During the football season Sam Atoe would hear the words trickle back to him through his friends, words relayed from players he would face the next Friday. I'm gonna flatten you, Atoe. Just wait until I hit you, Atoe. You ain't nuthin', Atoe. Blah, blah, blah. It was second-hand smack talk. Never to his face but through the pipeline, the small and very personal pipeline of Sonoma County, where everyone knows everyone, including this Maria Carrillo kid who was going to San Diego State on a football scholarship.
Atoe stood out because the whole world of Sonoma County knew last March that San Diego State had offered him the full ride. A football scholarship to a D1 university around here is not like leaves falling from an autumn tree; you don't see a lot of them every year. Especially one tendered a full seven months before the start of a high school season. Owing to how he was raised, Atoe shrugged.
“I wouldn't say anything,” Atoe said. “I might give them a look once during the game. That's it. I'm pretty easy-going. I'm not one to hold grudges.”
Atoe would rather look forward than backward and at 7 this morning Atoe will take a big step forward. Atoe will sign his letter-of-intent with the Aztecs inside the Carrillo gym. Actually it'll be two letters, one that will be mailed to the university, the other faxed. That this is happening might seem a bit pro forma, with no drama in the back story. How could there be? Didn't San Diego State make the offer almost 11 months ago?
What's so complicated? Well, let's start with USC. Almost a year ago a USC coach told Atoe that if he still hadn't committed (verbally) to a school the day before Feb. 2, USC would offer him a scholarship. USC! Full ride! Atoe always wanted to play for a Pac-10 school. Yeah, baby. And then Atoe and his family took a well-measured breath.
If USC liked him enough to offer Atoe a ride, why didn't the Trojans make the offer then?
“We talked about it a lot,” Atoe said. “Why would they wait? Plus, I would be taking a risk. What if I waited and then USC didn't offer?”
After all, it was just a non-binding verbal offer. Carrying about as much legal weight as a letter in the mail. Atoe remembers the first letter he received. It was from UCLA during his junior year. UCLA envelope with UCLA stationary, addressed to him. Yes, he admitted, he was impressed. Then came other form letters. After about 60 of them arrived from different universities, Atoe started throwing them away, only keeping those that were hand-written.
“They were just trying to hook you,” Atoe said.
Plus, Atoe had his safety net. San Diego State offered, he verbally accepted, and so he didn't stress. And it didn't hurt his confidence that during Maria Carrillo's season Atoe would get a call a week from coaches at USC, Fresno State and Nevada-Reno
Until Jan. 10, when Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke resigned to become head coach at Michigan. Hoke had led San Diego State to its first winning season in 11 years, its 9-4 record the school's best since the 1977 team went 10-1. There would be a new coach who would bring in his staff and his ideas. Would Atoe fit? He had been told he would play the “Aztec” position, a roving linebacker, and that if he progressed like the coaches thought he would, Atoe could even start as a freshman.
“I didn't think I would stick with (San Diego State),” Atoe said.
On Jan. 12, defensive coordinator Rocky Long was promoted to head coach.
On Jan. 14, Atoe, 6 feet, 205 pounds, received a call from S.D. State cornerback coach Tony White. The scholarship was still there. They still wanted Atoe at Aztec, which is a defensive player's dream position, since he has the freedom to roam the field looking for the football. If he progressed he still had a chance to start as a freshman. Atoe sighed. Now he could relax.
Oops. He couldn't. Not yet. White would be in Los Angeles on Jan. 15 for the All-American Polynesian Football Classic, the one Atoe would play in. Wouldn't hurt to check out Atoe one more time. With White in the stands Atoe came with his “A” game, just to show White the university hadn't made a mistake.
“Afterward he came to me and said he liked how I played,” said Atoe, who will major in either business or kinesiology.
Finally, almost 11 full months since the school offered and he accepted, Atoe took a relaxed breath. Pay attention, he was told by the coaches. Make grades. Be a solid citizen. The scholarship — valued at $22,476 a year, according to the school's website — is for those who show they deserve it. No problem for Atoe. He wants to pay back to them the confidence they have shown in him. As it turned out, San Diego State was the only school to offer Atoe a scholarship, due in some part to his early commitment.
So what was it that San Diego State saw in Atoe that made the Aztecs so eager to commit?
“They said they liked the passion I had for the game,” Atoe said. “They liked how I played hard every play, that I never gave up. They said they needed those kind of players in their program. They said I might even have a future after college.”
In the NFL? Who knows. Atoe is concentrating on an immediate need, the need to spend the next four years returning their compliment. This is San Diego State he's attending, the San Diego State of Marshall Faulk, Brian Sipe, Isaac Curtis, Fred Dryer, Willie Buchanon, all NFL icons. He's not boasting he'll be one of them. He just wants to be Sam Atoe, which is all he ever wanted to be.
For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.