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60 Days ‘Til Kickoff: Chris Samuels

Though many remember John Hannah as the greatest Tide offensive lineman, one could make a strong case for Chris Samuels as the best that played the college game.

SEC Championship
Chris Samuels deserves to be included in the “best to have played the position” conversation.

For old school fans of the Crimson Tide, the preeminent offensive lineman in the illustrious history of Alabama football is John Hannah. There’s no doubt about that. But for more recent admirers of big man play, the case could be made that no tackle has been as dominant in the modern era as former Tide and Redskins great Chris Samuels.

The jovial giant out of Shaw High School in Mobile, AL was, quite simply, one of the finest offensive linemen to ever play the game at the college and pro levels, and his body of work is as consistent as it is spectacular. In honor of the 60 days left until the kickoff of the 2016 season, we take a moment to fondly remember Chris Samuels, #60, one of the greatest to play the game.

The Beginning

The story of number 60 is one of hard work and opportunities seized. The most successful members of society don’t make it on talent or determination alone, but rather some amalgam of the aforementioned, sprinkled liberally with an ample pinch of luck. Samuels’ story is no different, as he did his part, and let Fate sort out the rest.

The Brothers Samuel (there were four of them) were born into a family of modest means, with their father, James, a disabled Vietnam Veteran and their mother, Shirley, a hard-working, God-fearing lady who worked three jobs at times to keep her sons clothed and fed. The eldest brother, Lawrence, had earned a little notoriety locally in Mobile’s working-class neighborhoods adjacent to Hwy. 98 and west of I-65, as he was able to continue his football career past high school as an Arena Football League wide receiver. To many in the Moffett Road neighborhood at the time, he was the closest thing anyone had to a neighborhood sports role model.

Chris would later reveal in interviews that it was Lawrence who sparked, then fanned, his desire to play football. The youngest of his brothers, Chris had undeniable athletic ability for his age. He received his first exposure to organized football at Pine Grove Park, a hard-scrabble clay-and-grass patch nestled down the hill from "Bloody 98."  There, Samuels played running back for the Colts (which is somewhat comical when one recalls his eventual 6-5, 320 pound NFL frame frame.)

High School

His days as a Pine Grove Colt long in the rear view, Chris, a John S. Shaw High School freshman, set his sights on living up to the legend of his gridiron hero, San Francisco receiver and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. He went out for the Rebel football team as a freshman, and though not blessed with the size he would enjoy later in his career, he made the team.

As a freshman football player at Shaw, Samuels was a skinny kid of average height. However, by the end of the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, he had blossomed into straight-up tackle material, shooting up over six feet in height and gaining additional bulk on his large frame. Though Samuels had gotten bigger, he retained the speed, quickness and athleticism of a smaller player, and he used those tools to deal blows to opponents, whether playing on the offensive or defensive lines (Samuels was such a rare combination of size and talent that the Shaw coaching staff kept him on the field on both offense and defense).

As a senior, Samuels was a member of a Shaw team that evolved into a force in 6A football in southwest Alabama. In his sophomore and junior years, his teams at Shaw also featured future Tide safety Kelvin Sigler (a member of Alabama’s 1995 recruiting class) and Auburn defensive lineman (and future NFL’er) Leonardo Carson. Samuels was the undeniable leader of a Shaw team that made it into the AHSAA playoffs in 1996 before finishing with an 8-3 record. The big tackle had been dominant despite a painful neck injury sustained during the season, grading out at no less than 90% in each game of the season.

To most who followed the Shaw program in the mid-1990s, Sigler was the top prospect, a tremendous lumber-laying safety with a talent for returning kicks for touchdowns (he had seven returns for touchdowns in his senior year). But the more Shaw tape that scouts watched, the more they became interested in the explosive huge-framed tackle a year behind Sigler who was locking down the end of the offensive line. Had Samuels not played on the same team as one of the state’s top prospects, he may not have gotten the visibility that ultimately landed him a scholarship offer from Alabama.

With so much talent in the program, scouts from most major SEC schools were prowling around the high school campus. Of course, Gene Stallings’ Tide was interested in the marquis safety prospect Sigler in the ’95 recruiting cycle, as he was one of the state’s top players through his junior and senior years. But when the Alabama contingent came to watch Sigler, they also saw Samuels, and legend has it that Stallings became instantly enamored with the monster tackle with the quick feet. Alabama offered both Sigler and Samuels, and their route to Tuscaloosa was laid clear, with Sigler signing in ’95 and Samuels following him to Tuscaloosa in ‘96.

At Alabama

Samuels was one of the prized jewels in what would be Stallings’ final recruiting class at Alabama, and the young lineman didn’t disappoint, earning the starting left tackle spot halfway through his freshman season. From there, Samuels never looked back, starting every single remaining game of his college career (42 in all) between 1996-1999. Three of those years were spent under the dubious Mike DuBose regime in Tuscaloosa, and despite two subpar years, 1999 was a breakout season for the Tide offense. With Samuels protecting Andrew Zow and carving lanes for fellow future All-Pro Shaun Alexander, the Tide roared to a 10-3 record during Samuels’ senior season.

Just as had been the case in high school, Samuels was a men among boys in the mighty SEC. He was routinely able to drive block SEC-caliber D linemen around the field as though they were on greased roller skates. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see Samuels mangling his primary assignment before looking for additional unfortunate defenders to hit, playing to the whistle on every down. Never the one to take a play off, Samuels was consistent, and in that consistency he was pure relentlessness personified. Opponents could never take a play off, because, by God, the monster tackle in crimson would sure as hell make one pay for such loafing.

