Throwback Thursday: Johnny Sample
TSF will document extraordinary moments and outstanding persons in history with Throwback Thursday. This Thursday TBR highlights Johnny Sample.
Question: Name the starter in two of the most celebrated games in NFL history? Johnny Unitas? Nope, Unitas did not start in Super Bowl III – backup Earl Morrall replace and injured Unitas and went on to win the NFL MVP leading the Baltimore Colts to a 13-1 record in 1968.
The answer is Johnny Sample defensive back for the Baltimore Colts (1958-60) and the New York Jets (1966-1969).
As a rookie, Sample played a minimal role in the Colts’ 1958 Championship game against the N.Y. Giants–which the Colts won 23-17 in sudden death overtime. It was a game that many considered the greatest in league history. It was also the game that brought professional football into living rooms across the country.
Sample played a more prominent role in Super Bowl III as the Jets secondary held the Colts passing attack to 181 yards passing going a dismal 17 for 41. In the first half of that game Sample picked off Earl Morrall on the Jets 2-yard line, which would prove to be pivotal in the Jets 16-7 shocker.
Unknown to many, the Jets victory in Super Bowl III saved the Super Bowl and the NFL as we know it. The NFL’s dominance over the AFL was apparent in the first two Super Bowls, which turned out to be lopsided victories for the Green Bay Packers. (Kansas City 35-10, and Oakland 33-14). Had the Jets lost this game Pete Rozelle would’ve been pinned into a corner and the merger more than likely would have never come to fruition.
Super Bowl III would be the last game of Sample’s career, sandwiched between those two games was the famous “Heidi” game in 1966 between the Jets and the Raiders who scored two touchdowns in the final 42 seconds to defeat the Jets 43-32. NBC did not show the final 50 seconds so that the movie “Heidi” would begin on time.
Sample finished his 11 NFL/AFL seasons with 41 interceptions, which he returned for 460 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also 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. Sample led the NFL in punt return yards in 1961.
Greater still was Sample’s willingness to stand up for Black athletes that were being mistreated on other teams – in 1970 he testified before a grand jury about racist practices throughout the league. He delved deeper into that subject in his book “Confessions of a Dirty Football Player.”
Prior to his passing in 2005 at the age of 67, Sample was active in the Philadelphia sports community along with his friend of many years Sonny Hill.
Sample was also an exceptional tennis player winning championships in his 40’s and 50’s. He became an official and worked several tournaments. He would go on to raise funds to create The Johnny Sample Tennis Classic, a program geared to help inner city children learn the game of tennis.
As is the case with many those who buck the system the are erased from the books of HIS-tory but not our Memory, Sample’s decry of racism in the game that he loved so much may have cost him a bust in Canton but it gained him a place among freedom-fighting immortals.