The Ballad of Sam Atoe

The Ballad of Sam Atoe

Sam Atoe's road from little-known Santa Rosa (Calif.) Maria Carrillo tailback to Cal defensive back commit has been long and winding, but after four hours of discussion and TWO commitment calls to two different schools on Sunday, Atoe finally has a home.

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For four hours on Sunday night, Sam Atoe, his parents and College of San Mateo defensive coordinator Tim Tulloch sat and talked. Atoe – a two-star defensive back – had a decision to make, and not very long to make it. It had been just shy of three years since he first stepped onto the campus of the University of California, and fell in love. It had been less than a day since he finished his official visit to Berkeley. He had until Wednesday -- JuCo early signing day -- to make his decision.

In four hours, he lived those last three years over again.

*****

It was March of 2010 when I first met Atoe. It was at a recruiting seminar held at the Haas School of Business.

He was the running back at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Maria Carrillo, a school of 1,400 students, 60 miles north of San Francisco. It might as well have been on another planet. Very few coaches had heard of him. Fewer paid him any mind.

I can still see him being called down to the front of the lecture hall, in his Hawaii hat and Golden State Warriors jersey -- Navy, with orange and gold trim.

That particular segment was about the bump rule, how coaches would clap a prospect on the shoulder to ascertain muscle density. The presenter demonstrated that technique, and as soon as his hand landed upon Atoe's shoulder with a fleshy thud, his eyebrows shot up. Atoe remained placid, despite looking for all the world to be smuggling potatoes in his biceps.

"Coaches are going to love you," the presenter said. Atoe didn't so much as smile. He just nodded.

Atoe hadn't gotten much love. To be honest, he hadn't gotten any, save for an invite to Cal's junior day.

Atoe was second-team All-Empire League as a tailback in 2008, and took home second-team honors as a strong safety. He rushed for over 900 yards as a tailback his junior season (in which he was the MVP of the North Bay League), but most schools who saw his tape – and there weren't many – saw him as a linebacker or a strong safety. He came to Cal's three-day camp, still intent on learning the defensive side of things, playing on the same team with Dylan Wynn, Patrick Skov and Mustafa Jalil. Then-offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig told Atoe that the Bears would be "keeping a good eye" on Atoe. Atoe shined. He repped at middle and outside linebacker and was a vocal leader on a defense with plenty of Division I talent.

As a senior, he played almost exclusively on the defensive side of the ball, and excelled.

He attended a National Underclassman Combine camp and took home the MVP. No traction. He impressed at the Palo Alto NIKE Camp. Still, barely a whisper. He did just about everything a small-school player could do in order to get noticed, to no avail.

The June after his junior season, Atoe got an offer from San Diego State – what he was hoping would be the first of many. The rest simply didn't come. In January, he signed with the Aztecs.

"San Diego State was pretty much the only D1 school that was offering me," Atoe says. "I had Sac State, but that was D1AA. I just took my best chance, so I ended up signing with San Diego State, and then, along the road, my GPA didn't make my SAT score [along a sliding scale]."

After signing with the Aztecs, set to play the "Aztec" safety position in San Diego State's 3-3-5 defense – strong enough to play bigger at linebacker, but quick and rangy enough to play defensive back – Atoe failed to qualify. He had a decision to make.

*****

Back in Tulloch's office, the debate continues. Atoe's visit to Berkeley was eye-opening. He'd lived in the Bay Area all his life, but Atoe had never played tourist. This weekend, he did.

"One of the coolest things was they took us on the ferry, all the way to the city, so we went to the city, to Pier 39. We went there, had dinner, got to walk AT&T Park, so that was pretty interesting," Atoe says. "I thought that was pretty fun. Outside of football, that was pretty cool. I'm from the Bay Area, so I've seen a lot of that stuff, but I've never been on that kind of tour."

Atoe wasn't just concerned with the scenery, though. He knew he had to get his academic ship in order once he got onto campus. Luckily for him, the Bears were right there to show him what kinds of resources he'd have, and what would be expected of him.

"With what happened last year [with the APR numbers], they're changing a lot of things, as far as academics," says Atoe. "They're enforcing all their athletes to sit in the first five rows, because last year put a bad name on them, so they want everyone to sit in the first five rows in class, and if they don't they'll get punished. They meet with tutors two to three times a week. They have this thing where they test you to see what type of learner you are, so I'm more of a hands-on kind of guy, so when I go in there, I'm going to most like test out as a hands-on kind of guy, so they'll probably find teachers who fit my learning style. That'll be easier.

