COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Curtis Samuel speaks, there’s no mistaking where he’s from.
“It’s the accent,” said Ohio State wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who lives with Samuel. “Since he’s been up in the Midwest he’s kind of lost a little bit of it, but when I first got here I could definitely tell it was a Brooklyn accent. Some of the things he says and some of the things he eats are just a little different from the Midwest.”
In truth, there’s virtually nothing about Samuel that isn’t New York. A product of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Erasmus Hall, Samuel walks, talks and acts like someone from Brooklyn. And, yes, as McLaurin points out — also loves the Jamaican food he grew up with in Brooklyn.
For all the ways he lives up to others’ expectations of a New Yorker off the field, though, the Ohio State H-back has spent the last three years forcing people to reconsider their views on New York City as an exporter of inferior football. When Urban Meyer took over as Ohio State’s head coach in 2012, it was assumed that the former Florida coach would load up on south Florida skill players and bring “SEC speed” to the Big Ten.
And while there have been plenty of Sunshine State natives who have joined Meyer in Columbus — current wide receivers James Clark, Johnnie Dixon, Torrance Gibson and Binjimen Victor, for example — the player Meyer views as his best playmaker came from Brooklyn.
Samuel is capable of running through the tackles or catching a 60-yard bomb, and running backs coach Tony Alford said he’s never coached someone so adept at both of those aspects. He leads the Buckeyes with 6 touchdowns —3 through the air and 3 on the ground — and has drawn comparisons to Meyer’s most famous Gators pupil (non-Tebow edition).
So how did Meyer find his next Percy Harvin in Brooklyn instead of Broward County? As a pair of coaches tell it, it was actually Brooklyn that found Meyer.
When Meyer busted the BCS at Utah in 2003-04, he gained an admirer in Erasmus coach Danny Landberg, who, despite living across the country, stayed up to watch the young head coach destroy opposing defenses with his offensive innovation.
“There was nothing like the spread back then or the shovel passes and bubble passes that he ran at Utah,” Landberg said. “Like anything else with your craft, you have specific areas that interest you. It was so dynamic and different and innovative.”
When Harvin helped Meyer win national championships at Florida in 2006 and 2008, using his versatility to become one of the most prolific offensive weapons in program history, he caught the eye of Samuel. So when Samuel paired up with Landberg in high school, it was the perfect pairing of player and coach.
Still, Brooklyn was hardly the hotbed of football, and even if a player dominated in the area, the perception was he was doing so against competition that didn’t stack up to other areas of the country.
“I think years ago, that would have been correct,” Meyer said about New York’s inferiority to other more traditional football powers. “(But) I think it’s much better than it has been (in the past).”
And that one guy who really stood out on the field?
“I know their coach (Landberg) very well,” Meyer said. “(Samuel) was one that it wasn’t hard to find — he was one of the top or 20 players in the country. We’re glad we have him.”
Indeed, Samuel not only came to the right place, he came along at the right time. When Landberg was growing up, he played on one of five Pop Warner teams in New York City. Now, he says, there are more than 50 and the sport is more popular than ever. Its reputation for basketball precedes it, but football is gaining quickly. And while the gridiron isn’t as prevalent as it is in the South, it doesn’t have to be when there’s a population pool of more than 8 million.
“When you look at this country, you look at New York City as being great basketball,” Landberg said. “The reason it’s known for great basketball is we’re a city of concrete and basketball comes natural and it’s fairly cheap to play. But there’s a bigger pool of athletes here than anywhere else in the country, and they’re starting to play football. It’s the lack of knowledge from the rest of the country because of the past, which has nothing to do with now.”
Ohio State director of player personnel Mark Pantoni saw that, and Ohio State became the first big-time program to chase after Samuel. Once the Buckeyes found him and Meyer wanted him, nobody else had a chance.
“The stars were aligned, so to speak, because I followed Urban Meyer,” Landberg said. “I’ve followed him since Alex Smith at Utah, and Curtis followed the Florida years with Percy Harvin. We had similar interests and thoughts on where he should go and how he should be utilized. Growing up he was a straight running back, but I thought he could play in space. All things came together when Mark Pantoni reached out to us. Curtis always wanted to be Percy Harvin growing up. That’s why he went there.”