The second release in the weekly profile series on Mustang football players. Check back each Wednesday for new updates.
Vol. 1, 1/12: Tim Campbell
It’s mornings like these where kids wish they were chemistry majors, adding Cu and Mg and studying photosynthesis. Nobody showed up all week to the weight room for workouts, no one cared enough because the head coach was out recruiting, so when the coach returned, he laid down the gauntlet. He woke everyone up at 4 a.m., dragged them all out onto the soccer field behind the Caves Athletic and Wellness Center. They ran for 30 minutes. Then, the coach pulled them over to the turf field shouldering the soccer field and set up cones. He divided the field up into a square and the players started running. They sprinted first to the farthest right corner then did slides over to the left side then bear crawled to the back, sprinted across and finally started it all over again. Over and over they went, the frosty morning temperature barely improving.
It’s a morning Hell. The players are running and sweating and then slowly crumbling and sweating some more. Jeez, am I pushing them too hard? The father in the head coach comes out. It’s a morning of death and it’s killing any lingering doubt among the pacifier-sucking rookies about this game’s seriousness.
One of the larger kids comes floating over, six-foot-four and 18 years of life strapped into one of the defense’s green jerseys, the defensive end that always sticks out – the freshman that they call the puppy and the beast. The coach is standing there, arms crossed, brow clenched, chin and mouth protruded. The kid looks at the Mustangs’ head coach Ed Hottle and sends all of the running back in his face:
“You're not gonna break me, Coach...” Sam Lester warns.
It’s mornings like these where kids wish they didn’t care so much, wish they were still at home, crunching on Corn Pops and watching SportsCenter. Other teenagers spend their vacations sifting through Facebook, posted up in the third-to-last row at the movie theater, glued to the couch watching Real World re-runs. It’s the summer of 2007. Frederick Douglass High School’s head football coach J.C. Pinkney is running a football camp and a 15-year old sophomore named Sam Lester is here. So is Hottle. They work out at dawn four or five days a week.
Hottle would line them up in rows of four or five, everyone singing SpongeBob songs. Nobody falls behind, he kept telling them. Then, he watched and waited, waited until they got it down perfectly, leaders at the front of the line but everyone leaning on one another. Lester kept trying to sneak towards the back of the line, but couldn’t because “there was always somebody behind me just pushing me” and eventually gave up and stayed at the front. This is where the father-son bond first started with Hottle. The coach knew right then the 15-year old was going to be a monster.
Nobody falls behind. “I always stuck on that,” Lester says. “That’s why I always cheer on my teammates because I don’t like seeing anybody drop behind because it’s a team game.”
Lester hated getting up early. He knew the pain that the workouts would bring. But he always went.
“It’s my life,” he says about football. “I love it with a passion. If I’m passionate about something, I will go at it full blast and give it my all because I see myself succeeding.”
It’s mornings like these that offensive linemen wish someone pushed them to wrestling instead of handing over a helmet. It’s nearly 11 a.m. and three Stevenson assistant coaches are working in the storage room that doubles as their temporary office with the Delaware state championship game playing on the flat screen sticking out from the wall and the two desk phones buzzing.
There’s no offensive lineman in this league that should be able to cover this kid, the Mustangs’ defensive line coach Rich Bader is telling you as he scribbles circular shapes and a W on the room’s whiteboard. He stands up, showing you how Reggie White used to do it. He talks about how White used to lead guys outside before ripping his arm up through their inside shoulder and zooming right to the quarterback. “The Hump Move,” he says. With Lester, offensive linemen entice him to go inside, so they can push him straight down the line. Then, the quarterback can break containment and roll out. Bader can't have that. He draws a round line on the board, the angle Lester should be taking.
They stunt Lester – sending him inside while the defensive tackle rotates into his old spot, essentially switching places – and try to devise different ways to get him a free run at the quarterback.
“He’s got to understand that he’s the last line of containment,” Bader tells you. “If he comes underneath and doesn’t get to the quarterback, the quarterback can break containment and he’s usually unaccounted for.”
For a while, Hottle didn’t think he could ever contain Lester to Stevenson. He was nervous about other coaches, other schools calling. He didn’t need to be. Lester says, “Once he came that day with the Stevenson uniform, I was like 'What?'” Lester knew Hottle’s work ethic. All of those summer mornings out on the Frederick Douglass field when they could’ve been asleep; Lester knew what Hottle was about. Once he visited Owings Mills, saw the campus and saw the facilities, it was a wrap.
“After that, everybody started coming at me,” Lester says about the recruiters. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m not even trying to hear this.’ My mind’s focus was on Stevenson. I went for the visit and saw this joint. Oh my god! My heart was like ‘alright, you are not going anywhere…’”
The night Hottle got the phone call from Lester saying he was coming, he hung up, walked out onto his deck and started jumping up and down. He knew what they were getting.
“He’s a kid that I would let babysit my kids,” Hottle says.
It’s passion that separates athletes on any level. “That’s what makes Ed Reed and Ray Lewis the players they are,” Bader says. Lester has that, that toughness that can only develop through thousands of up-downs, a confidence that doesn’t waver.
“The sky is the limit because he is mentally tough,” says Hottle, “he’s physically tough and he has the physical tools to be a pretty special football player.”
It’s days like these that make you wish you were Sam Lester. The coaches want it all from him. Anything less than that won’t pass. It’s why they threw him into a leadership role before he was even ready, before the team even needed a leader. “The most vocal guy on the defense,” defensive backs coach Dustin Johnson tells you. “Guys fall in line when he speaks.”
It’s why he will be voted in as captain by his teammates whenever that process eventually happens. It’s why the coaches are as hard on him as anyone. It’s why he will be one of the first to christen that new stadium, the stadium Lester jokes might make him cry when he finally sees it. It’s why his face is used to brand the program. We need a kid to represent us on the school’s website. Go get Sam Lester. And it’s why he spent the whole summer back at Frederick Douglass, running wind sprints with a parachute strapped to his waist.
“I take everything head on,” Lester says. “My confidence is boosted. I feel like I’m unstoppable. Nothing can stop me. You can’t take this away from me. This is mine. That’s how I feel.”
Big plans for Sam Lester everyone keeps telling you. Now it’s all up to him.
“It just comes down to who works harder and who’s going to break first,” he says. “And I’m not going to break first.”
Follow Stevenson Athletics on Twitter at @GoMustangSports