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Coming Of Age With a nose for the ballcarrier and an unwavering focus, inside linebacker Sam Cowart has emerged as the star of the Bills' unsung defense

Oct. 02, 2000
Oct. 02, 2000

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Oct. 2, 2000

Olympics 2000

Coming Of Age With a nose for the ballcarrier and an unwavering focus, inside linebacker Sam Cowart has emerged as the star of the Bills' unsung defense

Nearly an hour after practice has ended for the Buffalo Bills, Sam
Cowart flops down on the black leather couch in the living room
of his suburban town house. Clad in sweats with a baseball cap
pulled down low on his forehead, Buffalo's inside linebacker is
easygoing and sincere enough that he doesn't come across as
aloof. He doesn't seek out the spotlight, which helps explain why
he's one of the most underrated players in the NFL.

This is an article from the Oct. 2, 2000 issue Original Layout

But as Cowart begins to talk about his past, a funny thing
happens: His ego betrays his humility. For while he's sitting
there downplaying his talents, an image flashes across his
big-screen television, a highlight on the local news of Cowart's
tackling Green Bay Packers running back Ahman Green. He tries to
keep his gaze fixed on his guest, but his instincts tell him to
take a peek, and then he points at the screen, beaming. In that
moment Cowart's secret is out. For as quiet as he may be, he's
proud of what a special player he has become.

"I remember having a conversation with Sam in the off-season,"
says John Shannon, Cowart's godfather. "He said [defensive end]
Bruce Smith, [wideout] Andre Reed and [running back] Thurman
Thomas were all gone this year and it was time for him to step to
the front of the class. He said, 'If I keep playing well, sooner
or later, people will start looking at me.'"

In many ways, the 6'2", 245-pound Cowart is emblematic of
Buffalo's defense, a stellar unit whose efforts have gone
relatively unnoticed. Despite leading the NFL in total defense
and passing defense and ranking second in points allowed last
season, the Bills didn't send one defender to the Pro Bowl. Many
with the club believe that Cowart, who finished with a team-high
186 tackles, suffered the most egregious snub.

This season, despite the departure of four starters--Smith,
linebacker Gabe Northern, cornerback Thomas Smith and free safety
Kurt Schulz--the Bills again are fielding one of the league's top
defenses. Buffalo ranks second in the league against the run, and
Cowart is leading the charge. As Buffalo (2-1) prepares to meet
the Indianapolis Colts this week, Cowart already has 51 tackles,
a pace that would give him a team-record 272 by season's end.

"In this league you need a year to gain some recognition, and
then you need to be consistent," says Cowart, who had 23 tackles
and an interception in the Bills' last outing, a 27-14 loss to
the New York Jets on Sept. 17. "I was disappointed that nobody
from our team made the Pro Bowl, but I knew that last year would
be a chance for me to get my name out there. Plus, you have
linebackers like [the Baltimore Ravens'] Ray Lewis, [the Miami
Dolphins'] Zach Thomas and [the San Diego Chargers'] Junior Seau
in the AFC, so you can't just be good every week. You have to
play great to be recognized."

"Some guys play like they're the only one out there and they have
to make the tackle," says Packers director of pro personnel
Reggie McKenzie. "Sam is like that. Whether he gives ground or he
has to run under or around a blocker, he does whatever is
necessary to get in on the play. You can teach technique and
proper angles, but the things he does instinctively are not the
norm."

Wherever the 25-year-old Cowart has played, he has found a way to
shine quickly. He can get so focused on his job that his
teammates occasionally ride him about his seriousness. They say
that when the defense meets during the week and players are
trading wisecracks, Cowart sits stone-faced, his attention
directed to whatever strategies defensive coordinator Ted
Cottrell is devising. "You could count the times Sam says
something to you other than 'Hello,'" quips Bills defensive end
Marcellus Wiley.

It may seem odd, then, to learn that Cowart, who minored in
communications at Florida State, envisions a career in television
after he's done playing. He even spent a week this summer at
Craig James's broadcasting school in Dallas. But it's just one
more sign that Cowart, a quiet leader and self-described loner,
is blossoming.

"Sam is speaking his mind more, which is good, but he never said
anything before," says defensive end Phil Hansen. "He just put on
his pads, went about his work, got his treatment and went home."

Cowart's unflappable demeanor and work ethic are rooted in his
childhood in Jacksonville, where he learned early that making
good decisions was essential. On the night of Sept. 25, 1989,
Cowart, then 14, was lounging around the house long after his
mother, Harriet, had told him to go to bed. The 11 o'clock news
was on when a news flash came across the screen. First the
broadcaster mentioned a murder. Then Sam saw a car that looked
like the one his 19-year-old sister, LaShawn, drove. Cowart
sensed trouble. When the police arrived at his house later that
night, Cowart learned that LaShawn and her two-year-old son,
Travis, had been shot and killed by Michael Bell, whom LaShawn
had been dating. (Bell pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for
the offenses and is on death row in Florida for two other
murders.)

Of Cowart's five siblings, LaShawn was the one to whom he was
closest, the one who always attended his youth football games.
When Sam wanted to learn how to ride a bike, LaShawn would hoist
him on her handlebars, pedal to a friend's house and tell him to
practice until she was done hanging out. As Sam recalls, "She
always told me that she wasn't going to teach me, that I had to
learn to do things by myself."

