BY DAN FELDMAN
Daily Sports Editor
Published October 9, 2008
“UM's Sam McGuffie flexible, reliable” — Detroit Free Press
“McGuffie has plenty to say on field” — The Ann Arbor News
“Wolverines’ McGuffie graces YouTube — again” — Toledo Blade
Each of those headlines appeared in the last three weeks, but freshman running back Sam McGuffie doesn’t like his fame one bit.
“I hate articles about me,” McGuffie said. “I don’t know why."
“It’s just one more thing to me where people ... think they know me better and stuff if they read about me instead of talking to me.”
The self-described “shy guy” spoke matter-of-factly and didn’t sound like he was complaining.
“I guess I just want to try to be me,” McGuffie said. “If people don’t like it, I don’t know what to tell them. Sit and talk to me, I guess. Give me a chance.”
McGuffie loves playing football. He loves it for the usual reasons — the competition, being part of a team, the honor of representing his school. But he has another reason, too.
“It’s just an escape from everyday life,” the Cypress, Texas native said. “You kind of get stressed out with school a little bit. School and being in a constant schedule, when you’re playing in a game, it kind of takes you away from that. You don’t have to worry about everything that’s going on in the world.”
McGuffie competed in gymnastics when he was about 10, and started playing football in fourth grade as a quarterback. That year, his team basically ran three plays — quarterback sweep right, quarterback sweep left and quarterback up the middle.
McGuffie said football was an escape in the fourth grade too, but he didn't want to elaborate.
At Cy-Fair High School, McGuffie made the varsity team as a sophomore and took over the starting running back spot midway through that year.
He started hanging out with junior teammates Travis Bradshaw and Corey Chance, who took McGuffie with them wherever they went. McGuffie often spent entire weekends at Bradshaw’s or Chance’s house, but they rarely came over to his.
“Sam, he didn’t really have the greatest life at home, I guess,” said Bradshaw, who now plays safety at Rice. “And he really didn’t have that really great family support, I guess you could say.”
Bradshaw said he didn’t know specifics about McGuffie’s family situation, admitting he was speculating a bit. But he saw how happy McGuffie was on the football field and knew it was more than a distraction.
“The kind of gifts he has," Bradshaw said, "that probably has something to do with it."
At the highest level of high school football in Texas, McGuffie rushed for 3,121 yards (8.7 yards per carry) and 44 touchdowns his junior year. Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson first watched him at non-contact practice as he prepared for a playoff game that year.
“You could see the quickness and the balance and the ability to make somebody miss, those kinds of things, see him catch the ball,” Jackson said. “Stuff you see him do here pretty good, he was good at that then.”
McGuffie’s supreme athletic ability made him a four-star recruit, according to rivals.com. McGuffie’s dad ran track and his mom was a gymnast. Jackson called him a combination of the two.
McGuffie verbally committed on a local Houston TV show the July before his senior year. With Notre Dame, Michigan, Southern Cal, Texas A&M and Florida hats on the table in front of him, the host of the show told him to make his choice. Many recruits take hats or shirts away until their college choice is the only one left. But McGuffie’s only nod to the dramatic was a slight pause before picking up the blue hat with a maize block 'M’.
Not long after that, Jackson first sat down with McGuffie.
“A lot of people say he was quiet,” Jackson said. “But when I got to talk to him and got to meet him stuff like that, after a period of time, he became a person you could carry on a great conversation with because he likes to talk about football.”
Near signing day in February, McGuffie was talking football with California coaches. He visited Berkeley and was very impressed.
“I really liked (Cal's) offense,” McGuffie told the Houston Chronicle. “And (California) coach (Jeff) Tedford was a great guy. I haven't met too many people like him in my life. Plus, California was beautiful. I had never been there before, and it's a great place."
Michigan had changed coaches, hiring Rich Rodriguez, who brought in the spread offense. The night before signing day, McGuffie still wasn’t sure how he fit in.
