Pick-off Artist

Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel intercepts the Colts' Peyton Manning late in the fourth quarter, sealing the Birds' victory. The former New England Patriot has 18 picks in his 21/2 seasons with the Eagles.
Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel intercepts the Colts' Peyton Manning late in the fourth quarter, sealing the Birds' victory. The former New England Patriot has 18 picks in his 21/2 seasons with the Eagles.
Posted: November 14, 2010

Before all of the interceptions, the big contract, and the dreadlocks, Asante Samuel was a 17-year-old who wanted more than anything to play college football for Georgia.

But Georgia didn't want him.

It was one in a series of snubs - real or perceived - that he has used to fuel his drive to become one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

"I wanted to go there so bad," the Eagles cornerback said. "Seeing all the brand-new shoes, the [Nike] Speed TDs, the stuff I was never able to get, or I didn't have. I just wanted to be a part of that. Yeah, it was a pretty hurtful thing."

More than a decade later, Samuel wants to be a part of a much more exclusive club. He's afraid the rejection may come again - as it did from Georgia or from the NFL teams that passed him over in the draft - and there's nothing he can do about it.

"To make it into the Hall of Fame, that's what motivates me," Samuel, 29, said Friday at the Eagles' NovaCare Complex. "I realize I probably have to talk more just to help myself

out, which is crazy. I would imagine now that people would start saying stuff about the Hall of Fame."

With his two interceptions of Peyton Manning in the Eagles' 26-24 triumph over the Colts last Sunday, Samuel has 40 career picks in 71/2 seasons. If he were to maintain that pace over just the next 31/2 seasons - and through his Eagles contract - he would have 59.

Only nine men in the history of the game have more. Six are in the Hall of Fame. One - the Saints' Darren Sharper - is active. Samuel's 40 picks don't include his seven postseason interceptions, four of which were returned for touchdowns (an NFL record).

"If anybody else had this type of stuff - name a first rounder . . . Terence Newman? If he had the career I was having, you know how much they would be talking about him?" said Samuel, a fourth-round draft pick in 2003. "I realize what it is, so that's why I'm not really tripping. But I do want my respect."

The phrase "catch-22" was coined for people like Samuel. It also happens to be the number he wears. The cornerback wants the recognition that peers Nnamdi Asomugha, Charles Woodson, and Darrelle Revis - all former first-round picks - receive, but he isn't willing to go through the publicity hoops to get the message out.

"Asante didn't do what Deion Sanders did. He didn't market himself," Samuel's high school coach, Perry Egelsky, said of the Hall of Famer his former player is compared with most. "I know he feels slighted. But that goes back to Georgia and having to play for a second-tier college [Central Florida]. I don't think he's the player he is without the chips on his shoulder."

If Samuel does make the Hall of Fame, he could go down as one of the more anonymous great athletes to pass through Philadelphia. For the fans and the media, there is only the public image of the brash, mouthy cornerback, an interception artist who shies away from contact.

Still, there are sides Samuel keeps guarded. He is a cerebral player who doesn't miss an angle and has earned the nickname "The President" from his head coach. He is a businessman who runs a record label and has set himself up post-football. He is a family man who moved his once-absentee father to Boston after Samuel was drafted by the Patriots and got him off drugs.

Man of the house

Because his father, Jasper, wasn't around much during his childhood, Samuel's mother, Christine, deemed him "man of the house." While that tag came with responsibilities, it also came with certain liberties.

If Samuel wanted to skip classes in middle school, he could. If he wanted to ride his bike all over the Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., community and stay out until 9 p.m., his mother allowed it.

"I guess going through those things made me stronger," Samuel said. "She just let me be a man at a young age, and I had to wheel and deal and figure things out."

Samuel said the autonomy gave him the confidence to excel in sports even when he wasn't always the most gifted athlete. By his junior year at Boyd Anderson High, Samuel was the hot-shot point guard and starting quarterback.

He threw for more than 2,000 yards that season running coach Steve Davis' spread offense. By the spring, however, Davis had been replaced by Egelsky, who was scrapping the spread for the Wing-T. Even worse, he wanted to turn Samuel into a defensive back.

"The city wanted to lynch him," Samuel said of his new coach. "He's white, and I don't know if we ever had a white coach. And this guy comes here, and he's saying, 'You're not going to play quarterback. You're going to move to defense.' All-black school went crazy."

Samuel and a few of his teammates considered taking their talents to rival Dillard. But Egelsky persuaded them to stay and got Samuel to change positions when he informed him that recruiters weren't interested in a "5-foot-7 quarterback."

"I took the kid's pride away," Egelsky said. "But recruiters were asking me if he could play defense, and I wanted him to have an opportunity to play in college."

Playing mostly safety, Samuel picked off four passes his senior season and led the city in pass breakups. While the Division I scholarship offers remained scant, Samuel drew more interest after the move.

"I thank him every day for that," Samuel said. "That was the best thing to ever happen to me."

