Atoe, a junior at Maria Carrillo, is one of those running backs who doesn’t hear the whistle. When his teammates head back to the huddle in practice, Atoe keeps going. Thirty yards downfield.
It’s not false effort. Just a natural response from a teenager who doesn’t have an off button.
At the two three-day camps the Pumas attended this summer, Atoe was singled out by coaches on the first day. At one camp, Steve Verbit, the defensive coordinator at Princeton, brought the poster boy for Relentless Effort to the front of the class.
“He challenged the rest of camp to step up to Sam’s level,” Maria Carrillo coach Jay Higgins said. “Everyone sees his intesnity. Every rep of every drill and every play of every game he’s going truly full speed.”
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Atoe, the only sophomore on the Pumas’ roster last year, was also one of their four team captains. After the season, he was one of two sophomores to earn all-North Bay League honors.
Atoe, a second-team all-NBL running back, also plays linebacker and figures to form an imposing tandem with senior linebacker Tyler Wilson, another second-team all-league pick last year.
As the team’s lone underclassmen last year, Atoe says he began the season unsure of how he would hang with the big boys. But that feeling didn’t last long.
He rushed for 504 yards and averaged 5.7 yards a carry, caught 12 passes for 170 yards, scored seven touchdowns and made 74 tackles.
“After the first play, I realized it was just another game of football,” Atoe said. “After that, I wasn’t scared before any of the games.”
Instead, he put fear into opponents.
A fierce hitter at linebacker, Higgins jokes that he had no choice but to put Atoe on varsity last year. His JV teammates wouldn’t have survived many practices with Atoe flying around the field.
“I don’t usually tell a guy I’m going to pull them up to varsity,” Higgins said. “But It was pretty obvious it was going to happen,” Higgins said.
Higgins says Atoe doesn’t enjoy the spotlight. When he was singled out at the summer camps, he was embarrassed. Atoe agrees. He says he likes to remain “undercover.”
Of course, that’s a problem for someone who plays with Atoe’s breakneck style. When the play stops and one guy keeps going, he becomes impossible not to notice.