On Saturdays, Sam Carlson spends his time blocking, hand-fighting and grappling with 275-pound defensive linemen whose goal is to destroy anything in their path on the way to whoever is holding the ball at that time. He often leaves games bloodied, bruised and beat up after battling men his size or bigger for 60 minutes.
24 hours later, he is holding his toddler-aged niece, Olivia, and performing with the band at River of Life Church in Wellington, which sits about 15 miles north of the Colorado State campus in Wellington. He plays a role in the youth ministry and helps his father, Rick, who also doubles as the church’s pastor.
Carlson is a different person when he straps on his pads and helmet, and that’s exactly the way he likes it.
Growing up with three sisters had its challenges for a boy who wanted nothing more than play sports, horse around and “do what boys do.” Early on, Carlson says his three sisters, who are all his elder, ganged up on him in any fight or disagreement. That left him to fend for himself – until he outgrew them before he reached middle school. Unsurprisingly, the teasing stop pretty quickly after that.
“Now they spoil me and they take really good care of me,” Carlson said with a chuckle. “When I was a kid they always used to gang up on me and beat me up whereas when I grew up a little bit I could take one of them out and then take the others one-on-two. There were times when I was really mad at them, but I couldn’t be more blessed to have them. They’ve taught me that family is everything. That’s something that really means a lot to us. For us, Sunday is family day and we make sure that we take time out to spend the day with each other. We go to church, then we have family lunch and we spend the rest of the day watching football. That’s the best part of my week for sure.
Carlson also faced the challenge of growing up as the son of a pastor in a small town of 7,000 people. Most of the town of Wellington knew who Sam was, and he subsequently spent much of his childhood under a microscope.
“It’s something kind of similar to being on the football team here at CSU,” Carlson said of being the pastor’s son. “You live in this fishbowl – it’s a very transparent life. People are always saying, ‘That’s the pastor’s kid, be careful what you say or do around him.’ That’s not really what you want as a kid, because you want people to be themselves around you and be who they are because you’re going to do the same. But I honestly couldn’t ask for a better scenario growing up. I love my dad, I love what he does and I love our church. I love everything I’ve been taught and given, so I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Carlson began his football career at six years old in the Wellington Recreation League’s flag division. It wasn’t until the fifth grade that he was allowed to play tackle football, where he was immediately stuck on the offensive line. Center, to be exact.
He wasn’t thrilled with being put at football’s least glamourous position, but his size and understanding of the game led his coaches to believe he was a natural fit there. On defense though, he did get to play linebacker, where he enjoyed letting his aggressive side run wild. Even though he was one of the most imposing kids in his grade, Carlson was usually the first to befriend new students, including one who would become one of best friends, Teran Mawhinney.
“I was in 6th grade when my family moved from Denver to Fort Collins, and to get to know the kids and coaches in the area better my parents signed me up for the Poudre High School youth football camp,” Mawhinney said. “During the famous ‘popsicle break’ Sam walked over and introduced himself, but it wasn’t until a few years later did Sam and I really became friends. From elementary school to now, Sam has been one of the most loyal, outgoing, and honest men I know.”
As he continued to grow, Carlson kept his place on the offensive line during his junior high days at Wellington Junior High. He excelled in basketball as one of the few players in the district over 6-feet tall at the time.
When Carlson entered Poudre High School just a few miles northwest of CSU’s main campus, he joined the junior varsity football team as a freshman, just one of three players to do so. At the time, he had been moved to tight end, a position he fell in love with immediately. His time there wouldn’t last long, though, as injuries on the varsity offensive line forced coaches to move him back to tackle and suit up as a reserve for the varsity team. The next year, Carlson was tabbed as a starting tackle on a senior-laden varsity squad that entered the season with state championship aspirations.
The Impalas finished the regular season 7-2 and advanced to the state semifinals before falling to eventual state champion Mullen 48-21. Though he fell short of being on the first state championship football team at Poudre since 1969, Carlson credits that experience as a big reason for his success over the following years.
“That season was one of the most memorable times I’ve had playing football,” Carlson said. “I’ll never forget just the brotherhood of that team. We were always together, and I think one of the biggest reasons we went that far is because the seniors treated us young guys as just another guy on the team. They really helped bring us young guys along and helped us out, and I have to credit some of my success today to the guys on that team.”
After the season, Carlson had a decision to make. Would he play basketball for the Impalas JV team or take the winter off and train for football as one of the few returning starters on the varsity team?
Despite lots of pleading from Poudre basketball coach Steve Hawes, Carlson gave up basketball for a year, something he said he still regrets today.
