John B. Sample Jr. was born and raised in Portsmouth, VA and was known to friends as Happy, Blade, Reds, and Redball. He died suddenly in his hometown of Philadelphia in April 2006. He was 69 years old.
I received a call from Johnny’s friend basketball legend and youth advocate Sonny Hill with the bad news. In a conversation with Coach Gaines’ wife Clara, she said, “Harold I never thought Gaines would die.” It was eerie because I had that same feeling about Johnny Sample, even though I knew better.
I had just spoken with Johnny before heading south to the memorial service for “Bighouse.” He said he was going to try to make it, but I didn’t look for him. Johnny was notorious for not showing up. I have heard all the stories but I don’t ever remember him giving me his word and not keeping it.
He was always there for all of my celebrity tennis tournaments, media panel discussions, award programs, radio and television talk shows, etc. Compared to today’s pro athlete, he was a Saint.
I first saw Johnny Sample in Washington, DC in 1954. He was a member of the Maryland State football team and they were in town to play Howard University at the Cardozo High School football stadium.
I was amazed that he didn’t wear thigh and knee pads; he worn his pants, skin tight. The shoulder pads were so small it didn’t look like he had any on. His level of play that day was like a Man among boys.
Howard University was no match for Johnny Sample and his teammates. It was here that I came away with the impression that Johnny Sample was indestructible. It would be years later before I would meet Johnny face to face. It was at a Baltimore Bullets’ (Wizards) basketball game at the Baltimore Civic Center.
He was a member of the Baltimore Colts football team. He was standing around outside of the bar during halftime laughing and talking with anyone and everyone. I decided to go up and introduce myself, and we have been great friends ever since.
It was easy to like Johnny Sample; he had an outgoing personality and he made you feel like he had known you all of his life. There was nothing phony or pretentious about him. If you didn’t want to hear the truth, you didn’t want to be around Johnny Sample.
Michael Cooper is one the greatest running backs to ever come out of the Philadelphia public school system. He was one of Johnny’s closest friends. He played at North East high school and Michigan State.
Michael remembers when he was invited to the Washington Redskin camp in 1964 for a try out by then Coach Bill McPeak.
It looked as though Michael was a sure bet to make the team until one day Coach McPeak decided it best he go on the Redskin taxi squad.
Johnny disagreed with the coach’s decision and let him know in no uncertain terms. He would run through a brick wall if you were his friend. Michael recalls his many acts of kindness for his friends. He says, “Johnny Sample was not a fly by night friend, if you needed him, he was there.”
When his friend and teammate the legendary 'Big Daddy' Lipscomb was mysteriously found dead in Baltimore, the NFL claimed he died of an overdose of drugs. Johnny knew for a fact 'Big Daddy' didn’t do drugs. He said, 'Big Daddy was scared to death of needles.'
He sued the NFL for $100,000 to clear his friend’s name and won the battle. Johnny would lose the war NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle declared on him.
Coming out of Maryland State College, he was one the greatest running backs in the nation. In 1955, he was voted unanimously by The Pigskin Club of Washington, DC as its “Player of the Year” for the Central Inter-collegian Athletic Association (CIAA).
He was the first ever player from a Historical Black College selected to play in the College All-Star game in Chicago.
His NFL career would be controversial, but his athletic skills were never questioned. His mouth often got him into trouble, but his play on the field would often be his ticket out of the NFL doghouse.
During his 11-year NFL tenure he was one of the most feared defensive backs in pro football. Roy Jefferson a former teammate and All-Pro wide receiver says, “If you caught the football in his territory you were going to pay the price.”
Hall of Fame All-Pro wide receiver Frank Gifford of the New York Giants was so fearful that he once saw Johnny on a New York street corner and ran to the other side against a red light to get away from him.
Johnny made "The Bump and Run" against NFL wide receivers an art form. He would hold some All-Pro receivers to no catches for an entire game.
He was the co-captain with QB Joe Namath of the New York Jets when Namath boldly predicted that the Jets would upset the Baltimore Colts and win the Super Bowl. He is the only player in pro football history to win World Championships in two different leagues (NFL and AFL).
In 1969 Johnny walked away from the game that he loved. He was much more than a great athlete he was a student of the game. Johnny could disrupt the flow of a game by calling out the offensive play as the opposing team came out to line up.
The QB would immediately call a timeout and cuss Johnny out as he made his way to the sideline. There were many who thought he would have been a great NFL coach, but he had burned too many NFL bridges.
Immediately after retirement he went to work on his first novel, “Confessions of a Dirty Football Player.” This book outlined the mercenary world of professional football. In an interview on my television sports talk show roundtable “Legends of Inside Sports” Jim Brown asked the question, 'Johnny were you a dirty football player or just a hard clean player?'
His response, 'I was never dirty, except when I played against you.' The NFL Roundtable panel included, Roy Jefferson, Willie Wood, and JB Brown all they could do was laugh along with Jim.
Johnny was not one to just sit around after his NFL career. He became an entrepreneur and owned a ticket agency and sporting goods store called, Sample’s End Zone. He later taught himself the game of tennis and quickly excelled.
He was the No. 1 player in the country in the United States Tennis (USTA), 45 and over category for several years running. He would later serve as a tennis official for the USTA, Wimbledon, US, French and Australian Opens and chair umpire, linesman and referee for the USTA.
His inner-city youth tennis program was one of the largest and best run in the country. Tennis to him was all about, love, love and more love.
In February of 2004, he was inducted into the CIAA Hall of Fame in Raleigh, NC. This was almost 50 years after he had graduated from college. The first question he asked when he took the microphone, “CIAA what took you so long?”
Johnny and I had often talked about being “Blackballed” by the system is one thing, but to be “Blackballed” by your own people is a tough pill to swallow.
Johnny Sample’s induction into the Hall of Fame could not have come at a better time. In this case better late than never. This was definitely a highlight in his long distinguishing odyssey into the world of politics and sports.
During his induction speech he asked me to stand up and be recognized as the pioneer in sports talk radio. He was always reaching and giving something back. Johnny also excelled as a sports talk show host on W-H-A-T Radio in Philadelphia from 1988 to 2004. Johnny used his sports talk show as a vehicle to improve the growth of his community.
As a community advocate, he was instrumental in several projects.
The crown jewel was the Million Man March in 1986 when he organized seventy-three buses from Philadelphia and parts of New Jersey to Washington, DC. In my world he was a special man.
I was pleased to see my name in the program as an Honorary Pallbearer for the great Johnny Sample. “Redball” it was my honor. Johnny Sample is gone but he is not forgotten.