Johnny Sample’s play was loud as an NFL cornerback in the 1950s and 1960s. His words were even louder, on and off the field.
Sample played 11 seasons (1958-68) with the Baltimore Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins and New York Jets — and played them at a high level. He intercepted eight passes in one season for the Steelers, seven in one season for the Jets and six in one season for the Redskins.
Sample was a starter in two of the most famous championships in NFL history, the 1958 game between his Colts and the New York Giants and the 1969 game between his Jets and the Baltimore Colts. The 1958 game was the NFL’s first overtime, won by the Colts, and the 1969 game was the monumental Super Bowl upset by the AFL champion Jets.
Sample started in three championship games in his career and won them all. He intercepted passes in two of the games, including one he ran back 42 yards for a Baltimore touchdown in the 1959 game against the Giants. He intercepted 41 passes in his career and returned six of them for scores.
Sample enjoyed a career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration – but there has been no such discussion in his 45 years of eligibility. He passed away in 2005 at the age of 67 and his candidacy is now collecting dust in the senior committee.
Sample played his college football at Maryland Eastern Shore and, in 1958, became the first player from an historically black college (HBCU) invited to play in the College All-Star game against the defending NFL champion.
His last football game also involved the College All Stars – this time as a member of the champion Jets in the 1969. He got into a scuffle with All-Stars coach Otto Graham on the sideline during the game and head-butted the former Hall of Fame quarterback. There had been a feud between the two men that had been simmering for more than a decade and Sample claimed Graham threw the first punch. Sample suffered a back injury later in the game and never played again.
Sample was outspoken during and after his career about racism in the NFL and the pay disparity between blacks and whites. He also was one of the game’s first and reportedly best trash talkers. After he retired, he wrote the book, “Confessions of a Dirty Ball Player,” in which he pulled no punches. He wrote about the issues he had with his NFL coaches and with league commissioner Pete Rozelle.
So Sample was not about to win any popularity contests in the league’s inner circle. Which may explain why, despite his interceptions and championship rings, he was never voted to a Pro Bowl nor was he ever a first-team all-pro selection.
Lost amid the controversy that always seemed to swirl around him were his elite football skills. Sample was a big cornerback (6-1, 210) and one of the early masters of bump-and-run coverage. He was as physical as he was vocal on the field.
In addition to his 41 interceptions Sample recovered 14 fumbles. He also returned punts and kickoffs. He led the NFL in punt returns with an average of 10.9 yards in 1961 with a touchdown. He also averaged 26 yards on his 60 career kickoff returns with another touchdown.
Sample intercepted a team-leading six passes for Washington in 1965. But the Redskins changed coaches that offseason, hiring Graham, and decided not to bring Sample back in 1966. At age 30, Sample believed he was being blackballed and phoned his old Baltimore coach Weeb Ewbank, now in the rival AFL, looking for work. Ewbank was the head coach of the AFL Jets – and Sample walked right in as a starter that season and intercepted a team-leading six passes.
Two years later Sample was a defensive captain of those 1969 Jets, who were an 18-point underdog in that Super Bowl against the Colts. A Sample interception in that game was pivotal in the upset. With the Jets up 7-0 late in the second quarter, the Colts drove to the New York 15 hoping to forge a 7-7 tie by halftime. But Sample intercepted Earl Morrall at the goal line – and the Colts never got close to the Jets thereafter.
That Super Bowl closed the book on Sample’s career. But there should have been one final chapter – the discussion of his career by the Hall of Fame selection committee.
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