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack and die," McGuffie told the Chronicle. "I couldn't sleep all night."
He skipped his high school’s signing day ceremony to continue to think about his college choice, according to the newspaper. That afternoon, McGuffie talked to Chris Lathrop, his high school teammate who signed with Texas A&M.
"He told me, 'My heart wants to go one way, and my (head) is telling me to go another way,' " Lathrop told the Chronicle.
McGuffie ended up sticking with Michigan and sent his letter of intent that evening, after Rodriguez had received letters from most of the class.
In June, McGuffie arrived in Ann Arbor and began taking classes and working out with the Wolverines.
One of the guys?
The Wolverines had just finished their speed and agility drills one day this summer. Junior defensive end Brandon Graham and freshman linebacker Kenny Demens were doing backflips.
The other players wanted to see what McGuffie could do. He just wanted to start seven-on-seven drills.
A search for “Sam McGuffie” on YouTube returns more than 175 videos. The videos are immensely popular — one has more than 2.5 million views. Fans, players and coaches have all seen them. They feature McGuffie flipping over players, leaping defenders, making astonishing cuts and running with incredible breakaway speed.
But McGuffie wants to escape the fame of the videos.
“I’m just tired of all the flipping and all that junk,” McGuffie said. “Anything that shows up on the internet, I’m not for. I kind of learned my lesson from that stuff.”
But there was no avoiding it now. All his teammates wanted to see him in action, and were challenging his ability to match Graham and Demens. McGuffie felt he had to comply.
McGuffie jogged back a bit, then ran and front-flipped over 5-foot-9 freshman receiver Terrence Robinson. He also did a 360 backflip.
“Sometimes, I’m really surprised (he did it) because he’s a no-nonsense guy,” redshirt freshman defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. “That’s the first time I’d ever seen anything like that.”
McGuffie just wanted to blend in with his freshman teammates at Michigan, but his fame and YouTube clips beat him to Ann Arbor.
“We heard of him jumping over people,” Van Bergen said. “But on the defensive side of the ball, (we thought,) ‘We’ll wait and see if he can jump over a college defender.’ ”
There was a feeling out period for McGuffie off the field, too. He has always had a very calm demeanor. When he was younger, his mom called him a “little old man.”
“He never has been a real talkative kid,” said Ed Pustejovsky, McGuffie’s high school coach. “He’s quiet just by nature, I guess.”
McGuffie’s teammates say he has opened up a bit since he arrived in Ann Arbor. But that hardly means he’s talkative now.
“When he first came, he was completely quiet,” Graham said.
For McGuffie, opening up means he sometimes joins in conversations. He won’t ignore someone talking to him, but he's rarely the first person to talk.
Van Bergen initially didn’t care much for McGuffie when they first met.
“I thought he was being quiet to give off kind of a cocky attitude,” Van Bergen said.
But he just had to watch McGuffie practice to change his mind.
“I just noticed when he was making people miss in practice, scoring touchdowns, he wasn’t celebrating,” Van Bergen said. “He just jogged back and stood next to coach (Jackson), waited to go in again. I just realized the kid wants to play football. He doesn’t need to talk.
“Everybody celebrates a little bit. But Sam, the most I’ve seen out of Sam was like a fist pump in the air — one quick one, then back to normal Sam.”
A fist pump would be nothing compared to what Van Bergen and the rest of the team saw in August. Rodriguez introduced the “Gong Show” to Michigan this year. Freshmen do performances—skits, singing, impersonations.
McGuffie, fellow running backs Michael Shaw and Michael Cox and Bryan Wright, who is in charge of offensive quality control, were assigned to the same group. In a show concocted by Wright, they danced in spandex girdles.
“They were definitely doing some kind of shake-pop thing that would have some eyebrows raised around here,” Van Bergen said. “(McGuffie) came out of his shell for that."
