Perry Egelsky coached Asante Samuel for just one season of Florida high school football. The coach almost lost Samuel from the team by changing his position. He watched college recruiters pass Samuel by. The big-time recruiters didn't see what both Egelsky and Samuel himself saw.
"He wasn't born to be a star," Egelsky said. "He has that chip on that shoulder. 'I'm going to show you.' That's what drives him. 'Yeah, I may have run a 4.8 in high school, and gone to Central Florida . . . ' "
Even from afar, even with Samuel now an NFL all-pro cornerback for the Eagles, Egelsky can still see the chip.
"Whenever he loses that, he'll be done," Egelsky said.
Samuel's got plenty of fuel. He still has got the New England Patriots to show that he's worth the big guaranteed signing bonus they wouldn't pay him and he still has got anybody who brings up that dropped interception in last year's Super Bowl. He's also got an NFL record with four postseason interceptions for touchdowns and almost got a fifth Sunday against the Giants.
Asked this week about the Eagles still playing and the Patriots being done, Samuel shook his head. "I don't think about it," he said.
He has taken that stance since he got to town, no-commenting his way through most Patriots questions, even after former teammate Wes Welker was quoted after Samuel signed with the Eagles as saying, "Asante's a great player, so it hurts not to have a guy like that. But then again, it's part of the business of the game. He chose money over championships, and that's the way it goes sometimes."
Quotes like that are fun to look back on after the games play themselves out. This week, so is this follow-up message-board comment made last June by a fan who saw the Welker quote: "It's not like the Eagles are the Cardinals - adding Samuel gives them a boost that could carry them all the way, with a little bit of luck."
Just down the row of lockers from Samuel, Eagles safety Quintin Mikell was asked about Samuel and whether he gets some fuel from how things ended in New England.
"He's having a great time, man," Mikell said. "He's free-lancing, doing his thing. He won't say it, but I think he likes it here more."
Mikell offered a smile and a wink. Samuel had just finished talking and left his own locker after Thursday's practice.
Samuel's playoff performance has been pretty big news in Boston. After Samuel ran back an interception for a score against the Vikings, Boston Herald columnist Ron Borges led off by saying, "If you really want to know why your Patriots aren't in the playoffs, the reason was running down the sideline in Minneapolis on Sunday afternoon with a football in his arm."
Borges blasted the Patriots for declining to pay Samuel the $20 million in guaranteed money he got from the Eagles as part of his six-year, $57 million deal.
"According to STATS, Inc., Patriots No. 1 cornerback Ellis Hobbs tied with Arizona's Rod Hood for most touchdown passes allowed with nine," Borges pointed out. "Not far behind was [Patriots cornerback Deltha] O'Neal, tied for third with seven."
So if luck is part of the equation, maybe it's the Eagles who got lucky here, although eyes opened in the off-season, seeing the Eagles open their pocketbook for Samuel with Lito Sheppard still here. And it wasn't altogether obvious through the early season that Samuel was worth the big money. In the last nine games of the regular season, Samuel had only one interception, finishing with four in the regular season.
"We talk about picks all the time," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said in December. "We expect him to do it, and he expects to do it. He still does a great job of breaking up passes. It's just like sacks. He is close. Those will come."
Mikell said it took time for Samuel to get used to the rest of the defense and vice versa.
"To see him just cut it loose and just play, it's been great," Mikell said of the adjustments. "A lot of times our corners press, and he doesn't necessarily like to press [up on receivers] all the time. There's different things you have to get used to. Knowing where he's going to be at. . . . I feel like now we're jelling well."
Samuel almost missed the road to stardom. He was a quarterback in a wide-open passing offense at Boyd Anderson High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when Egelsky came in with the wing-T. The new coach switched him to the secondary. Samuel was close to transferring that he was working out in the summer with another school before deciding to stay put, Egelsky said.
Now the backup quarterback, the high school senior never hesitated to point out to his coach, Egelsky said, "You see that throw, Coach? You see that read I made?"
When the starter got hurt before the last game, Samuel took over, and Egelsky remembers what happened: Samuel threw two touchdown passes and intercepted two passes and ran for a bunch of yards. A lot of big-time schools were passing on him, though. Gene Chizik remembers seeing Samuel in a high school all-star game. The new head coach at Auburn, Chizik then was an assistant at Central Florida, the man Samuel credits for teaching him to play corner. Chizik was happy to see Samuel had fallen through the big-time cracks.
"I said, 'That's me. That's what I want!' " Chizik said. "A tough guy. He was quiet but very confident. He knew he was a good football player."
And what Eagles fans have grown used to seeing, it was there at Central Florida, Chizik said. "That anticipation. He's got that feel for routes, for cuts, when quarterbacks throw the ball. He's got a phenomenal anticipation."
It comes from studying, Samuel said, from a lot of film work. But the challenges never stop. The Boston Globe once reported how as Samuel fell to the fourth round of the 2003 draft, the Cincinnati Bengals called him twice saying they might take him, once in the second round, again at the start of the fourth. After the Patriots finally took him later in the fourth round, one of Samuel's first moves was to look for a schedule to see if the Patriots played the Bengals.
"That's him," Chizik said on Friday. "You talk about a competitor. He's always had an edge. It's not about money or all that stuff. I'm sure the money is nice to have now. But money didn't drive him, and I guarantee he hasn't changed."