“Sophomore year I got my first taste of varsity football and I was just like, ‘Football is it, man,’” Carlson said. “Coach Hawes was just begging me to come out for basketball but I couldn’t do it, and I really should have. I regret that, I really do, but football has always been king in my life.”
During his three years as a starter at Poudre, Carlson didn’t miss a single game, and was named second-team All-Front Range League in 2009 and first-team All-FRL in 2010. Before the summer prior to his senior year though, Carlson only held one Division I offer – from the University of Wyoming. Despite growing up as a Fort Collins resident, Carlson wasn’t a die-hard Rams fan, but he was still hoping for an offer from CSU when he attended their individual camp in July. After the camp, CSU’s coaches told him that he was the best player they had seen at the camp and were offering him a scholarship. Less than a month later, Carlson committed to then-head coach Steve Fairchild and the Rams.
“I really liked the coaching staff,” Carlson told GreenandGoldNews.com at the time. “I talked to Coach (Steve) Fairchild, and he said we have a lot of potential to win championships. I shook his hand, looked him in the eye and he said, ‘We are going to win championships with you.'”
Over the next three years, Carlson would only see game action twice, as a reserve offensive lineman playing mop-up duty in games against Wyoming and Nevada. His love for the game waned, and Carlson questioned whether he had made the right decision. During his redshirt sophomore season, under a coaching staff who hadn’t recruited him, he questioned if football would be in his future.
It took time and lots of prayers to reinvigorate his love for the game, according to Carlson. But when spring football opened in March 2014, Carlson had found his chance when he was listed on the two-deep depth chart heading into the first practice. Throughout the spring, Carlson worked primarily with the first- and second-team offenses at both guard and tackle positions. He was likely assured playing time, but not a starting spot when senior offensive tackle Mason Hathaway went down with an injury in the fall and was required to miss the rest of the season. All of the sudden, Carlson was thrust into the starting right tackle spot on CSU’s starting line.
It was then that he finally flourished. Behind Carlson and the rest of the CSU offensive line, the Rams’ offense set numerous school records and rolled to its first 10-win season in more than a decade, while boasting a 4,000-yard passer (Garrett Grayson) and 1,200-yard rusher (Dee Hart) for the first time in school history.
Taking the lead
During the offseason, Carlson invited about a dozen teammates to his family’s house five miles east of Wellington for what he refers to as “guy time.” It was one of Carlson’s first moves as a team leader, which his teammates say was a welcome surprise for what they deem a very quiet guy.
“Sam’s just a guy,” a laughing Fred Zerblis said. “He’s a guy that you can talk to about anything. I don’t think anyone could have anything negative to say about him. He’s somebody that you want to friends forever with. When we’re on the field, I think that competitiveness comes out, but he’s not much of a trash-talker.”
Though there’s disagreement among the attendees as to who was the best shot during their rabbit hunting venture, there was no doubt that the players were happy to see Carlson take time to invite them to his home. According to Zerblis, his feat of shooting a rabbit with a “$5 pistol” far exceeded anyone else’s skills, for what it’s worth.
Even new head coach Mike Bobo has been impressed with Carlson’s newfound leadership role, noting that he helped lead the team sing the fight song after their win over Savannah State Saturday, something Bobo didn’t know was a tradition at CSU.
“After (the game), I got finished talking and he brought everyone together for the fight song and I didn’t know we did that in locker room, so he helped me out there,” Bobo said. “He’s a kid from right down the road … but he’s playing as well as anyone we’ve ever had at the offensive line position. Every day he takes it seriously trying to get better. He’s tough, he’s athletic and he can bend.”
Among CSU’s offensive lineman, Carlson was the only one to grade about 90 percent against Savannah State, and Bobo expects him to be anchor of CSU’s right side going forward. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of recent CSU offensive linemen Weston Richburg and Ty Sambrailo and get a shot to play at the next level, but if that career path doesn’t plan out, coaching is a passion he wants to pursue.
“That’s always been my dream,” Carlson said of playing in the NFL. “It’s every kid’s dream growing up, at least playing football, that you take this game as far as it will take you. Even if you’re only able to play for a little while, it can set you up with a lot of good opportunities. If the chance is there, I’m going to work for it and give it a shot, but if it’s not then there are other opportunities in coaching I think I’d like to take.”
With less than four months of college football left, Carlson is just enjoying the final days he has in the green and gold.
“He cares about Colorado State, he loves putting on the uniform and he takes pride in it,” Bobo said. “When one of your guys, one of your better players who’s a senior and is from this state becomes one of your leaders I think that’s always a good thing for your football program.”
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.