It was a Monday afternoon during the 2014-2015 school year at Sun Valley High School when Tad Baucom, the head football coach, was approached.
“Hey, I’m here to see a kid named Sam Howell.”
It was Danny Pearman, the tight ends coach at Clemson and Baucom's longtime friend, who heard about a standout football player in Monroe, from Dabo Swinney. The Clemson football head coach met the kid at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes fundraiser the week prior.
Baucom just looked at him and said, “Danny, you’re in the wrong place. Sam’s at the middle school. He’s just an eighth grader.”
Pearman was astonished at his mistake, but it makes sense.
“When I saw him play the first time, he was already able to throw the ball better than most high school athletes,” Michael Zezech, an assistant principal at Sun Valley, said.
Zezech met Howell when he was in sixth grade after working with Howell’s mom, Amy, for years. But Zezech wasn’t able to actually see Howell play until his eighth grade year. After years of hearing about other athletes lighting up the local scene, Zezech was admittedly a little dismissive to the overwhelming praise of the young player at first.
“You hear about how this kid is great and he's gonna light up the world and everything else, it’s like ‘Okay, cool,’” Zezech said. “The first time I saw him actually throw the ball, my eyebrows raised because you're like, ‘Whoa, okay, this might be something special.’”
In middle school, the conversation was about how Howell would be a great high school player. His freshman year, they talked about his collegiate potential. But by Howell’s junior season, the town of Monroe was already talking about him as Sunday Night Football player.
Baucom learned to not be surprised by Howell’s talent. After coaching the local star for four seasons and watching him lead the team to multiple winning records, state playoffs and eventually breaking the North Carolina record for total yards with 17,036, Baucom had seen Howell at his very best. But Baucom still remembers the moment he knew Howell would one day be playing professionally.
Howell had to have been tackled short of the end zone, Baucom was sure of it. But next thing he knew, the refs are up and the crowd is cheering. Howell is right handed and had pressure on his right side from defensive players, Baucom saw, so how could he do that?
The next day, Baucom went to the film room to get answers. Without pause, the high school athlete flipped the ball to his left hand, threw and found the end zone.
“I froze the frame, and I said ‘This is not human.’”
It was early May and after an already tumultuous beginning of 2020, Baucom and his family found themselves exiting a funeral service at the church in Hickory Grove. His middle daughter, Taylor, died unexpectedly at the age of 31 just a few days before.
Through the unimaginable pain of losing a child and being required to have a closed casket memorial due to coronavirus, the Baucom family was grieving.
With only a few people allowed in the service, Baucom was shocked to exit the church and see people lined up outside, spread out along the sidewalk, to show their support. Standing there, right across the street from the church, was Howell.
“That’s Sam,” Baucom said. “I once gave him a bracelet saying ‘I am second,’ but for him, he’s lower than second because Sam puts everyone else ahead of him.”
Every person at Sun Valley will tell you his or her favorite Sam Howell memory. Sure, they’re all impressed by his athletic talent, but the memory is likely not football related. They’ll tell you about how he was the kid who would pick green beans off the floor and put chairs up on the table after team meals to help the cafeteria staff. How he was the kid who made sure that when a classmate with special needs was cut from the soccer team, he found a place for him on the football team as a manager.
A 2:30 PM Decision
Phil Longo was not happy.
As the recent hire for the offensive coordinator position, he was excited to work with another new face in head coach Mack Brown's team and begin the final stages of recruiting, only 11 days out from signing day.
“I don’t want you recruiting,” Brown said.
‘What does he mean I can’t recruit?’ Longo thought. He had just flown in and was more than ready to get athletes signed to the 2019 roster. Brown was straightforward with his mission.
“No, you’re going to spend 11 days on Sam Howell.”
The four-star recruit and the second ranked player in the state had already verbally committed to Florida State in April, but the new hires on the UNC coaching staff were not having it.
No, Brown wanted Howell and was willing to bring out all the tools to charm him, namely a newly renovated offense designed by Longo – the former Ole Miss Coach that Howell was drawn to during recruitment when the Rebels came calling, even if the school itself lacked appeal.
After doing all they could to swing Howell, the day came fast. It was approaching 2:30 p.m. and he had a decision to make.
The gymnasium at Sun Valley High School on Dec. 19, 2018 was buzzing. Friends and family, athletes and coaches, news media and reporters alike clustered together under the florescent lights of the maroon and gold room.
The room went quiet as Howell began to speak. All eyes were on him as he sat with his mom on his left and his dad, Duke, on his right with two hats – one Carolina blue and one FSU red – in front of him.
“I’d like to announce that I’ll be attending,” he paused for a moment. “The University of North Carolina.”
Howell reached to his left and put the Carolina blue hat on his head – a color he’d become familiar with.
“It just seemed like the perfect fit,” Howell said. “So I made it happen.”
In just one season, Howell has secured himself as a Tar Heel great. After becoming the ACC Offensive and Overall Rookie of the Year, Military Bowl MVP, record holder for most touchdown passes at UNC for a first year, and securer of the second most passing years in the ACC with 3,641, Howell has worked to make himself a household name state and nationwide.
Try it, mention Howell’s name somewhere in North Carolina and you’re likely to receive an earful about the quarterback’s shocking first season and how excited people are for his sophomore season set to kick off on Saturday. But ask Howell, and he'll tell you not to focus on him.
“I decided to stay true to myself,” Howell said. “I'm just one part of the team, so the way I go about it is I'm no better than anyone else on this team. We all got to do our job. So I decided to see myself as the same as everybody else.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.