Philly loses sports legend

Johnny Sample passed away on Tuesday at a hospital in Philadelphia. He was a hard hitting defensive back on several NFL teams in the 50’s and 60’s, and played in two of the most famous games ever: the 1958 sudden death game between the Giants and the Colts and Super Bowl III. He decided to make his home in Philadelphia after he retired from football. He also happened to be born just a few miles away from me on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. I interviewed him on the sports radio program I hosted a couple of years ago. Here are some highlights from an interesting interview with a guy that played with both Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath.

JGT: Mr. Sample, welcome to the show. You were a rookie in 1958, correct?
JGT: So you were at the sudden death game in which the Colts beat the Giants.
SAMPLE: I played the entire second half and the overtime for the defense.
JGT: Was there any inkling at the time of how important that game would be for football?
SAMPLE: No-one knew, because it had never been done before. There had never been a sudden death game in the NFL, and the players on the sidelines weren’t sure what the rules were. Everybody was asking each other what we was going on, and how we were supposed to line up.
JGT: You played with three of the greatest quarterbacks ever. You played with Unitas, Joe Namath, and Sonny Jurgenson.
SAMPLE: And I also played with Bobby Lane, who was a great quarterback.
JGT: A lot of people think that Johnny Unitas is the greatest QB of all time. You played with him. Where do you think Johnny Unitas stacks up among the greatest quarterbacks ever?
SAMPLE: He was by far the greatest quarterback to ever play. There is no question about it. He called his own plays, he didn’t make mistakes, he made great decisions. Even in that ’58 sudden death game, he told Weeb Ewbank (the Colts coach at the time) when he was on that final drive, “We’re not going to kick a field goal. We’re going to score a touchdown.” And Weeb Ewbank said, “Go right ahead.”
JGT: You played against Unitas in Super Bowl III.
SAMPLE: That’s right, but he was not the Unitas we all knew and loved in Super Bowl III. His arm was hurting him, he couldn’t lift it above his head, it was difficult for him to throw the ball. He was not the same guy.
JGT: But again, from what I’ve read, the Jets still got nervous when he went into the game.
SAMPLE: Well, I was. And I’m sure most of the other guys were, because I told them all week leading up to the game, ‘Be happy that Morrall’s playing’ (Earl Morral, the Colts other QB), because Unitas is still Unitas. And sure enough, they didn’t score a touchdown until he came into the game.
JGT: You played with Joe Namath, one of the more colorful characters ever to play in the game. Did you ever go out and hang out with Namath, or did he kind of do his own thing, not even really with the team?
SAMPLE: I think that everybody that ever played with Namath at any level, in high school, college, or the pros went out with him at one time or another. And New York was the right city for him. He was young, he was nice looking, and he was rich. And a star. So why shouldn’t he go out and have fun? He was single at the time. He got around with a lot of ladies. But when it came down to playing and being at practice, he was always right there on the football field.
JGT: Your final game was Super Bowl III. Did you make a decision to retire on top after that game, or had you already decided to quit?
SAMPLE: I actually went to training camp that next year, but I had hurt my back in the College All-Star game. They don’t have that game anymore. Back then they had a game where the Super Bowl champion played against the college all-stars. I hurt my back in that game, and it didn’t go away during the exhibition season, so I decided to call it a day. You see a lot of guys now who can’t walk, can’t drive a car, because they’re in so much pain. Joe Namath, for instance, has so many problems with his hips and knees. I didn’t want that to happen to me.
JGT: Do you think the game is safer today?
SAMPLE: Definitely, because the doctors today know abou these injuries. It’s not so much exploring what might be wrong with a football player. They know what to do and when to do it.
JGT: You played for several different teams and now you live in Philadelphia. When you’re watching NFL football, who are you rooting for?
SAMPLE: Philadelphia is home to me, so I root for the Eagles. The Jets, I’d love to see them win, but they’ve had terrible management the past 15-20 years.
JGT: Alright, well thanks for coming on the show, Mr. Sample.
SAMPLE: Thank you for having me. And anytime you need me, feel free to give me a call.