Simpson's decision not made in a snap

Henry clay center had other offers, but UK was family

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 3, 2009 

Sam Simpson knew what everyone thought. When it came to his college football recruitment, there was about as much suspense as in a Cuban election.

Everyone thought Kentucky was a lead-pipe cinch. Everyone had reason to think that.

The Henry Clay High School center was the highest rated prospect in the class of 2009 from Lexington. That made him a must-get for Rich Brooks and Co.

Simpson's dad and high school coach, also Sam Simpson, was a 1970s-era Wildcats linebacker.

One of the elder Simpson's former Cat teammates, Chuck Smith, was the UK assistant assigned to woo young Sam into Blue.

Yet Sam Simpson had a message for everyone who thought his football future was pre-ordained:

Not so fast.

"One of my dad's former players, Zia Combs, went to Michigan," Simpson said of the former Henry Clay wide receiver. "So when I was little, I always rooted for Michigan."

Besides, years before Sam Simpson became the nation's third-ranked high school center in 2009 (Scout) and the fifth best college prospect in Kentucky (Rivals), he'd spent endless hours soaking up the UK football experience.

"A lot of years, it was sort of hurry up and get football over so we can get to basketball," Simpson said.

He figured he owed it to himself to look around a bit.

A 6-foot-5, 280-pounder with both a coach's son's knowledge of blocking technique and a 3.83 grade point average (4.1 on a weighted scale) does not lack for college suitors.

Family ties landed Simpson in Nick Saban's office.

The Henry Clay star's aunt, Cindy Lucas, gives tennis lessons in Alabama. One of her students had a rather regal name in that state's football history.

Bart Starr.

"That was my connection to Alabama," Simpson says. "He passed my name on."

So on a steamy day last summer, Sam Simpson found himself in a Crimson Tide football camp.

"It was like 105 degrees," Simpson said. "We had a two-and-a-half hour session, like two hours off, then another two-and-a-half hour session."

When called to Saban's office so the Alabama head man could invite him back for another camp, "I cramped up right in his office," Simpson says. "Man, it was hot."

Former Henry Clay star and current Virginia Cavalier Chase Minnifield gave Simpson a tie to the school of Thomas Jefferson.

Yet on an unofficial visit to Charlottesville, the specter of walking in the footsteps of one of the fathers of American democracy was not what turned Simpson's head.

"We ran right into Howie Long," Simpson said of the former NFL star and current Fox NFL commentator whose son, Chris, is a former Virginia star.

By the time July had turned to August, Sam Simpson had been to old-line football hotbeds like Knoxville and Auburn for unofficial visits.

The school of his boyhood dreams, Michigan, pretty well ignored him, but he got an offer from Stanford.

Simpson says his mom, Sheri, put the kibosh on that for being too far away from home.

So, saying no to Nick Saban's invitation to return to Tuscaloosa for another tryout, uh camp, Simpson pared his list to three:

Vanderbilt, Virginia, Kentucky.

"They were all three really close," he says.

Coaches at both Virginia and Vandy had given Simpson some recruiting advice. When you visit a school, make sure you see yourself in the people walking around that campus.

When the Henry Clay star thought about Kentucky, it was Jacob Tamme and Andre Woodson he saw in his mind.

Like Simpson, ex-UK stars Tamme and Woodson were Kentucky high school products.

At UK, they were building-block members of a class that took Kentucky football from the depths of NCAA probation to back-to-back, eight-win seasons.

"Their last couple of years, it wasn't 'Let's get football over so basketball can start,' " Simpson said. "It was, 'We hope football doesn't end.' I wanted to be a part of taking what they started and going to the next level."

Having pledged his verbal commitment to UK in August, Sam Simpson will officially sign Wednesday to be a Kentucky Wildcat.

In between his classes and duties as Henry Clay's senior class president, Sam Simpson is regularly lifting weights with an emphasis on building leg strength.

When Simpson contemplates playing for his hometown team, it is his younger brother, 11-year-old Sullivan, he thinks about.

"I listen to how the Kentucky coaches talk about Woodson and Tamme," Sam Simpson said. "If our (recruiting) class does what I think it can, maybe some day they'll talk about me that way, maybe to my little brother."

Sometimes, ending up where everyone expected you to go in the first place can turn out feeling like a rather exciting destination after all.

Reach Mark Story at 231-3230 or (800) 950-6397, Ext. 3230, or at mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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