"I meet up with this lady who's pretty much the head of all of our academics, and she's the one who takes care of us and she knows everything: what we're doing in class, how we're doing in class, when we miss class. There's structure. How they're handling things and trying to recover from last year, I believe in what they're doing, and myself, as a student, I believe I can really excel there."

After previous trips to Texas Tech and TCU, it was comforting to be on campus not only with two current Bulldogs teammates in would-be commit Trevor Kelly and defensive back Deshane Hines, but also a close friend in former College of San Mateo standout Sione Sina.

"Oh, man, we hung out a lot," says Atoe. "We spent a lot of time together, so when I visited Cal, that's who I was hanging out with. We're pretty good friends."

Atoe got to meet with his recruiter -- defensive coordinator Andy Buh, who had himself played junior college ball with Tulloch at Palomar College. It was because of Tulloch that Buh and the staff even got a look at Atoe in the first place.

"Shoot. Before they had offered me, I had only had six schools from out west, and then two schools from the Big 12, so when it was coming closer to making a decision, I sat down with Coach T in his office, and he asked, ‘Do you have any other schools you want to go to, or that you have in mind?' I said, ‘Man, I would love to go Pac-12, maybe somewhere like Cal,'" says Atoe. "I guess he called him, and Coach T was really pushing for me. He put my name out there, and I was fortunate enough that Cal was able to put my film on the table and watch my film. They came out and offered me."

The Bears coaching staff instantly took a liking to Atoe. He's a grinder. He's as blue-collar as they come. He wants to major in landscape architecture because, he says, he's been mowing his mother's lawn, planting flowers and hauling soil as far back as he can remember. It used to be a chore, but he actually came to enjoy it. He puts his head down, and sets himself to his task, whether it's laying down a flower bed or laying out an opposing receiver.

At 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, Atoe is just about 10 pounds heavier than he was coming out of high school. His weight room numbers have improved a bit – he can bench 330 pounds for a five-rep max, squats 360 for a five-rep max, has a 275 hang clean five-rep max, runs a 4.5-second 40 (just a tick faster than out of high school) and has improved his vertical leap from 30 to 33 inches. He is, for all intents and purposes, the same player. But, he's not the same man, and it isn't just the addition of a beard.

As a freshman at CSM, Atoe had more tackles than his friend Sina (57 in 11 games to Sina's 28 in 8), and tallied 3.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery, one interception for 61 yards and one blocked kick.

As a sophomore at CSM, in just seven games, Atoe racked up 41 total tackles (second on the team with 5.9 per game), 3.5 sacks for -23 yards, 11.5 tackles for loss for -42 yards, one pass breakup and one blocked kick.

The Bears wanted Atoe to help shore up a depleted defensive backfield, and having already played safety, tailback, middle and outside linebacker, the fit was natural: He'd be Cal's nickel, with three years to play two.

"When they offered me, I was like, ‘Man, this is pretty cool,' but, over time, my dream of being at Cal had faded away a little bit, just because I would have been grateful no matter where I went," says Atoe. "It was really whatever school fit me the best."

The offer turned into an official visit, and the visit turned into a marathon debate. Early in the evening on Sunday, Atoe picked up the phone and called TCU.

"At first, I committed to TCU," Atoe says. "We had called TCU and I had said ‘I want to make a verbal commit here,' so that happened, and then right after I shut the phone off, I was like, ‘Ah, I finally feel good,' but we continued to talk about it, about my options."

*****

Options. Atoe had two of them when he couldn't get in to San Diego State.

"The fall semester after I graduated [from high school] in 2011, they had given me a choice. They said, ‘You can either go to the JC, spend two years there, or you can just take the semester and work on your SATs,'" says Atoe. "I ended up choosing to work on my SATs, and took the whole semester, studied for and took the SAT and ended up coming up 70 points short of what I was supposed to get. I ended up not going to San Diego State."

Over the next summer, Atoe worked out at Santa Rosa Junior College, fully intending on enrolling there. He started out at safety, but then, was moved back to tailback – the very position at which he was told he wouldn't be a Division I player. He wasn't thrilled.

"After I didn't make my SAT scores, you know, Santa Rosa JC tried moving me to running back, from safety. I kind of thought that was a bad move for me, just because they were more of a passing team back then, so they only used the running backs, on average, seven times a game, to run the ball," he says. "I figured, ‘Man, that's a waste of time.' I felt that was a waste for me."

