Investing in Sams yields nice return

Ravens undrafted rookie emerges as double threat on special teams, offense

Pro Football

October 27, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Marian Sams has seen her undersized yet elusive son B.J. leave spectators slack-jawed with electrifying plays time after time over the years, so when he introduced himself to the nation with a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown on Monday Night Football a little more than three weeks ago, the sight was familiar. And her reaction was typical.

"I was helping him run," she said. "I was like, `Go there, cut back that way.' I was so excited when he scored the touchdown, my husband said he couldn't hear what the announcers were saying."

The Samses can rest assured that only good things were coming out of the announcers' mouths. It is hard to be critical of Sams, who is second on the Ravens in touchdowns with three.

Sams followed that touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs with an even more impressive 78-yard punt return for a touchdown the next week at Washington, and scored his first touchdown from scrimmage on a 5-yard pitch in Sunday's win over the Buffalo Bills.

Now Sams, whose 14.2-yard punt return average leads the AFC, has become the talk of two cities - his current residence in Baltimore and his longtime home of Mandeville, La., which has a population of a little more than 7,000 and rests on the northern end of Lake Pontchartrain, 35 miles from New Orleans.

Sams' high school honored him when he returned during the Ravens' bye week. Teammates continue to sing Sams' praise, his unassuming, just-happy-to-be-here nature, a contrast to some of the brash behavior of others in the locker room.

And coaches are steadily devising more plays to get the ball into his hands. He has played at running back and receiver. "As you can see, we are continuing to expand his role, do subtle things with him," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

Who would have figured back in May that Sams would be such an intricate part of the Ravens heading into Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles? Not Sams.

"This has exceeded way past what I thought," said Sams, 5 feet 10 and 185 pounds. "I just thought I would get an opportunity to make the team and get out there every once in a while. But I never thought I would be leading the league in punt returns."

Sams' rise has much to do with the sure-handedness he is providing at a position marked by fumbles and miscues during Lamont Brightful's two-year tenure. Sams has misplayed only one punt this year, a fumble he quickly recovered.

Though success has come fairly quickly, Sams swears it has not gone to his head. He says his father, Samuel, a retired officer in the Air Force, and what amounts to a small army of relatives will not let that happen.

Samuel Sams fathered 27 children.

"I have four regular brothers and sisters with my mom and dad," Sams said. "My dad had the rest with three or four other women.

"I don't know all of them. I know about 17, 18 of them. It was real hard being the youngest out of all of those. Everybody said I was spoiled. I treat all of them with respect and everything."

Despite the over-extended family, Sams said his childhood, less some chiding from friends who knew about Samuel Sams' large number of offspring, was fairly normal. He lived in the same place his whole life, was an all-state performer in high school and went on to become the Southland Conference Player of the Year at McNeese State his senior season.

"I got messed with all the time. But most people just said, `Much respect to your dad for having all those kids,' " Sams said.

Said Marian Sams: "The other siblings were grown when he came along, so he basically had two sisters and brothers. They were very supportive of him."

So have the Ravens ever since he signed as an undrafted free agent. Shortly after Sams arrived for the first minicamp, coaches and administrators seemed to want him to seize control of the return specialist job. That optimism did not waver even after Sams broke his thumb early in training camp.

"From the first minicamp on, you saw there was something there, consistency through and through," Billick said.

Sams became the pet project of Ravens special teams coordinator Gary Zauner. The two still meet for 30 minutes every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, devising a game plan to counteract punts that are going increasingly farther away from Sams with every passing week.

The Ravens, though, realize teams cannot totally keep from punting to Sams, mainly because punt-blocking specialist Ed Reed is usually coming off one of the corners, altering the punter's timing. The punt Sams took back for a touchdown against the Redskins was hurried, low and at an angle that allowed Sams to have nearly a clear path down the sideline to the end zone.

"They are so worried about [Reed] blocking punts that the punters are punting fast with less hang time," Zauner said. "They usually keep an extra guy to help block Ed Reed. But the biggest thing is we got a guy who can catch the ball and move upfield very quickly, not sitting there dancing with it."

That is something those blocking for him love. "You take extra pride in keeping your man from making the play because you know if one man misses, he can go the distance," linebacker Cornell Brown said.

What's next for Sams is a goal that would seem unthinkable for a rookie free agent - making the Pro Bowl. If he ties or breaks Jack Christiansen's record of four punt returns for a touchdown as a rookie (in 1951), Sams would be the favorite to get there.

"As the season goes on, the game has gotten easier and easier for me," Sams said. "Now it's staying at No. 1 and hopefully making it to the Pro Bowl."

NOTE: Deion Sanders' 48-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Bills was nominated for the NFL's Play of the Week. Fans can vote at NFL.com.

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (4-2) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (6-0)

Site: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Eagles by 7 1/2

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