Sam Toney never kept count of exactly how many foster homes he lived in while growing up.
“Well over 50,” he said.
After he aged out of the foster-care system, there were times when Toney didn’t have any home at all, unless a car is considered a suitable dwelling.
Nonetheless, Toney managed to overcome the deprivation of his upbringing to become a basketball star at New Jersey City University (NJCU), for which he has recently received the 2019-20 NCAA Men’s Most Courageous Award by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
“I am really proud, blessed, and honored with everything that came with it, from the schoolwork to becoming the person I am on and off the court,” said Toney, 28. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Toney overcame one obstacle after another to get here. The challenges he faced in childhood, while moving from home to home, didn’t become easier when he graduated in 2010 from Archway Upper School in Atco. He attended Archway, a private special-education school, for six years, and also played basketball briefly at Williamstown High School, since he lived in that district at the time. Toney was cut from the team as a freshman, then made the team as a senior, but quit during the season.
He didn’t know what he wanted to do after high school, so he took various jobs while also competing in adult basketball leagues. At one point he worked at Walmart in Somerdale while sleeping in his car for a few months.
“I did that for a little bit,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but I did what I did to get by.”
That was early in 2016, when Marlow Moore, who worked with Toney and played basketball with him, told his aunt and uncle, Toni and Marvin Woodson, about Toney’s situation.
“He told us about Sam living out of his vehicle and wanted to know if he could live with us,” Marvin Woodson recalled.
The Woodsons, who are pastors at the House of Faith Church in Somerdale, wanted to meet with Toney first.
“I can honestly say when I met him in our kitchen, it didn’t take more than 20 minutes and I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, he is going to live with us,’” Woodson said. “I realized a lot of Sam’s life parallels with my life. I am a product of living in a group home as a teacher for about a year and a half, so I understood what Sam had experienced.”
The Woodsons agreed to take him in with one stipulation: “He had to go to school,” Toni Woodson said. “We said if he wanted to live with us, he had to abide by the house rules.”
Toney had attended Camden County College but didn’t stay there very long. Around the same time, he began attending basketball training sessions led by Butch Ingram, owner of Society Hill Records and former star of Woodrow Wilson High’s 1966 South Jersey Group 4 championship team.
Ingram told Toney he saw raw talent in him and pushed him to get into a college program.
“I knew his ability and knew if he ever learned the game of basketball that he would be an impact player, but he wouldn’t be that kind of player without being in organized basketball,” Ingram said.
Despite having college basketball contacts throughout the country, Ingram said the coach who he thought would work best with Toney was close to home: Marc Brown, the head basketball coach at New Jersey City University. Brown coached Ingram’s son Kyle at NJCU from 2007 to 2009.
“Butch didn’t give me a lot of background about him growing up in foster homes,” Brown said of Toney. “He said that Sam needed discipline in his life, and he thought I could be there for him.”
So Toney, who at the time was turning 25, enrolled in NJCU in the fall of 2016. Brown was indeed there for him, but there were some early road bumps.
“Sam was immature when he came as a freshman, wasn’t used to structure, wasn’t a great teammate, to be honest,” said Brown, who just completed his 13th season as head coach, where he succeeded his father, Charlie Brown, a legendary long-time coach at NJCU. “Off the court he was awesome, but on it, he wasn’t used to playing in a team setting, and you could see it.”
Toney rapidly developed. He was a starter from his first day. By his sophomore year, he was named a team captain.
“He has taken off from there,” Brown said.
The 6-foot-3 Toney finished fourth in school history with 1,779 points and was NJCU’s all-time leader with 233 three-pointers. The Gothic Knights went 74-38 in his four years and advanced to three consecutive NCAA Division III tournaments his first three seasons. He was a two-time New Jersey Athletic Conference player of the year and two-time National Association of Basketball Coaches all-American.
Toney, who is majoring in national security studies, is expected to earn his degree within a year. He also has reunited in recent years with his father, Sam Jefferson.
“I am really proud of him that he overcame some rough times and kept going,” Jefferson said.
Toney’s goal, even though he is getting a late start, is to play professional basketball overseas. He might consider motivational speaking, especially after returning to Archway in 2018 to tell the students about his extraordinary story.