Thursday, March 21, 2013

'69 Jets custom card trilogy, Part 3

Back on Nov. 7, 2010, I created a blog post about a 1955 Topps All-American-style custom card I had created for Johnny Sample. 

Since there's no reason to rewrite the reasons I've chosen to create a 1969 Topps-style custom of Sample, I'll reprint the salient portions here.

Sometimes it's hard to say why a collector chooses a player as a personal favorite. That was the case with me and Johnny Sample. I don't know whether it began when I first saw his 1960 Topps rookie card, which remains to my mind one of the most visually appealing football cards of its time, or whether it was my natural teenage contrarian tendency to embrace what others loathed. And many was the Packers fan in the 1960s that cursed Sample as an uppity something-or-other as he laid out another Green and Gold receiver.

I remember reading his book, Confessions of a Dirty Football Player, published in 1970, after his retirement. That candid assessment of professional football as he lived it was to the NFL establishment what Jim Bouton's Ball Four was to Major League Baseball. I'm going to order a copy from Amazon and re-read it. I suggest you do the same, or at least google him and read some of the articles available on the internet.

Sample was perhaps the finest all-around athlete ever to play for Maryland State. That school, one of what is now known as an Historically Black College/University, last fielded a football team in 1979 and is now known as University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

From 1954-58 Sample starred on the gridiron as a running back, defensive back, punt and kick returner and punter/place kicker. He was named a first-team Black College All-American in 1955 and 1957. His teams had a 28-1-1- record and he earned the distinction of being the first player from an HBCU team selected to play in the College All-Star Game.

Sample also played basketball as a freshman, was a member of the track team and was said to be an accomplished gymnast. On the baseball diamond, he was a slugging, base-stealing all-star second baseman, named the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Player of the Year in 1958 and earning a contract offer from the Philadelphia Phillies.

Sample chose to sign with the Baltimore Colts after they made him a seventh round pick (#79 overall) in the 1958 NFL draft. In 11 pro seasons, Sample gained the reputation as a hard-nosed -- some would say dirty -- defensive back. If he didn't exactly invent the art of trash-talking and the bump and run, he raised those intimidation techniques to a fine art. He also backed up his bravado with studious preparation for games, keeping elaborate notes on pass receivers' tendencies.

Sample's bellicose nature and unwillingness to to stifle himself concerning the black man's place in pro football and in the USA at large made him unpopular with coaches, league officials and most of the mainstream media. His on-field play, however, meant there was always some team willing to give him a job.

In his career, Sample was on the winning side of two of the NFL's most famous games. In the 1958 NFL Championship Game, often called the "Greatest Game Ever Played," Sample intercepted two passes in the fourth quarter, including a 42-yard touchdown, to help the Colts defeat the Giants 23-17 in overtime in the game that many say began the NFL's rise to domination in American sports.

At the other end of his career, Sample was co-captain of the 1968 N.Y. Jets. His interception of an Earl Morrall pass on the Colts' two-yard line helped the Jets cement Joe Namath's guarantee of a Super Bowl III win over the Colts, establishing the AFL's parity with the NFL and assuring the eventual merger of the two leagues.

Sample retired from football after the 1968 season. He owned a ticket agency and the Sample's End Zone sporting goods store. in Philadelphia, where he also hosted a talk radio program for a time. Most impressive to me, however, was that after more than a decade of being pounded in the NFL, Sample took up tennis. As a player he earned a No. 1 ranking in the over-45 age group of the American Tennis Association. He also became a professional linesman, officiating at top tennis events all over the world. Off the court he sponsored grass-roots tennis programs for kids and sponsoring tournaments.

Sample remained politically active, as well. In 1986 he organized 73 buses from Philadelphia and northern New Jersey to ride to Washington, D.C. for the Million Man March.

Sample died from complications of heart disease in 2005, at the age of 68.

For whatever reason(s), Sample was a favorite of mine, which was too bad because as a kid there was virtually nothing in the way of his football cards to collect. In terms of mainstream cards, he appears only in the 1960 Topps set and, as a Redskin, in the 1966 Philadelphia Gum set (after he had joined the N.Y. Jets). I see on eBay that he also has at least one Kahn's Weiners card and probably appears on a few other regionals over his 11-year pro career.

While Topps didn't often print cards of players in the years after they retired, I chose to do my Sample/Jets cards in the 1969 format for several reasons: I had just finished creating a '68-style card for Emerson Boozer, I like the look of the '69T FB set, and, by doing a '69-style card I was able to mention Sample's Super Bowl III highlight.

Knowledgeable vintage football collectors will notice that I chose to revert to the Series 1 format from 1969, rather than the Series 2, which had a white border at the top and sides. I did this for no better reason than it is my personal preference. Besides, who's to say that if Topps had done a Series 3 in 1969 they wouldn't have reverted to the earlier design?

I still have a few good photos of Sample in my files. So I imagine this will not be my last Johnny Sample custom; I'm sure there will be a 1958- or 1959-style Colts card forthcoming.

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