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Nov. 16, 2012
Sam Cowart (Florida State, 1993-97) was a hard-hitting linebacker who played on four ACC Championship teams at Florida State for coach Bobby Bowden and was a key reserve on the Seminoles' 1993 National Championship squad. He led FSU in tackles as a junior in 1995 (115) and as a senior in 1997 (116) after sitting out the 1996 season with a knee injury. In 1997, he was named a consensus first-team All-America, was a finalist for both the Butkus Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and was named National Defensive Player of the Year by the Football News. The 1997 Florida State defense set a school record in rushing defense, allowing just 1.5 yards per rush. That year, Cowart was also honored as the winner of the ACC's Brian Piccolo Award for Courage after making his comeback. The 39th selection in the second round of the 1998 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, Cowart went on to an eight-year NFL career with Buffalo, the New York Jets and the Minnesota Vikings. He started 87 NFL games, playing in 100 and made 715 career tackles. He was named All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl after the 2000 season. He was inducted into the Florida State Hall of Fame in 2011. A native of Jacksonville, Fla., he currently lives in his hometown.
Florida State had knocked on the door of a national championship a few times, and then finally broke through to win it your freshman year. What did it mean to be part of that, both for the school and for Coach Bowden, in your very first year?
It was really a special season. We were ranked No. 1, lost to Notre Dame, then saw Notre Dame lose and put us back in the national championship picture ... And then to have a chance to play Nebraska at the Orange Bowl in Miami, an area where most of our guys were from. At age 18 it was really a great experience. You come in and win like that the first year, and you think, `Wow, and I've got three more years. I can get three more of these!'
The story has made the rounds of how one of your teammates, Derrick Brooks, gave you the nickname `NFL' during your freshman year. How did that come about?
I was one of those guys who came in and was kind of disappointed that I wasn't playing as much as I wanted to as a freshman. Derrick was like, `Dude, just give the program time. It's going to work in your favor.' I was kind of in the rotation, coming off the bench. One week, just before the Georgia Tech game, Derrick looked at the stat sheet and saw I was actually leading the team in tackles - I think I was one ahead of the next guy. And then in that next game, I made a play where I went sideline to sideline to make a tackle. Derrick said I looked like the prototype pro linebacker and said, `Man, you're NFL!'
And I guess that stuck?
Yeah, one of the reporters kind of got wind of it, and then later on when I would come into games, they would always go back to that quote Derrick made. It kind of followed me from there.
You're a Jacksonville guy. Did you always have your heart set on FSU? Was that your team growing up?
Not really. Coming up in Jacksonville at that time, you kind of grew up watching the (Florida) Gators play college ball, looking at (Dan) Marino playing pro ball down in Miami. Those were the two teams that were always on TV and were always featured. I was pretty much a Gator all the way up until recruiting time, but when I went and visited FSU, I loved what Bowden said.
What was his message to you?
At that time, he was bringing in the No. 1 (rated recruit), the No. 2 at every position. He said, `Hey, I'm not going to promise you that you are going to play, but there are a couple of things I can promise you. I promise you that I am going to treat you fairly and give you an opportunity. And I can promise you that seven or eight games a season are going to be nationally televised. You are going to have the opportunity to showcase your talent.'
How long did it take you to decide that was where you wanted to be?
I think what sealed the deal was my senior year when we had a recruiting visit in Tallahassee when FSU was playing the Gators over Thanksgiving weekend. Eric Rhett carried the ball (for Florida) and (FSU linebacker) Marvin Jones shot and nailed him with a tackle for a loss. I said to my mother, `I want to do exactly what that guy, number 55, is doing. That is exactly what I want to do.'
What was it like playing for Coach Bowden? Was there anything in particular you took away from your association with him?
He was always a father figure. I was always one of those guys who said, `Just tell me what you need for me to do. Tell me my job description, and I am going to go out and do it.' A lot of people thought Bowden was one of those coaches who was always up in a tower that disassociated himself from the team. But that wasn't true. He always knew exactly what was going on, who was doing it and who wasn't doing it.
Have you kept in touch with him over the years?
Let me tell you something that just happened. It was the first game this season, when they inducted him into the FSU Hall of Fame. I went back for that, and I had a football with me I wanted him to sign. I hadn't seen him in, I guess 15 years, since he came over for a charity golf tournament here in Jacksonville. So I went back for the ceremony this year, and I walked up to him and said, `How are you doing, Coach? Can I get you to sign my ball?' He said, `Before I sign your ball, how are you doing back over there in Jacksonville?'