The most important lesson that Sam took from LaShawn's death was
that he had to watch the company he kept. By his own estimation
he has been to Buffalo nightspots about four times in three
years. When he is at his off-season home in Jacksonville, he
spends his free time with his fiancee, Markeisha Oates, their
one-year-old son, Sam IV, and his younger brothers Troy, Rodney,
Rondell and Randy.

"LaShawn's death led me on that straight line early," Cowart
says. "I was always a good student and person. But if I had a
friend my mother didn't like, there was a time when I would still
hang out with that person, even if I knew what he was doing was
wrong. But I learned that I couldn't afford to associate with
certain people."

After LaShawn's death, a grief-stricken Cowart was so down he
didn't want to play his next game at Jacksonville's Northwestern
Junior High, where he was a ninth-grader. Harriet, however,
encouraged her son to play, telling Sam that LaShawn would have
wanted him to compete. Harriet also says she knew that "the only
thing that ever got Sam going, got him really excited, was
football. You could tell by the way he flew around that he loved
playing."

That love of the game was evident when Cowart became a star at
Florida State. His speed, vision and smarts earned him the
nickname "NFL." In fact Cowart became such a force that he had
decided to enter the NFL draft after his junior year. That was
before Florida State met Notre Dame in the 1996 Orange Bowl.

On a draw play early in the game, Cowart dived to make a tackle
and another player--to this day he still doesn't know who because
he refuses to watch the tape of the game--crashed into his left
leg. Cowart tore his anterior cruciate and lateral collateral
ligaments along with his hamstring on the play. Doubts were cast
on his future. "You could tell that people were looking at him
with that sad eye, thinking that his career was over," recalls
Oates.

After a redshirt season, however, Cowart was back on the field in
1997. He changed his jersey number from 56 to 1 because he wanted
to establish that he was starting over. "When Sam did that, I
knew he was on the right track," says Seminoles coach Bobby
Bowden. Cowart earned first-team All-ACC honors and felt so good
about himself that he passed up an invitation to play in the
Senior Bowl, the best postseason showcase for NFL prospects. He
felt he had proved enough to scouts by coming back from a
devastating injury, and he didn't want to chance another one. But
when draft day rolled around, Cowart watched four linebackers go
in the first round while he waited for his name to be called.

"The knee was probably a big concern for a lot of guys," says
Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese. "Some people were
discussing whether he should be an inside guy or an outside guy.
[Cowart played both positions in college.] He is pretty tall for
an inside guy, so I think some people were a little concerned
about that. But he was really productive. He could thump you. We
had him rated high."

Cowart fell into Buffalo's lap in the second round, as the 39th
selection in the draft. The Bills had graded him as a first-round
talent, but they didn't have a first-round pick that year after
having traded it to the Jacksonville Jaguars for quarterback Rob
Johnson. Buffalo general manager John Butler admits that his team
got lucky.

"Sam was a tremendous athlete for his position," Butler says.
"Some guys are tougher-than-nails inside backers. They'll play
tackle to tackle and fill holes. Sam could do that, and he had
great lateral speed. You know the term sideline-to-sideline?
That's Sam Cowart."

It didn't take long for Cowart to prove himself to the Bills. "It
was about the third day of his rookie camp when we knew we had
something special," Cottrell says. By the fourth week of the 1998
season, Cottrell had enough confidence in Cowart to start him
against the San Francisco 49ers. In a team meeting a few weeks
later, Bills coach Wade Phillips announced that he was
permanently switching the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment
because, he said, "we have guys who are ready to play, and we're
going to play them." Then as the meeting broke up, he approached
Cowart and said, "It's time to step up, rookie."

Though Cowart had started the year as a starstruck rookie awed by
the sight of Bruce Smith in the locker room, he totaled 119
tackles that season and teamed with John Holecek to give the
Bills one of the more productive inside linebacker tandems in the
league. "When we went to the 3-4, that's when we became a
dominant defense, because of Sam and the other personnel we had,"
Phillips says.

Cowart continues to improve. Known primarily as a run stopper
before this season, he was usually pulled in passing situations,
but this year he has become an every-down player. Teammates think
that can only help his stock rise, since it'll give him more
opportunities for sacks and interceptions. Cowart is also
becoming more comfortable dealing with all the attention that
comes with being a star.

"I've probably surprised a lot of people because for a long time
I've been considered a second-tier player," Cowart says. "But
after losing the guys we lost, people are starting to recognize
that we still have some good players here."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY VINCENT MANNIELLO/SPORTSCHROME SMOTHERING INSTINCT Cowart,who led Buffalo with 186 tackles last year, is on an even more torrid pace this season.COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON BUSINESS AS USUAL Cowart and the rest of Buffalo's defense, the NFL's top unit in 1999, have been stingy against the run this year too.COLOR PHOTO: E. LEE WHITE FAMILY MAN Cowart says he isn't much for nightlife, preferring to stay close to home with one-year-old Sam IV and Oates.
"Some guys play like they're the only one out there and they
have to make the tackle. Sam is like that."
Cowart says his sister's death taught him that he "couldn't
afford to associate with certain people."