Cowart's unflappable demeanor and work ethic are rooted in his childhood in Jacksonville, where he learned early that making good decisions was essential. On the night of Sept. 25, 1989, Cowart, then 14, was lounging around the house long after his mother, Harriet, had told him to go to bed. The 11 o'clock news was on when a news flash came across the screen. First the broadcaster mentioned a murder. Then Sam saw a car that looked like the one his 19-year-old sister, LaShawn, drove. Cowart sensed trouble. When the police arrived at his house later that night, Cowart learned that LaShawn and her two-year-old son, Travis, had been shot and killed by Michael Bell, whom LaShawn had been dating. (Bell pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the offenses and is on death row in Florida for two other murders.)
Of Cowart's five siblings, LaShawn was the one to whom he was closest, the one who always attended his youth football games. When Sam wanted to learn how to ride a bike, LaShawn would hoist him on her handlebars, pedal to a friend's house and tell him to practice until she was done hanging out. As Sam recalls, "She always told me that she wasn't going to teach me, that I had to learn to do things by myself."
The most important lesson that Sam took from LaShawn's death was that he had to watch the company he kept. By his own estimation he has been to Buffalo nightspots about four times in three years. When he is at his off-season home in Jacksonville, he spends his free time with his fianc�e, Markeisha Oates, their one-year-old son, Sam IV, and his younger brothers Troy, Rodney, Rondell and Randy.
"LaShawn's death led me on that straight line early," Cowart says. "I was always a good student and person. But if I had a friend my mother didn't like, there was a time when I would still hang out with that person, even if I knew what he was doing was wrong. But I learned that I couldn't afford to associate with certain people."
After LaShawn's death, a grief-stricken Cowart was so down he didn't want to play his next game at Jacksonville's Northwestern Junior High, where he was a ninth-grader. Harriet, however, encouraged her son to play, telling Sam that LaShawn would have wanted him to compete. Harriet also says she knew that "the only thing that ever got Sam going, got him really excited, was football. You could tell by the way he flew around that he loved playing."
That love of the game was evident when Cowart became a star at Florida State. His speed, vision and smarts earned him the nickname " NFL." In fact Cowart became such a force that he had decided to enter the NFL draft after his junior year. That was before Florida State met Notre Dame in the 1996 Orange Bowl.
On a draw play early in the game, Cowart dived to make a tackle and another player—to this day he still doesn't know who because he refuses to watch the tape of the game—crashed into his left leg. Cowart tore his anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments along with his hamstring on the play. Doubts were cast on his future. "You could tell that people were looking at him with that sad eye, thinking that his career was over," recalls Oates.
After a redshirt season, however, Cowart was back on the field in 1997. He changed his jersey number from 56 to 1 because he wanted to establish that he was starting over. "When Sam did that, I knew he was on the right track," says Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden. Cowart earned first-team All-ACC honors and felt so good about himself that he passed up an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl, the best postseason showcase for NFL prospects. He felt he had proved enough to scouts by coming back from a devastating injury, and he didn't want to chance another one. But when draft day rolled around, Cowart watched four linebackers go in the first round while he waited for his name to be called.
"The knee was probably a big concern for a lot of guys," says Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese. "Some people were discussing whether he should be an inside guy or an outside guy. [Cowart played both positions in college.] He is pretty tall for an inside guy, so I think some people were a little concerned about that. But he was really productive. He could thump you. We had him rated high."
Cowart fell into Buffalo's lap in the second round, as the 39th selection in the draft. The Bills had graded him as a first-round talent, but they didn't have a first-round pick that year after having traded it to the Jacksonville Jaguars for quarterback Rob Johnson. Buffalo general manager John Butler admits that his team got lucky.