Egelsky isn't quite sure how Georgia entered the mix. Typically, a program interested in one of his players would contact him first. But Samuel was handling his own business. He had been in contact with the Bulldogs and made an official visit.

He left without an offer.

"If they don't offer before you leave, they don't want you," Egelsky said. "For weeks, I'm punching the phone trying to get an answer. I was trying to soften the blow. But how do you tell a kid with his ego and his pride that they don't want you?"

Samuel kept telling the other schools interested in him that he was going to Georgia, so they started rescinding their offers. Finally, several weeks before signing day, Samuel was told Georgia wanted him only as a preferred walk-on. At that point, Central Florida was the only Division I-A scholarship left on the table.

"That broke his heart," Egelsky said. "I think that was the first time he was ever rejected. I think that whole process, in my opinion, really put his shield up. Georgia to Central Florida was like, 'Whoa.' "

Samuel made the best of his situation at Central Florida. He started out at free safety, but defensive coordinator Gene Chizik - now the head coach at undefeated Auburn - moved him to corner, and he finished his career with a school-best 38 passes deflected.

However, when the NFL draft came, Samuel slipped to the fourth round despite indications from several teams that he would go earlier.

"That was a bad day right there," Samuel said. "Sixteen corners went before me."

When he settled in New England, Samuel decided it was time to rekindle his relationship with his father. They lived in the same area and saw each other occasionally as he grew up, but it was not an ideal father-son bond.

"He was just strung out," Samuel said. "But when I got to the league I moved him up to Boston and helped him get off drugs and turn his life around a little bit. So that made our relationship. We learned a lot about [each other] because I was staying with him every day."

The President

With the Patriots, Samuel won Super Bowls in his first two seasons. In 2006, he recorded 10 interceptions but was not voted into the Pro Bowl. He made it the following season and hit the free-agent market looking to cash in.

Though the Jets offered more, Samuel knew he didn't want to play for Bill Belichick protege Eric Mangini. He picked the Eagles and their six-year $56 million offer, which made him the highest-paid cornerback at the time.

Samuel's detractors said he was a system corner, a product of Belichick's scheme, and they pointed to Samuel's interception output dipping to four in his first season with the Eagles. But he dropped a number of would-be picks that season and rebounded in 2009 with nine.

Still, the turnovers weren't enough in the eyes of Samuel's critics. They pointed to his aversion to tackling, which had worsened. Samuel said two stingers and a neck injury he suffered last season made him shy away from tackling.

Philadelphians may not believe it, but Samuel was once known as a hitter. In high school, he earned the nickname "Asante the Assassin" after he knocked a receiver out cold. As Eagles coach Andy Reid liked to remind him last season, Samuel's Central Florida highlight reel was full of big collisions.

"He still brings up my tape: 'Man, you were smashing people,' " Samuel said, referring to Reid. "Last year, he used to tease me about it: 'You can't fool me, Asante. I know how you hit. I just finished watching your college tape.' "

With a nudge from Reid and his coaches, Samuel added a couple more pounds of muscle in the off-season, and the results show. No one will mistake Samuel for Ray Lewis, but he isn't as reticent to tackle this season.

"If you look back over Asante's career, there's always been a play here or a play there - or three plays within a game - that he's been out because of getting dinged," Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "And that hasn't been the case as much this year."

Samuel doesn't make the big bucks, though, because he's a sound tackler. He's instrumental to the Eagles' defense because he can cut off the entire left side of the field against quarterbacks fearful of turnovers. Opposing quarterbacks have a minuscule passer rating of 29 this season when they target receivers Samuel covers.

He has the ability to survey the entire field and, as if in slow motion, see a play as it develops. Case in point: Last week, when the Colts had one more play remaining before time expired, Samuel told Quintin Mikell to move to corner so he could play safety and read Manning's eyes. He baited the quarterback into a throw - his specialty - and picked off the pass to seal the game.

"He's a zone player that reads pattern development extremely well, maybe as well as anyone," ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said. "He reads a quarterback's drops. He reads a quarterback's eyes. He's a very intelligent player, and he's quick as a cat."

Reid calls him "The President."

"He's a smooth operator," Reid said. "He sees everything, and he analyzes everything and takes it all in."

Samuel brings that acumen to the business side of his life. He's invested in a Florida-based hip-hop label and is developing a television show with Eagles long snapper Jon Dorenbos.

"The gist of the show is that Asante and I are going to take all of our connections and bring them into a TV show," Dorenbos said. "That's all I'll say."

Samuel, a business major in college, said he wants to be an entrepreneur. There's something else he wants more once football is over. Despite how the rest of his career projects, Samuel will have a hard time getting into the Hall of Fame. There are just 21 defensive backs in the Hall, only 10 of whom were exclusively cornerbacks.

"The President" isn't willing to do his own public relations, though.

"See, if I went out and started pubbing this up like how they do, 'Revis Island,' " Samuel said, referring to the nickname of Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, "I'd make up a name, 'Asante's Left Side.' But I ain't into that. Someone else can do it."


Contact staff writer Jeff McLane

at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Jeff_McLane.

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