The late Johnny Sample is the only professional football player with an NFL, AFL and Super Bowl championship ring. — AP PHOTO FILE

The late Johnny Sample is the only professional football player with an NFL, AFL and Super Bowl championship ring.

— AP PHOTO FILE

The National Football League is in celebration mode. Its 100th season began Thursday night with a commemorative centennial logo, lots of expectations and the hope that Johnny Sample will finally get enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Last month, the Hall of Fame announced that it will increase the number of inductees in 2020 to celebrate the NFL’s 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 down 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, is the ONLY professional football player to have won all three championships. He won a National Football League championship in 1958 with the Baltimore Colts and then the American Football League and Super Bowl championships in 1969 with the New York Jets — starting 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. The 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 would later attend Overbrook High School in Philadelphia. He went on to play at Maryland State College, now called the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically Black school located 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 a defensive back as a rookie with the Baltimore Colts. He played on a Colts team that included Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and Art Donovan.

A noted trash talker, Sample spoke out about racism in the NFL and the pay disparity between Black and white players. In his book, “Confessions of a Dirty Ball Player,” he was harsh in his criticisms of the league, his coaches and the then league commissioner, Pete Rozelle.

In his last football game, an exhibition match featuring college All-Stars against the Super Bowl III champion New York Jets in 1969, Sample got into a scuffle with the All-Stars coach Otto Graham on the sideline during the game. Sample head-butted the Hall of Fame quarterback, claiming that Graham threw the first punch. The incident was the culmination of a feud that had been festering for more than a decade.

Sample, a 1977 inductee into the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks’ hall of fame, was a rebel who didn’t mind going toe-to-toe if he had to. Perhaps that might explain his omission to Pro Bowls or not being named first team All-Pro.

In 2012, he was posthumously enshrined in the Black College Football Hall, which is housed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame campus in Ohio.

Later in life Sample became heavily involved in youth tennis. In fact, he ran a junior tennis tournament that was highly regarded. In 1995, Sample, who had become a sports radio personality, was a big supporter of the initial Million Man March and was instrumental in filling buses from Philadelphia for the trip to Washington, D.C.

Johnny Sample was about as subtle as a punch in the face. He marched to a beat that many didn’t hear but others felt was in perfect tune. He was a maverick with a vision,

Here’s hoping the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class of 2020 finds a place for a true football legend.

dbell@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5746

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