Even so, Atoe is nothing if not a team-first player. Wherever he can get on the field, he'll play.

"I just tell coaches, ‘Wherever you guys need me, wherever you want me to play, I'll do it 110 percent. It doesn't matter to me, as long as I get on the field,'" says Atoe. "I've played at a bunch of different positions, but I think that has widened scouts' knowledge about me, because I guess it shows my versatility."

Atoe was fully prepared to grit his teeth and do whatever his coaches wanted him to do. Then, he got a visit from his brother, Phil Jordan.

"My brother, who went to College of San Mateo, ended up coming to my house on a Sunday night, which was the night before school had started for both Santa Rosa JC and College of San Mateo," says Atoe. "My brother's talking to me, and he said, ‘Coach T from San Mateo heard about your situation and he wants you to come down and check them out.' At that point, being that it was the night before school, I was like, ‘I don't know, man. I'm already signed up for all these classes.' He said, ‘Just talk with him real quick, and if you don't like it, then whatever.'

"Coach T gave me the whole spiel about CSM, and honestly, after talking to him, when I hung up that phone, he sold me. I bought into everything he was telling me, and on that same night, I moved to San Mateo from Windsor, which is an hour and a half, two hours away. The next day, I got enrolled into the college of San Mateo and ended up taking classes from there."

*****

Two years later, Tulloch, Atoe and Atoe's parents have just gotten off the phone with the Horned Frogs' staff. Sam is going to Fort Worth, Tex., and will sign with TCU on Wednesday.

Then, the conversation starts to turn.

"The reason why I'm in this position, with all he schools coming and contacting me, was because I have people who know a lot of people, who have a lot of connections," Atoe says. "Coach T, coach [Larry] Owens, coach [Omari] Green, they all know people. I was very fortunate to play for them, and I've been able to grow as a player. They were able to send my film out to people they know, and my name ended up traveling, so I'm very fortunate. Last year, we had 33 sophomores. 32 of them transferred to a four-year college. CSM is well-known for sending out a lot of kids to four-year colleges."

He didn't have to choose a school just to continue playing. He had a choice. As the hours wore on, Atoe remembered his old dream.

"I came down to narrowing down my schools to Cal, TCU and Texas Tech, so I was like, ‘Cal's got to be in my top three for sure.' I took my visits – TCU, Texas Tech and then Cal this past weekend – and then sat down with Coach T, me and my parents at Coach T's office, and it took us probably almost four hours to really make a final decision," says Atoe.

"We brought everything in. The more we went through it, my parents and Coach T opened my eyes up as to my future, without football," Atoe continues. "I thought about it a lot more, and I thought, ‘When football ends – who knows how long football will last for me? – so if I were to just go to a school, as a student, what school would I choose?' Cal was it, without a question. No question: It was Cal."

It was Cal. It was always Cal. Ever since that day in March, 2010, it's been Cal.

"Throughout the four hours, my dad was actually biased," Atoe says. "He was really biased. He was Cal everything. He didn't want me to go to TCU. But, his reasons were good. He was pointing out a lot of things. Academics, everything was academics with him.

"But, when I committed to TCU, he was like, ‘I will support you,' and then, we talked about it some more, and I said, ‘I think I want to go to Cal.' My mom started crying. My dad was so happy. She ended up telling everyone tonight – my whole family. Everyone was really happy. I have a bunch of family over here. Everyone else who doesn't know now, when they'll find out, they'll be pretty excited for me."

Between Atoe, his brother, parents and two sisters, plus a handful of assorted relatives, there were 12 people in the Atoe house on Sunday night, following his decision. That family has been Atoe's rock for the past three years. It's what's allowed him to keep pursuing his dream.

Atoe reflects on the past three years as he basks in the afterglow of his commitment.

"I've had a long day, a real stressful evening, but it was all worth it," he sighs. "It was so stressful. I guess you can say, ‘Be careful what you wish for.' As an athlete, you want to go to a D1, you want all these offers, but once you're in that position, you don't realize how stressful it is. You go through so much talking with coaches, coaches pressuring you, all this other stuff that you have to consider as far as making the right decision. But, I'm blessed, and I'm really grateful for this opportunity.

"I've come a long way, to come to the school that I've always dreamed of coming to. It's definitely a blessing."

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