McGuffie didn’t like the idea of the act, but he went along with it because Wright, a coach, was behind it. McGuffie is still uncomfortable talking about it.
And that was just in front of his teammates and coaches. Outside the program and his close friends, a simple greeting is all he said he wants.
“I don’t really like the attention, to tell you the truth,” McGuffie said. “People probably see me out around campus and stuff, and they’ll say ‘Hi’ to me and stuff. That’s fine. That doesn’t bother me. I have a conversation. It’s just, I usually try to go the other way sometimes when cameras are around or people want to do interviews and stuff because I don’t have much to say, usually.”
The legacy he’s fulfilling
Michigan’s last running back, Mike Hart, loved to talk. As much as he’s remembered for great games on the field, he's perhaps best remembered for his words — guaranteeing victory over Notre Dame, calling out Stanford coach and former Wolverine Jim Harbaugh and describing Michigan State as the Wolverines' "little brother."
McGuffie's football does the talking.
His stardom comes and goes with his numbers. McGuffie has looked excellent at times (Notre Dame) and like a freshman at others (Wisconsin).
“I’m just trying to do my job and just trying to help the team,” McGuffie said before Michigan played Wisconsin. “And if that means taking a role, then so be it. But I’m just trying to do what I can to help my team at this point.”
How’s this for raising the expectations McGuffie has for himself? The last two running backs who had more attempts as a true freshman, and played a full four years, set the program’s all-time rushing record. The first was Anthony Thomas, who was a freshman in 1997. The most recent was Hart, a freshman in 2004.
“He knows what he has to do out there,” Hart said. “And he’s not cocky, but he’s confident and knows what he’s got to do to get out there and play. He’s got confidence in himself that he has the talent, and that’s exactly what you need.”
Of Michigan's top five running backs, McGuffie is the only to stay healthy this year. That may be a little bit of luck, but it also stems from his blue-collar football attitude.
“Just doing everything hard in practice — that’s what keeps you injury free,” McGuffie said. “Because you go half-cocked in practice, then you’re going to go half-cocked in the game. When you’re going half speed, that’s when you’re liable to get injured, because either you’re out of shape, or you’re not used to running a lot.”
The legacy he wants
McGuffie admits he’s homesick.
“Sam will just plain tell you,” Jackson said. “ ‘Hey Coach, I’m homesick. I’d like to go back to see my mother.’ ”
McGuffie’s mom planned to come in for the Utah game, but she was bumped from her flight a couple times. She ended up flying to Dayton, Ohio and driving more than three hours to Ann Arbor just to make the game.
And McGuffie’s dad, a Lapeer native, has been in Michigan since the Miami (Ohio) game. McGuffie looks forward to the unbiased assessment of his play he gets each week from his dad.
But his parents’ visits haven’t completely erased his homesickness.
“I miss Texas,” McGuffie said. “When you’re born and raised in Texas, of course you’re going to miss Texas. I miss my family most of all. I miss my friends, my best friend. You know, it’s just like any other kid would miss their family and their friends and just being in their own bed, in their own warm bed, watching cartoons or whatever on Saturday mornings.”
That sounds more like the thoughts of a “big kid” than a “little man,” which is quite appropriate, considering McGuffie’s post-football plans. McGuffie has told Jackson he wants to work with children after football.
“I don’t think he like attention at all,” Jackson said. “With little kids, I think he likes signing autographs and hanging out with little kids. He don’t want to be in positions where he’s around situations that he’s uncomfortable in. He likes being around little kids and making them laugh and making them smile.”
McGuffie doesn’t want to be remembered just for his YouTube videos, and his play at Michigan is giving fans more to remember. But he also wants to be known for more than football, a challenge he hasn’t yet publicly met.
“Hopefully, one day when all this football stuff’s over, some people can look back and say, ‘You know what? Sam was there for me if I ever needed anything,’ ” McGuffie said. “That’s kind of how I want to be remembered — not anything else.”