrived, little things like players showing up late to practice, or bigger things like fights among teammates and fits of poor sportsmanship during games, were commonplace. Problems still arise, but things are starting to turn around.
“Chris’s heart is so big, he wants to save everybody,” DeGrood says.
His size makes Samuels naturally intimidating, but his players know him as a gentle giant. He wears blue customized Nike sneakers; the right shoe says “Coach,” the left “Chris.” (“The kids give me a little crap about them,” he says.)
He also has something of a catch phrase any time he has to scold a player.
“He’ll always finish with, ‘You know I love you,’” DeGrood says.
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Samuels has a soft spot for his offensive linemen. “I understand what those guys go through,” he says. “They get no love.” His linemen appreciate him just as much. “I listen to him because I know that what he is saying is right,” Lane says. “He’s made me a lot better player than I was at the beginning of the season.”
In addition to football tutelage, Samuels and his staff also provide PBJs before practice, Chick-fil-A on gamedays and often drive players home. And if that wasn’t enough, DeGrood says Samuels and Washington plan to donate their coaching salaries back to the football program. “They’ve been extremely generous,” DeGrood says. “The rest of our staff is the same way, they just didn’t have the means to do it before these three came.”
At the end of his season, Samuels has time to reflect on his first year as a head coach. He’s asked what he’ll do if the Bears, or the Bucs, or another NFL team comes calling.
He laughs. “I’ve got my hands full with just high school!”