Back in 1997, Denver Broncos head coach John Fox was in his first season as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator. It didn’t take him very long to realize that there was something special about safety Sam Garnes, the team’s fifth-round draft pick that year.
“I saw very early on that, as a player, he was a real student of the game," Fox said during Tuesday’s Super Bowl Media Day event. "He studied the game, understood it and could relate to players.”
Fox’s observation was reinforced throughout the five seasons he spent coaching Garnes when the two were with the Giants. It turned out to be more than enough time to convince him that the Bronx, N.Y., native had a future in coaching, if that was Garnes' desired career path.
Coaching was indeed in the cards for Garnes, who has been a part of Fox's last two coaching staffs.
His first NFL coaching gig was with Fox's staff in Carolina in 2010 as a special teams assistant. The 39-year old former safety then followed Fox to Denver in 2011 to be the team's assistant secondary coach, the position he still holds today.
Garnes' success and toughness as a player also laid a solid foundation for his coaching career. Garnes, who played college ball at the University of Cincinnati, was known as a physical in-the-box safety who routinely administered hellacious hits on his opponents.
As a rookie, he started 15 of 16 games for the Giants, recording 59 tackles (40 solo) and a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Garnes, who has always been a competitor at every level, said that playing for Fox while the two were with the Giants left a lasting impression on him as both a player and a man.
“I give him a lot of credit,” Garnes said during the Broncos’ hour-long session during Tuesday’s Super Bowl XLVIII Media Day.
“Foxy is someone who was always honest," he said. "You might not always like what he had to say, but that’s a quality I respected, and that helped me grow as a man and then later on as a coach.”
Garnes noted that Fox’s love for the game and his love for coaching has grown over the years to the point where it’s become contagious to those around him.
“You know Foxy—he’s all about winning and wanting to be the best," Garnes said. "That’s the mindset that most players desire."
Garnes said he wanted to get into coaching "because of the example (Fox) set.”
Garnes ended up playing five seasons for the Giants. Coincidentally, his time with the team ended the same season Fox moved on to start his head coaching career.
As a member of the Giants, Garnes played in Super Bowl XXXV against the Baltimore Ravens. He finished his Giants career having started 73 of 74 games played, recording 335 tackles, two sacks, six interceptions for 124 yards, one touchdown, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
As he said at Tuesday's event, it was a time that Garnes looks back upon fondly.
The Giants are a great organization. When I was there as a player, I remember walking out the door after every game, win or lose, Mr. (Wellington) Mara would be standing there, shaking our hands, win or lose. Jessie Armstead, Michael Strahan, Percy Ellsworth, Jason Sehorn—I could go on for days about my guys and the great times we had.
After the 2001 season, Garnes moved across town to spend two seasons with the New York Jets. Unfortunately, his physical style of play had begun taking a toll on his body, and he had little choice but to walk away.
“It really wasn’t hard for me (to retire) because I couldn’t play anymore,” he said. “By the time I got to the end of my career, I didn’t feel like I was as explosive as I used to be.
"I felt like I was in danger of becoming paralyzed because I wasn’t hitting with great form," he added. "So when my time was up, I had a couple of workouts that were set up for me, but I didn’t think it was a good idea. I knew it was time for me to move on.”
Following his final NFL season in 2003, Garnes took a year off from football to let his body rest and heal. During that time, though, he began contemplating a career in coaching.
The following year, he put that plan in motion, starting as the defensive coordinator for Emerson High School in Emerson, N.J.
He then went on to coach the defensive backs for the Cologne Centurions of NFL-Europe.
After a couple of coaching internships, Garnes landed as the defensive backs coach for the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League. The team's head coach was Jim Fassel, the Giants' head coach during Garnes’ tenure.
As part of Fassel's staff, Garnes contributed to the Locomotives’ 2009 championship season. That season also helped set up the springboard for Garnes' 2010 transition to the NFL as a member of Fox's staff.
“He left an impression on me as being (an) honest, straightforward guy," Garnes said of Fox. "At the same time, he loved the players and he had your back. That’s who I am as a coach.”
In his current role with Denver, Garnes helps secondary coach Cory Undlin disseminate the weekly game plan and work with the players on their technique and film study in order to get them prepared for upcoming games.
The job requires long hours, but Garnes, who aspires to some day be a head coach, said he thrives in the challenging environment.
“We’re all trying to be winners, just like we were as players,” he said. “We have certain things we need to get done, and we have time with the players and time among ourselves, so the long hours are great.
"We’re making a lot of sacrifices to do what we love," he continued. "I think a lot of people would easily trade with us to be in our shoes.”
Garnes, who, as previously mentioned, played in one Super Bowl and was involved in a UFL championship, has been sharing the lessons he learned from those experiences with his Broncos players.
His said his biggest piece of advice is simple, yet one that some guys—particularly younger players—tend to overlook.
The team needs to be sure to stay focused in order to get what they want done, he said.
"You don’t just keep getting these opportunities," he said, "so you have to take advantage of them when you do.
He said players should be happy with where they are upon entering the Super Bowl, but that's not enough.
“You don’t want to be just happy to be there; you want to be focused (on) trying to get this victory," he said. "And you can enjoy it afterward.”
If that sounds familiar, it's because it's precisely the message that Fox has been trying to drive home to his team even before they arrived in New Jersey to begin their final preparations for Sunday’s big game.
That’s also why having a messenger—such as Garnes, who’s been there, done that and can relate to the players—is a comfort to Fox.
“He’s been great," Fox said. "He’s been a tremendous addition to our staff. I’m proud and happy he’s with us."
Patricia Traina is a credentialed Super Bowl XLVIII writer who regularly covers the New York Giants. All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow me on Twitter, @Patricia_Traina.