Wow, he remembered you, then?
Yeah. I just kind of paused. He said, `You are back living in Jacksonville, aren't you?' That is when it hit me. I thought I was going to have to say, `I'm Sam Cowart. I played for you from '93 through '97,' but he knew. And that's the way it was all those years. Bowden knew all of his players through and through. You get to the level he got to and a lot of people think you take it for granted. But Bowden loved his players and he knew them. It didn't matter if you were the star player, a walk-on, the trainer or whoever. If you were part of that team, Bowden knew who you were.
You were injured in the bowl game at the end of your junior season in 1995. How did you come to terms with that?
At that time, I more than likely was going to leave (for the NFL Draft). Scouting reports had me a solid second round, and then I had a really good game against Florida and the amount of calls just shot up. I was like, `What happened? All I did was play a game. It was crazy when we got down to the Orange Bowl there were former players, there were scouts. I was like, `Man, where did all this attention come from? I wasn't getting this three or four weeks ago.' I think going into the (Orange Bowl) I was over-juiced trying to have another big game, to make every tackle.
And then came the injury ...
I remember when the big fullback hit my leg, and I said, `Something doesn't feel right.' I thought I had just gotten knocked around a little bit. But they took me to the locker room and the doctor told me he had disappointing news for me. He said, `You tore three ligaments in your knee. You are going to be out for a while.' And I said, `Doc, just answer one question. If I rehab and do everything you guys tell me to do, will I be able to come back and perform at the level I was previously playing at?' He said, `Sam, you not only can perform at that level, you might possibly perform at a higher level.'
So that was when you decided to take the medical redshirt year (in 1996) and then come back for your final season of eligibility at FSU?
Once he told me that, I was all in. After the game they said I could go back home for a few days. I said, `No, fly me straight to Tallahassee. Get me straight in for surgery and get right to rehab.' My main focus from that point on was, `Rehab and getting back, rehab and getting back.' The next fall I was looking pretty good, and Coach Bowden even said something to me about possibly coming back (midseason) for the Miami game. But I had seen too many guys who came back too early from an injury and wound up getting hurt again or never looking the same. I kept rehabbing, gave it the full 17 months, and then I came back (for the 1997 season). It was like I had never missed a beat.
You received the Brian Piccolo Award that year. Were you familiar at all with his story, and did winning an award named for him carry any special meaning for you?
At the time I won the award, I really didn't know much about him. But after I won the award, Rob Wilson, the media relations director talked to me about what it meant, how it was meant for someone who fought and overcame adversity. That was always me. I never wanted the fame, I just wanted to go out and be the best that I could be. And I knew what that took. You had to go out and do the stuff that other guys didn't want to do. I wasn't the most athletic guy going in, but over time, on the field, a lot of people thought I was because of the work I put in.
You were part of some great wins and I know you don't like to dwell on losses, but do you ever think much about the loss up at Virginia in 1995, when they became the first team to win an ACC game against Florida State?
We didn't take Virginia lightly, and if you look back at that team of theirs now, you can understand how they did win. They had guys who went on and were stars in the NFL. They had the Barber Brothers. They had James Farrior, they had talent, and they had some players. All I can remember that night, at the end, the Virginia fans storming the field. Our trainer was yelling, `Get your gear, get your gear!' Man, you turned around and your helmet was gone! Anything with `FSU' on it, they were snatching. They stormed that field so fast, I was like, `How in the world are we going to get out of here?' But that was a hard-fought game, and Virginia did exactly what they needed to do. They kept playing hard and fought all the way until the end.
You were a second-round draft choice, had a solid NFL career and now you are back home in Jacksonville. You have been running your business for a while now haven't you?
Yes, my wife and I have a clothing retail store that we opened in 2005. We are in the community where she and I both grew up and where we know a lot of people. We've met people at trade shows, we've met people in the business world that we never would have met had we not gone into this line of work. The hardest thing at first - and I have heard other former players say this as well - was getting clients and customers to relate to you in a manner other than football. At first, you would hand someone your business card and the first thing out of their mouth was, `Oh, you all sell sports apparel?' And we'd tell them, `No, we sell more causal wear.' It took awhile, but everybody here in the community embraced us. We have used our football connections to give back to the community a little bit - we have four high schools right here in the area, and we have a `Player of the Week' program we sponsor and those kinds of things. We are thinking we may expand that and branch out some more. But it's been good.