Stroughter's long road back
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Sammie Stroughter crouched down and waited, before popping up and skipping down the sideline, whooping, hollering and slapping high-fives with teammates. "I see you, I see you boy!" the Oregon State senior receiver crowed to safety James Dockery, who had just grabbed an interception. He ran up and thumped Dockery in the chest, all while talking a little trash to the defense. Coaches, players and fans at Oregon State's spring game on May 3 looked at each other and shook their heads, smiling. Their expressions all said the same thing: Thank goodness Stroughter is back.
A year ago Stroughter slipped slowly into a world of isolation and depression, racked by guilt, self-doubt and loneliness. That energetic, boisterous receiver with the infectious smile who became the poster boy for Oregon State football almost overnight was gone. In his place was a quiet, introverted Sammie, one who didn't smile or talk and didn't look like he wanted any part of football.
"What's wrong with Sammie?" everyone wanted to know. People would bug him, stare at him and whisper about him like he wasn't standing right there. "Sammie, what's wrong with you?" people asked over and over again. God, he was so sick of the questions, especially that one.
But through his depression, the one person allowed to ask Sammie that question was Eric Blair, his older brother by eight years. From the beginning, Eric had always been the one Sammie could talk to, and in the end, it was Eric's support that mattered most. For Eric had been through it himself.
It's up to you, you keep telling yourself. You're the big brother, so you're the one that's got to teach him about sportsmanship. He's Sammie Stroughter and you're Eric Blair, but it doesn't matter for one second that you have different last names and different daddies. He's your little brother and that means you have to look out for him, have to teach him everything you know. Today it's sportsmanship.
Sure he's cute -- how could a 5-year-old who danced around to MC Hammer for an hour at your aunt's wedding not be called cute -- but you're not fooled by that big smile and loud giggle. Sometimes he just looks at you and smirks, "Mama like me better." You need to put this little boy in his place.
You're in the backyard playing baseball, Sammie hitting and you pitching. This is the perfect time, you decide. You pitch, and make it a bad one on purpose. "Strike!" you call out. "That is not a strike!" he screams back, stomping around the yard and throwing down his bat, furious that you're trying to trick him. "That is not a strike!"
"It's OK," you tell him. "Is this how you're going to act when you don't get a call in a game? You have to be sportsmanlike." He glares at you, then picks up his bat and continues playing. This is a start, you tell yourself.
Sammie Stroughter arrived in Corvallis in 2004 as a 6-foot, 189-pounder dripping with athleticism, having played running back at Granite Bay High in Sacramento. Oregon State was the only Pac-10 school to offer him a scholarship, and the Beavers planned to use him to first return punts while molding him into a top receiver.
He sat behind one of the best receivers in school history, Mike Hass, for two years, soaking up everything he could from the Biletnikoff Award winner. He appeared in all 12 games as a true freshman, returning punts. After one of his first games, Barbara Gilstrap, whose husband, Jim, had recruited Sammie, stared at Jim in their living room. "He's just going to break through," she said wide-eyed. "Barb," Jim said with an I-already-knew-this look and nod, "that's the kind of young man he is."
Stroughter announced himself to the nation in October 2006 when he returned a 70-yard punt for a touchdown in an upset of No. 3 USC. "Everybody remembers the USC game because of the punt return, but he was so consistent and he got better every week," says Lee Hull, Sammie's receiving coach for four years. "He's fast and quick, and that's a deadly combo. He breaks out fast and he can accelerate. That separates him from other players."
Stroughter established himself as one of the most versatile players in the nation that year, racking up 1,741 all-purpose yards and averaging 15.7 yards per punt return, third in the nation. He was named third-team All-America and led the Beavers to a come-from-behind victory over Missouri in the Sun Bowl. Suddenly, people couldn't get enough of Stroughter. People wanted him at every interview, every football event, wanted him to talk to their kids and sign T-shirts. The pressures of being the big man on campus started to take their toll, and when Stroughter lost three family members -- all uncles -- within a six-month period, everything started closing in, and he stopped talking.