By Aaron Swaney Herald Writer
As young boys Sam Shober and KeiVarae Russell played together on the same youth arena football team. The two eventually went their separate ways, Russell becoming a star running back at Mariner and Shober a defensive force at Archbishop Murphy.
The two also took quite different paths to their colleges of choice. Russell, a four-star recruit, had the pick of nearly any school he wanted to go to, eventually choosing Notre Dame in a dramatic, made-for-YouTube ceremony in front of friends and family. Shober, on the other hand, took quite a different route, one that didn’t have the media glare that Russell’s did but was filled with tension and drama all its own.
Shober’s circuitous route that included multiple trips to four different Ivy League schools and camps up and down the west coast ended a few weeks ago when Stanford University called to tell him that he had met the school’s rigorous academic standards and that he would have preferred walk-on status this fall for the Cardinal football team. For Shober, it couldn’t have ended any better.
“I’m really excited to go to Stanford,” Shober said recently. “It’s given me a lot more purpose. Being accepted at a D-I (FBS program), even as a preferred walk-on, is incredible for me.”
For student-athletes like Shober — great grades, but not a blue-chip athlete — the recruiting process can be a mixed bag. While most BCS conference teams fight over the four- and five-star recruits, the Ivy League schools and non-FBS programs look for hidden gems. But the Ivy League schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, rather coaches offer athletes a spot on the team if they qualify academically, which can create a lengthy waiting game.
Following his junior season Shober started receiving interest from programs like Washington, Boise State and a strong performance at a Nike combine workout in Portland got him some attention on recruiting websites like ESPN. But his first team camp trip in Boise didn’t go as planned. Shellshocked from seeing his first real college workout with some of the best athletes from around the country, Shober had a deer-in-the-headlights moment at Boise State. The experience wasn’t a total loss, however, as he received some advice from Broncos assistant coach Bob Gregory and even got to talk with Boise State head coach Chris Peterson.
“The coaches at Boise were incredible,” said Sam’s father, Jeff. “They took Sam aside and really worked with him. They said this isn’t summer camp anymore, these kids are fighting for reps. It was a real wake-up call for him.”
From there Sam went to a camp at Stanford and had a great workout, impressing Cardinal coaches, including the Cardinal’s Pacific Northwest recruiting coordinator and assistant coach Randy Hart. The former UW assistant approached Sam and encouraged him to go through the application process.
Also in attendance at the Stanford camp were a number of Ivy League coaches, who, equally impressed with the 6-3, 220-pound linebacker, invited him to their camps. Later that summer Shober headed east to Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth, but an injury at an Archbishop Murphy team camp kept Shober from participating. A few weeks later he visited Princeton and was able to work out.
For Sam the whirlwind travel bouncing around the historic campuses trying out and meeting coaches was more like extended job interviews than an enjoyable trip. But he did get to share a special father-son moment on his second trip east. On a whim Jeff bought tickets to see the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. It turned out to be the game that Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit.
“We bought the tickets and then fought traffic and barely got there in time to see it,” said Jeff, who accompanied Sam on all of his recruiting trips last summer. “It was a special moment.
“It was special to spend time with him on the trips,” Jeff added. “Not everyone gets to do that with their kid like that.”
After a successful senior season — Shober was a leader on a potent Murphy defense that helped guide the Wildcats to the 2A state title game — Shober hit the recruiting trail again. Though the rest of the Ivy League schools’ interest faded, Dartmouth, which had shown the most interest on his original trips east, had him come out for an official visit this past winter. But after two players rooming with Shober were offered spots and he wasn’t the writing was on the wall: the Ivy League was a no-go.
“I thought I’d come back and be done with this whole process and then nothing happened,” Shober said of his trip to Dartmouth. “So I came back and I was like ‘Crap!’ It was pretty disappointing. I had all of these choices and then all of a sudden I had none.”
But there was still Stanford. Throughout his sojourns east, Shober was going through the application process for Stanford, which included two SAT subject tests and four different essay applications. The odds of making it weren’t great: Stanford takes about 2,700 students from more than 36,000 applications.
“It was pretty uncertain for a while,” said Shober of waiting to hear from Stanford.
As every good high school senior does, Shober had a back-up school. He had garnered interest from Division III school Pomona-Pitzer and figured if he didn’t make it into Stanford he’d settle for playing on a smaller scale in southern California.
But thankfully for Shober it never came to that. Coach Hart called Sam in early March to inform him that he’d passed admissions and would be a Cardinal.
“I thought I was going to be playing for Pomona but it’s not the same,” said Sam. “To be able to possibly play in games I’ve watched on TV for 18 years. I know the environment is electric and I just want to experience it. I’m pretty pumped just to be given the opportunity.”
Jeff believes that the impression Sam made on the coaches during camp last summer was the difference.
“I don’t know if he would have gotten into Stanford without the football,” said Jeff. “They want that little extra something and the fact he did well at the camp was probably that.”
Sam gave a lot of credit to former Archbishop Murphy assistant coach Jeff Schmidt, who sent out videos, kept Sam’s spirits up and sold Sam’s abilities to coaches around the country.
“For me Coach Schmidt was essential in getting interest for me,” Sam said. “Without him I wouldn’t probably be going to Stanford. He was incredible just getting my name out there. He was my constant advocate. He was positive when I wasn’t.”
Schmidt, who has coached a number of athletes, including the Cleveland Indians’ Grady Sizemore, and former Murphy stars Shiloh Keo and Tani Tupou, who both went on to play in college, knows how much work it takes to do what Sam has done.
“Having a kid go to Stanford — the first kid at Murphy — it was outstanding,” Schmidt said. “Sam put so much energy and dedication into this. When you see a student athlete that had a goal and a dream to go to Stanford and he held true and his dream came true. It was like you had a baby. It was that powerful.”
For Sam the journey to his dream was a lot of work but the destination was well worth it.
“I had to work a little bit harder to get myself out there,” said Sam. “Going around in the summer and playing and kind of garnering interest for yourself when you’re unknown was really fun for me.
“But I’m just glad it’s over.”