Former Aztec Clint Sampson Almost Became a Former Player After 1984 Tackle : Head Injury Didn't Bust This Bronco

Denver Broncos wide receiver Clint Sampson has not exactly been besieged with sympathy or coddled since he suffered a severe concussion that could have ended his career, possibly paralyzed him or even killed him.

Even in the cold world of professional football, some players are pampered by friends, family and press every time they sprain an ankle or bruise a knee. Others are excused for sub-par performances because they are still in the process of rehabilitation.

That has not been the case with Sampson, who played for Crenshaw High and had an outstanding senior season at San Diego State in 1982, when he caught 32 passes for 665 yards (20.8 per-catch average) and 7 touchdowns. He was the top Aztec player selected in the 1983 National Football League draft and was the first receiver from the Western Athletic Conference to be picked that year.

Maybe because Sampson is so quick on the field and so loose with his witty, yet biting, sense of humor, people came to think he didn't need sympathy.

Even after The Play.

On a crossing pattern in the third quarter of a game against the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 21, 1984, a pass from Gary Kubiak went through Sampson's hands and bounced off his shoulder pads. At the same instant, Buffalo Bills defensive back Don Wilson drove his helmet under Sampson's face mask and knocked the receiver out cold.

Sampson can barely remember any of that. He was told that he wasn't breathing when he hit the ground and was bleeding profusely from his nose and mouth.

"When I woke up and saw three old guys standing over me in hospital," Sampson said, "I figured something was wrong."

He had stitches in his tongue, upper leg and chin, and felt his swollen face that hindered his speech and forced him to communicate through notes. He also remembers those loose teeth that made eating steak a figment of his imagination.

Sampson had always been known for his speed, and his recovery was nothing short of a fly pattern.

During the one night he spent in the hospital in Buffalo, Wilson came to visit him for the first and only time since the incident. Sampson doesn't blame Wilson for the incident, saying there was no malice intended. He adds that he didn't expect Wilson to keep in touch.

"After all, I don't usually talk to defensive backs much," Sampson said.

After spending a couple of days in a Denver hospital, Sampson returned home to recuperate at his mother's house in Inglewood. It was time for some home cooking and lots of loving care from mom, who also happens to be a registered nurse.

"My mother is very religious," Sampson said. "At first she told me to trust God and whisper a prayer."

Then she told him to recover. And to do so quickly.

"When I was back home after the injury, my mother said 'We'll get you strong enough soon. Somebody has to be the breadwinner,' " he said. "I bought my mom a car and a house, and have her mortgage note and car note."

Sampson said he didn't expect his mother to act differently. After all, she had signed him up to play organized football when he was 11 years old.

"Back then, she probably thought organized football was safer than playing tackle on the concrete," Sampson said.

Sampson survived the concrete . . . and the hit by Wilson.

After spending the minimum of four weeks on the injured reserve list, Sampson was back in the Bronco lineup.

"In the first quarter of my first game back," Sampson said, "I was sent on a pattern over the middle in front of a Seattle linebacker. It was a relief for everybody when I caught the ball."

It was a bigger relief when he got up smiling.

As a reserve after his return, Sampson caught three passes for 34 yards in five games. This year, he has 12 receptions for 237 yards and three touchdowns.

Almost amazingly, he remembers his receptions more than he remembers the hard hits he has taken.

Does he ever have flashbacks to the game against Buffalo?

"I really never give the injury any thought unless I'm asked about it," Sampson said. "I'm not overly concerned about it."

What about when he lines up against a defensive back like Lester Hayes? Or when the Broncos call a "66," which Sampson remembers as the play in which Wilson knocked him out?

"All I think about is getting open," Sampson said. "Dan (Reeves) used to tell me I was running the pattern too fast. Now, I make sure to beat the defender and be under control. If I lose the defensive back really bad, I won't get hit. "

Oh.

Does Sampson think about New England Patriot wide receiver Darryl Stingley, who was paralyzed when he was hit by Jack Tatum of the Raiders?

"My situation was different," Sampson said. "Fortunately, when I woke up, I had full movement. I was all right physically."

His thoughts at the line of scrimmage and his darting moves across the field haven't changed, but Sampson admits he does have a somewhat different perspective on life.

Particularly on life after football.

"When I was recuperating, I thought of getting involved in business opportunities," Sampson said. "During the off-season, I kept myself abreast of what's going on in investments."

Sampson said he is a part owner of a radio station in Phoenix, owns real estate in Phoenix and some housing units in Fallbrook.

Educating himself on investments was easy compared to what he encountered when he came to the Bronco camp last summer.

You can imagine how surprised and disappointed Sampson was when he reported to camp and discovered that he and Butch Johnson were fighting it out for the fourth receiving position.

"Certain beat reporters kept reporting that there was no place for me on the team," Sampson said.

Actually, Sampson feels his tough times with the Broncos began during training camp in 1984. He was arrested for reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol.

Sampson tried to redeem himself by working with the community, but he feels his status with the Broncos hasn't been the same since.

"No question, it affected me," Sampson said. "People around here say it hasn't, but it definitely has."

Two weeks after the charge of reckless driving, the Broncos acquired Johnson from the Dallas Cowboys.

Sampson started a couple of games two years ago. When Rick Upchurch retired, Sampson appeared to be his successor. Suddenly, Johnson entered the picture. Sampson was a backup to Johnson at the time he got hurt last year.

He is still a backup.

"It has been a very difficult season for the most part," Sampson said, "but it has improved. "

"Backups have gotten started to get increased playing time and we've been doing lots of passing," said Sampson, currently preparing for Sunday's game against the Chargers at Mile High Stadium. "Playing and catching touchdown passes has made it a better season."

He is once again showing flashes of the player the Broncos drafted out of SDSU in the third round of the 1983 draft.

If Aztec fans didn't follow the football team in 1982, they might not remember Sampson. He transferred to SDSU from Mt. San Antonio College, redshirted a year, had a slow junior season and then an excellent senior season.

He is nowhere to be found among the Aztec career receiving leaders because, basically, he had a one-year career at SDSU. He played in the shadow of receivers Darius Durham and Phil Smith until his senior year.

"When he came here, he was a little mechanical and a little inconsistent," said Bill Billick, Aztec receivers coach. " He had plenty of speed, but he had to work on smoothing the running of his routes. Actually, he was on the verge of being dropped during his junior year because he had some big drops."

Billick said Sampson never stopped working and it finally paid off.

"He was definitely our best receiver from the beginning of his senior year," Billick said. "Clint got better and better as the season progressed. By the end of the year, he was the guy. "

There was a time--say, Oct. 21, 1984--when it appeared that Sampson might never again be "the guy" on a football team. Or even a player on a football team.

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