You know the play.
Second and five. Down by four with 1:20 remaining in Super Bowl XLII. As the pocket begins collapsing around him, Eli Manning heaves a high, firm back-shoulder fade down the right sideline. David Tyree, the pass’ intended recipient, breaks off his route just after the ball leaves Manning’s hand. As it sails towards the sideline, cornerback Asante Samuel leaps high into the air.
At this exact moment in time, the game is over. The Patriots have gone 19-0. It’s the greatest season in NFL history, and likely the greatest season-long team achievement in all of professional sports.
But — well, you know the play.
The Belichick-era Patriots have become the public embodiment of today’s shrewd, business-like NFL — amassing a long list of abruptly severed professional relationships with some of the organization’s key players. Asante Samuel’s unceremonious departure was no different.
A little more than five months before Super Bowl XLII, the 2003 fourth-round pick out of Central Florida was in the midst of a hold out. The team had placed their franchise tag on him following a league-leading 10-interception season in 2006. Refusing to sign the $7.79 million tender in hopes a long-term deal could be struck, Samuel would miss almost all of training camp and the preseason as the two sides struggled to find common ground in negotiations.
“Man I was so frustrated and fed up with the whole thing.” Samuel told Patriots Central Radio last week, “We weren't really getting anywhere and they weren’t really communicating with my agent or nothing.”
Samuel then details how he jumped on a flight to New England without telling the team, or his agent. When he arrives on site at Patriots training camp, the first person he sees is Tom Brady. The second is Bill Belichick.
“You ready to pass your conditioning test?” Bill asks.
The two head to Belichick’s office to discuss how to move forward. Asante makes his displeasure with the situation known, but says he just wants to play. He tells the head coach he’ll sign his franchise tender if he promises not to tag him again in 2008.
“He looked me right in the eye and said ‘go home and have your agent call me.’ So I do. And from about 2:30 in the afternoon to 3:00 in the morning — man, we talked about a bunch of nothing. They kept dragging it out.” Samuel says. “So I got my agent back on the phone.”
It’s at this point that Samuel tells his agent (in slightly different terms) to forget the deal. Use your imagination for the actual quote.
“They wanted to keep (negotiating) some (expletive) percentage or something. I said ‘Tell them I’ll be there in the morning and I’ll sign it.’ So that’s how it got done. That was that.”
After signing his franchise tender, Samuel goes on to notch seven interceptions in 2007 (six regular-season, one postseason). He’s named First-Team All-Pro, and is voted to the Pro Bowl on the original-ballot as an integral member of a Patriots team went into Super Bowl XLII undefeated.
Then the play happens.
Samuel mistimes his leap by a fraction of a second, and Manning’s pass caroms off of his outstretched hands. He appears to realize his mistake before both of his feet are even back on the ground. The next play is Tyree’s helmet catch. Four plays later Ellis Hobbs, left alone on Plaxico Burress, ends up looking more helpless than the cow that lowered into the Jurassic Park raptor pit.
A month later, the Philadelphia Eagles sign Samuel to a six-year, $57 million contract. His time in New England is over. For the segment of fans with the what have you done for me lately attitude, his holdout and Super Bowl blunder left a taste in their mouths sour enough to last until today.
“For them, there was never really a chance to bring me back. ” Samuel says when asked if New England ever made a serious offer before his free agency departure. “I mean, there was a chance, but it was an outrageous chance. They probably offered me half of the money I deserved. Every organization does things different, it’s cool. It is what it is. It all worked out.”
“I never wanted to leave (New England). I don’t think anyone really wants to leave where they start off at. I was lucky to be drafted there, to learn from those veterans, to get the discipline that helped me my whole career.”
“But you got to understand — a lot of guys come up from the hood, we come up from a whole lot of nothing. You got to root for the little guys — the guys like us who work hard to make it out of our situations. We’re just trying to change our situations— and our family’s.”
Samuel spent four years in Philadelphia and his final two in Atlanta. When the Falcons drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in 2013, he saw the writing on the wall. He was released the following offseason. In 11 NFL seasons he tallied 51 career interceptions and was voted to four Pro Bowls.
These days, three seasons removed from NFL action, Samuel says he’s excited about the next chapter in his life. It’s a chapter that includes helping local youth in poor neighborhoods like the one he grew up in. It also includes watching his son Asante Jr. carve out a potential career for himself in football. He’s a high school senior and has committed to play for Florida State in 2018.
When he reflects back on his time in New England, he does so with an unconvincing “it is what it is” demeanor. There is pain seeping through the cracks and pauses of his sentences. You can feel how much he loved playing for Patriots fans. But even though he helped bring two Super Bowl titles to Foxborough, many of them now only remember him for one play.
“You know I’ve never done no formal type of retirement or nothing,” he says, “and I’ll probably never do one. But I’ve got major respect for Mr. Kraft and coach Belichick. I’ve got major respect for the whole Patriots organization. Being drafted to that team helped me be a better player and a better man — for that I’ll be forever grateful.”