Samuels was so quick into his stance off the snap (and as agile as a cat in his drop), that it was rare that even a speed-demon defender could beat him around the end. It simply did not happen short of double-team twist obfuscation. And a defender sure as heck wouldn’t bull-rush through him, with his elite size and Herculean strength. Samuels was, in brief, a one man Great Wall in pass pro, and a raging rhinoceros when run blocking.

Samuels’ stats at Alabama were simply amazing for a player in the nation’s premier football conference. Through 42 games, Samuels never allowed a sack. Not a single one. During his senior season, he didn’t even allow a quarterback hurry. The big man played nearly every down of offensive football in his senior season, and amassed 91 knockdown blocks through thirteen games. There’s no better indicator of a lineman’s run-blocking prowess than the success of the tailback running behind him, and to that effect, Alexander had a fantastic year in ’99, rushing for 1,383 yards.

With those stats came the accolades, as Samuels was named a consensus All-American in his senior season. The big tackle with the mile-wide smile also seized the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best lineman, and was a finalist for the Lombardi Award. In addition, Samuels received the Jacobs Trophy as the SEC’s best blocker.

With his legendary career at the Capstone drawing to a close, the time had come for Samuels to see his childhood dreams come to fruition: he was projected as a first-round draft pick, which not only meant he’d be a professional football player, but also meant he would be able to lift his family out of the rough-and-tumble life they had carved out in working-class Mobile. With a projection as a top-10 pick, Samuels was on the doorstep of watching those dreams unfold before him.

The Redskins

Samuels didn’t have to wait long to learn his fate on Draft Day, as his name was the third one called after the Redskins traded up to take the big tackle early in the first round. He was the top tackle selected in the 2000 NFL Draft, and he was the first offensive lineman to go in the first round since 1978.

Samuels made an immediate impact for the ‘Skins during the 2000 season, snatching the starting role as the left tackle in his first game and never relinquishing it until his retirement a decade later. In a storied career that spanned the 2000-2009 seasons, Samuels proved himself one of the greatest tackles to play the game at any level, with a rare combination of size, strength and quickness. Not only was Samuels an athletic wonder, but he had an intuitive football mind that helped him become one of the most precise, unerring athletes to man the position in modern times.

During his heyday, Samuels was an unstoppable force, lead-blocking for several 1,000 yard rushers (Ledell Betts, Steven Davis and Clinton Portis, to name a few). In 60 percent of his seasons as a professional, Samuels was named an All-Pro (six times), and rightfully so. Through an era of Redskins football that was anything but golden, Samuels was the bright spot, a consistent player who remained remarkably injury-free, and who performed to a standard regardless of the supporting cast around him.

Samuels’ professional playing career came to an end in March 2010 following an injury scare against Carolina in the 2009 season that left him with temporary partial paralysis following a vicious helmet-on-helmet hit. Samuels had been diagnosed as a child with spinal stenosis (a fact that made his legendary durability at Alabama and Washington somewhat surprising), and the compression injury against Carolina led doctors to recommend that he end his playing career prior to the beginning of the 2010 season.

With that, Samuels’ stellar playing career was over. That chapter closed, the big man looked forward to a future in which football still played a major role.

After the NFL

Just because Samuels’ playing days were over didn’t mean he was done with his lifelong love of football. Immediately after retiring, he made it known that he wanted to become a coach. After a stint as an offensive line assistant in the NFL, Samuels agreed to rejoin his Shaw running mate Sigler at Blount High School in Prichard, AL, where the former Tide safety had recently been named head coach. Samuels served as offensive coordinator there in 2011, and with the Shaw/ Tide duo at the helm, the Leopards finished with a 10-2 record and went two rounds deep into the AHSAA football playoffs.

Samuels would only stay at Blount for a year, as in 2012, he and Sigler both were offered positions at their alma mater in Tuscaloosa. Samuels served on Nick Saban’s support staff in an off-field offensive assistant role while competing his degree at Alabama. He graduated with a degree in physical education in 2013.

Samuels left the Capstone in 2015 in pursuit of another venture: namely, the head coaching position at Osbourn High School in Manassas, VA. The Eagles sought a return to their former glory, and Samuels wanted to once again be close to his parents (whom he had moved to Virginia during his Redskins playing days) and carve out more time for his blossoming family (he married longtime girlfriend Monique Cox in 2012). Still in a rebuilding phase, in Samuels’ first year at Osbourn, the Eagles went 4-6.

Not all of Samuels’ contributions have come on the playing field. In 2006, he used some of his sizable NFL fortune to invest back into the community, forming the Chris Samuels Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission to help create affordable housing opportunities and provide mentorship to at-risk youth. The Chris Samuels Foundation to date has partnered with many community youth organizations across the country, and CRS Development (Samuels’ development company) has constructed a multi-use community in Selma, AL for affordable housing and economic development.

While Alabama has a history rife with great offensive linemen (and particularly, tackles) few can muster the deserved respect of Chris Samuels. He succeeded at every level and proved himself worthy of the faith invested him at each step along the way.

(If you’d like to see some grainy-but-great footage of Samuels and Alexander slaying Auburn’s "defense" in the 1999 Iron Bowl, watch this clip. Pay special attention to #60 on Alexander’s touchdown run near the 2:50 mark…Samuels seriously pulled inside from the tackle position and obliterated the interior, so much so that there was no one left to block. Just fantastic stuff…such an athlete. If you’d like to see more from this game, there are about 20 minutes of highlights here. Remember that stunning 40-39 win over Florida in the 1999 SEC Championship Game? Watch here to see more vintage Samuels-Alexander in action. Finally, here’s some good stuff from Bama’s 1999 match-up with then #8 Mississippi State.)