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Former walk-on Sampson is unquestioned leader for Montana State
His comrades call him the Hobbit.
It seems appropriate to label Shaun Sampson that way considering his common sense, tactical nature, conservative demeanor and his ability to persevere despite the odds once stacked against him.
The name — derived from the character Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic 1937 novel — also seems fitting because five years ago, when the Montana State senior stepped on campus, it seemed a fantasy he would ever see the field.
As No. 2 Montana State prepares for its fierce annual showdown with the rival Grizzlies of Montana in Missoula on Saturday, the evolution of the Hobbit into one of the Big Sky Conference’s most efficient technicians is complete.
Saturday, Sampson will make his 34th consecutive start at center for the Bobcats. Once upon a time, the Helena Capital product was a 6-foot, 195-pound walk-on with a dream and nary any other advantage.
“To be honest, I never thought he would play when he walked in the door, but he is a tenacious blocker and a very intelligent offensive lineman,” Montana State head coach Rob Ash said earlier this month. “He’s been just huge this season because he’s been able to get those young offensive linemen blocking the right people, getting the combinations correct and doing his job very well. He’s one of the best centers around.”
Sampson is one of two senior starters — along with converted tight end Helena High product right tackle Steven Foster — on MSU’s starting offensive line. Because of injury and attrition, MSU entered the season with Sampson as the only offensive lineman on its roster with a collegiate start under his belt.
Montana State’s signing class of 2008 — a recruiting class that included current MSU seniors Foster, defensive tackle Brian Bignell, tight end/holder Rick Haluszka, linebacker Jody Owens, cornerback James Andrews, and safety Heath Howard — didn’t have a center from Capital as a part of it. The class did however include offensive linemen Anthony Patterson (6-foot-4, 300 pounds), Ben Taunauu (6-5, 286), Clint Mentzal (6-5, 280) and Matt Bernard (6-4, 305).
Five years later, Sampson — the walk-on who was too small to receive any Division I scholarship offers despite Class AA first-team all-state honors following Capital’s 2007 state title — is the last man standing.
“Shaun Sampson is the ultimate warrior,” Montana State offensive line coach Jason McEndoo said. “He’s stuck with it, he’s fought through, he’s the last man standing. There should be four or five other seniors in his class. We had four scholarship players his freshman year. He stepped on campus as 195 pounds, dripping wet. If he walked through campus, people wouldn’t think he was a football player. He’s worked for everything he’s gotten. You have to take your hat off to a kid like that. He has that blue-collar work ethic, rolled his sleeves up and went to work.”
As Sampson walks through the halls of Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, one might describe him as stocky or stout. But his 6-foot frame — now packed with 268 pounds of mass — resembles a fullback more than an offensive lineman.
But ask his coaches and adversaries alike and they will tell you that Sampson is as good at what he does as anyone in the Big Sky. The 2011 honorable mention All-Big Sky selection has been the glue that has bound MSU’s inexperienced offensive line together this season. The senior captain has been one of the most efficient linemen McEndoo has coached in his decade at Montana State.
“Shaun, every year, has kept getting better, kept working at it and now he’s put himself in a position where, when it’s all said and done, he might grade out the highest of any of my guys in my 10 years,” McEndoo said. “He’s such a good technician. He doesn’t get beat. On average, this season, he is grading out at 94 percent.
“We call him the pit-bull because he sticks to you, he chews your leg off. He just goes at you with a different mindset. I know when opposing teams look at him the first time, they think is, ‘Yeah, I’m going to take this guy’s lunch money today.’ Then, by the end of the day, they are scratching their heads and wondering what just happened. He takes pride in that.”
Sampson, a civil engineering major, has never let his work ethic waver. His transformation from walk-on to All-Big Sky selection and team captain
didn’t come easy.
His first two seasons in Bozeman, Sampson said his two biggest challenges were adjusting to the speed of the college game and putting on the size he needed to compete. Tens of thousands of practice reps and an unfathomable amount of calories later, Sampson is an old veteran packing around 73 extra pounds.
“When you think you are full, grab another plate,” Sampson said with a laugh. “It was a lot of continuous weight room work and eating. The strength and conditioning program here is great. It’s helped me out a lot to put some mature weight on. It took time and hopefully I did it right because I didn’t want to put on sloppy weight.”
Sampson quickly added his future will include a full-time job and a full-time gym membership.
“Once football is over — I don’t look forward to the day football is over — but when it is over, I will definitely be the one on the treadmill in the weight room,” he said.
What Sampson lacks in physical prowess he makes up for with an unmatched cerebral ability to dissect defenses and fundamental technique that allows him to virtually never get beat.
“You have to do everything you can to help yourself out and I’ve always loved this game, had a passion for it and started studying it at a young age,” Sampson said. “In football, when you think you have it figured out, you don’t. There’s always things to learn. I learn things on a daily basis still. Coach Mac does a great job of teaching us about the game, the big picture, and concepts. The mental part is a huge part of football.”
Sampson may not have been one of McEndoo’s scholarship recruits five years ago, but the 2011 FCS Assistant Coach of the Year knew what he had once he witnessed Sampson’s desire.
“He has that desire that he wants to be great. I knew it way back when because you can tell,” McEndoo said. “You can tell when a kid is looking at you like a sponge, just taking in every word you are saying. That kid, he will run through a brick wall for you. Everything he’s gotten has been through hard work.
“You can’t put a price tag on a kid like that. You really can’t. He will be sorely missed next year.”
As Sampson’s senior season at Montana State dwindles down, the Capital City native can’t help but reminisce about the transformation he’s seen the Bobcats make. When he first arrived, the team was a middle-of-the-pack Big Sky contender trying to break through. As MSU enters the 112th edition of Cat-Griz, the Bobcats have won 20 of their last 23 Big Sky games are sit at No. 2 in the nation. Bobcat Stadium saw a renovation before last season that added 7,200 seats to the south end-zone and a multi-million dollar scoreboard to the north. MSU averaged more than 18,000 fans per home game this fall and even played the first night game in school history under it’s newly-constructed lights.
“It’s been a fun ride since I got here as a true freshman,” Sampson said. “I can think back to when we had some of the (scholarship) penalties and some of the extra meetings we had to do. We weren’t quite a playoff team yet. But through the years, it’s progressively gotten better in every aspect. Through the weight room, on the field, off the field, the academics, in the community, we strive to get better in every area we can. It’s been pretty crazy and pretty cool to be a part of.”
By COLTER NUANEZ, Independent Record