Johnny Sample

Johnny Sample, then a cornerback with the New York Jets, chats with an official during a 1968 game at Shea Stadium.

Like a snowball rolling down a hill, a drive to get the late Johnny Sample enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is gaining momentum. A long-overdue effort to put the Overbrook High School alum and the only man to win an NFL, AFL and Super Bowl championship has seemingly been revived with vigor.

Sample’s daughter, Evelyn Sample-Oates, has worked tirelessly on the project. She was extremely pleased and surprised to learn that many others want to join the campaign. One of those interested in lending a hand has a championship pedigree in college basketball.

Eric Smith, a former standout player at Georgetown University, would like to see a bust of Sample in Canton, Ohio. Smith, a valued 6-foot-5 swingman who helped create “Hoya Paranoia,” knows a little something about football. He was a three-sport star at Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland. He was a first-team All-Met selection in football and basketball and won Maryland state championships in both sports.

Smith, who was named Georgetown’s most valuable player for the 1981-82 season, has some noted partners who have expressed a desire to be involved. Kelvin Edwards, a former wide receiver with the New Orleans Saints and the Dallas Cowboys, is a Smith associate. Broadcasting legend James “JB” Brown, host of “The NFL Today” on CBS, could also be counted on for support.

Locally, politicians have jumped on the Johnny Sample for the Pro Football Hall of Fame bandwagon. On Sept. 12, the Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution urging the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee to elect Sample as a member, citing his legacy as a pioneering athlete broadcaster and activist. The resolution was introduced by council member Kenyatta Johnson (D-2).

In August, the Hall of Fame announced that it will increase the number of inductees in 2020 to celebrate the NFL’s 100th anniversary. Ordinarily, it enshrines around eight inductees, but the board of trustees unanimously passed a ruling to raise the number to 20 in a special one-time Centennial Class for 2020.

The process for the special Centennial Class will include the election of five modern-era finalists. The selection will start with 100 individuals, then be narrowed to 50, then 25 and then 15. Those 15 will be brought in for Selection Saturday and from there the final five will be selected.

The Hall of Fame will also select 10 seniors. The 10 seniors, three contributors and two coaches will be selected by a special Blue Ribbon committee. Those 15 choices along with the five other finalists will bring the total of 2020 inductees to 20.

The odds may be against Sample getting in, but his credentials make him worthy of consideration.

Sample, who was 67 when he died in 2005 in Philadelphia, won National Football League championships in 1958 and ‘59 with the Baltimore Colts and the American Football League and Super Bowl III championships in the 1968 season with the New York Jets. A hard-hitting, trash-talking defensive back, he started in all three title games.

During his 11 seasons playing professional football, Sample collected 41 interceptions, which he returned for 460 yards and four touchdowns. He recovered 13 fumbles, returning them for 61 yards. On special teams, he returned 68 punts for 559 yards and a touchdown, along with 60 kickoffs for 1,560 yards and a touchdown. In 1961, he led the NFL in punt return yards.

Born in Cape Charles, Virginia, Sample attended Overbrook High School and played collegiately at Maryland State College, now called the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically Black school about 130 miles southeast of Baltimore.

In 1958, Sample became the first player from a historically Black college or university invited to play in the College All-Star game against the defending NFL champion. A running back in college, Sample was converted to defensive back as a rookie with the Colts. He played on a Colts team that included Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and Art Donovan.

Sample, who was critical of the NFL and its pay disparity between Black and white players, wrote a scathing autobiography, “Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer,” when he retired.

Looking for a new challenge, he found it in tennis. For several years he was ranked as the No. 1 men’s player by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in the age 45-and-over category. He later became a tennis official, a linesman, and a chair umpire at events such as the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open.

Inducted into the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Hawk Hall of Fame in 1977, Sample was a voice in sports talk radio in Philadelphia.

He was also an activist. Sample was responsible for hundreds of Black men getting to Washington, D.C., for the first Million Man March in 1995.

“He worked hard, stayed focused and accomplished what no other player in the NFL has yet to do,” said Sample-Oates. “He loved the game and excelled in the sport. He played during a difficult time for people of color, yet he stayed the course.

“He received unequal pay, endured discriminatory treatment and poor conditions, yet continued to play the sport and contribute to championship wins. I’m very proud of the man he was and the legacy he leaves behind.”

dbell@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5746

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