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What It Takes: Chris Samuels seeks to take formula for success off the gridiron

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; 27

Chris Samuels first took to the gridiron at age 4 when his older brothers let him play on their youth football team. He loved throwing, catching and running with the ball and plowing down opponents. He excelled in high school and later at the University of Alabama, where he received a full scholarship and played on the offensive line. In 2000, he was drafted in the first round by the Washington Redskins. Now Samuels, 32, is facing the prospect of what will come next. After 10 years in the NFL, during which time he started in 136 regular season and three postseason games and earned six trips to the Pro Bowl, he recently retired, concerned that a bad hit could exacerbate a childhood condition that could leave him paralyzed. Samuels will be feted by his friends and teammates at a retirement party Saturday. He's interning with the Redskins in the hopes of becoming a coach. He lives in Northern Virginia.

WHY HE'S SUCCESSFUL

"I tried to perfect my craft. I knew I had to be in shape most of the time. I had to be strong. Sometimes in college we would go through a tough, tough workout and then I would go to the rec center and do some extra running, do a little extra lifting because I had a goal in mind that I wanted to reach. So I definitely had to put in a lot of hours of hard training and hard work. In Alabama the heat is brutal. We would have three practices a day. It would be 104 degrees and the humidity is outrageous out there. ... It was tough. Some days I felt like I wasn't going to make it, but I had that goal in mind and I just kept pushing."

BIGGEST OBSTACLE HE OVERCAME

The physical stress on his body. "The NFL is great. ... The game is fun, but what comes along with the game is tough. A lot of people don't see guys taking the needle to numb up this, to numb up that, so they can go out and play. I've had 12 surgeries -- three knee surgeries, both ankles scoped, tore my tricep off the bone, neck problems, lot of different things. ... It's a tough sport. It's brutal. It's violent. ... You can make a lot of money and walk away, but you can still have problems that will hinder you for the rest of your life. ... I don't have any cartilage in my right knee right now. It bothers me from time to time now. What about when I reach 50, 60. What is it going to be like then?"

FIRST JOB

"I cut some grass here and there. My brother worked at this Chinese restaurant. They needed extra help and I came in and washed dishes for two or three days and made a little money. I made like $36. I was so proud of myself! But I've never really worked a job other than playing football. In college, you can't work. In the off-season they would have little programs where you could go around and clean up the campus or paint something to make a little extra money."

WORK ETHIC

Samuels grew up seeing people work hard as the youngest of James and Shirley Samuels's four rambunctious sons in Mobile, Ala. His father suffered from depression after he was disabled in Vietnam, leaving his mother, who worked as many as three jobs, to take financial responsibility for the family. "We didn't have much. We would trade clothes back and forth on the way to school, but my mom would always sacrifice and get us a pair of Jordans. You remember that Jordans were $120. They were really expensive. She would make a sacrifice, get her income taxes or something and she would go out and get us those shoes. Everybody at the school would be talking, 'Man, did you see Dexter and Chris? They got some Jordans on their feet.' "

TOUGHEST PART OF FAME

Changing relationships. "You always want to stay the same person, and it's kind of hard because a lot of people feel like you've changed. ... A lot of things that I used to do, I can't do anymore. If I'm doing something silly like I used to do back in the day, it's not going to be you on TV. It's going to be me. So you want to keep it real with your boys, but it's a fine line because you have to guard yourself a whole lot more now. ... As much as you want to be the same person, you have to change to protect yourself."

SMARTEST MOVE

"Surrounding myself with good people. I had to go through some heartaches with people who I thought were in my corner, got taken advantage of financially by trusting the wrong people. But now I've pretty much got it down. ... I have a few more people who are really on my side. ... My girlfriend Monique Cox, my parents, my godfather, Gary Pearce, we call him Pearl. He's a strong, strong spiritual man, and he tells you like it is. Sometimes when you are a professional athlete, you are famous, people just tell you what you want to hear. Well, he will come in and bust that up real quick. That's what you need, someone who can come in and really keep you grounded."

BIGGEST MISSTEP

Getting caught up in fame during his fourth year in the NFL. "After I made the Pro Bowl twice, I starting feeling myself a little bit. I relaxed and off-season, I wasn't doing anything but hanging out with my friends, really didn't work out hard. That next season I came in and I wasn't in great shape. I wasn't as strong as I should have been, and I really didn't have a good season at all. Those guys were killing me out there."

WHAT LIES AHEAD

Coaching. "I have always wanted to coach football once I was done playing it. The thing I'm trying to figure out now is whether it will be high school, college or pro. I'm in a great situation to where I'm actually working with the Redskins. Coach [Mike] Shanahan allowed me to stick around this off-season, learn from the coaches there. ... At this point in my life, I'm not chasing the money. I just want to coach the game and teach football. I prayed about it. I told the Lord I was just going to finish this internship and then wherever the good Lord puts me, that's where I will go."

ADVICE TO THE ASPIRING

"You have got to believe in yourself and continue to push towards that goal, no matter how it looks. "

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