PARADISE, Ariz.– Ohio State’s versatile slot back/receiver Curtis Samuel graduated from arguably the most famous high school in Brooklyn. Erasmus Hall, which is located on Flatbush Ave. and once had an enrollment of 6,000 students. It was founded in 1787 and named for the Dutch philosopher, whose statue stands in the courtyard next to one of the oldest standing buildings in New York City.
Erasmus Hall was the first secondary school to be chartered by the Regents of the University of the State of New York and has been designated as a national historic landmark. It is the alma mater of performing arts stars like singers Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond, coloratura opera singer Beverly Sills, actresses Mae West, Susan Hayward and Barbara Stanwyck, actor Eli Wallach, mystery writer Mickey Spillane and “Boys of Summer’ author Roger Kahn, chess champion Bobby Fischer and other sports notables such as Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis, Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt of the Yankees, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman, NBA Hall of Fame basketball player Billy Cunningham, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and legendary NBA referee Norm Drucker.
It’s easy to get lost in this crowd.
But most of those glory days are over. The neighborhood surrounding the school, once solidly middle-class and Jewish and Irish, has changed, growing poorer and more dangerous. The academic citadel that produced the Nobel Prize winner Dr. Barbara McClintock (’19) and Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Malamud (’32) has been divided into three smaller schools, which send less than one-quarter of their graduates to four-year colleges.
Samuel has found a way to rekindle the school’s proud history this fall, emerging as a first team AP All American running back for the 11-1 Buckeyes, who are preparing to play Clemson (12-1) in the semi-finals of the College Football playoffs Dec. 31 in nearby Glendale.
The 5-11, 197-pound junior, who leads the Buckeyes with 1,546 all purpose yards in his first year as a full-time starter, is the most exciting player in the Big Ten. He was ranked second in the Big Ten in receptions (65), yards (822) and receiving touchdowns (7), has 704 rushing yards and seven additional touchdowns and scored the game-winning touchdown in the second overtime to help Ohio State defeat bitter rival Michigan, 30-27, before a roaring crowd of more than 110,000 at the giant Horse Shoe in Columbus and earn a spot in the CFP playoffs even though the Buckeyes did not win the conference championship.
Samuel celebrated by jumping into the end zone with his arms outstretched. “I don’t know what I was doing on that play,” he said during player interviews Tuesday at the Camelback Marriott. “I keep looking at the play and going back and going, ‘What was that?’ I don’t really know. I guess the joy and excitement just took over my body, being able to run into the end zone with how big that game was and how special that game was.”
Samuel said he’s still waiting for his mom to get a copy of a photo of his iconic touchdown. “I’m going to ask her because it should have been on the top of the Christmas tree,” he said.
An oversized picture of Samuel’s celebration already adorns the wall in the principal’s office at Erasmus as a symbol of hope. “Coming out of Brooklyn is tough because there’s all kinds of distractions,” he said. “I want to be that person young kids look up to. That’s what keeps me going. I want to show them that anything is possible.”
If Samuel returns to college for his senior season, he has a chance to become New York City’s first Heisman Trophy winner since Brooklyn’s own Vinny Testaverde in 1986.
Samuel did it the hard way, climbing out of a Crown Heights housing project to shine the spotlight in the PSAL, the city’s public school league where players routinely get overlooked by college recruiters because of a lack of facilities and exposure.
Erasmus practices and plays its home games on Saturday afternoons at Sid Luckman Field, a 25 minute trip from Erasmus Hall’s campus. Because the city has no money in its budget for team busing, Samuel had to take a bus and the subway every day to practice, which is located downstairs from an F train station and then travel 40 minutes to get home. It was hard to ignore the constant roar of the elevated train during practice. But Samuel’s talent was too good to ignore.
He has been a star from the time he was seven years old, playing Pop Warner football. That’s when Roy Armstead, his coach with the Brooklyn Saints and the man Samuel refers to as his step father, first told Erasmus coach Danny Landburg about his young prodigy, who was hurdling fences and outrunning all the kids his age. Samuel did not take long to blossom as a star in both football and track at Erasmus. He led the Dutchmen to the PSAL championship at a junior and was the New York Gatorade State Player of the Year as a senior when he rushed for 1,461 yards 15.8 yards a carry with 17 touchdowns. Landburg makes all his running backs run track to stay in shape and Samuel finished runner up in the state indoor 55-meter dash in 2013. Still, there were doubts in Samuel’s mind as to whether anyone would notice. “I’m thinking in my head, a kid from New York City, is not going to get a look from a big time school,” he said.
Generally, that’s true. In Samuel’s recruiting class, he was only of just two players from the city ranked among Rival’s Top 250 prospects. Samuel was listed as 49, which seems low in retrospect and speaks more to the undervalued reputation of high school football in a huge city that has always been better known for producing elite grass roots basketball talent. “I’ve been saying for a while there’s been a bunch of great players coming out of New York City and they just haven’t been seen because there hasn’t been that big time player coming out of the city who causes scouts to say, ‘Let’s go there and maybe find that one guy who could be a difference maker,”’ Samuel said.
Landburg made sure Samuel didn’t stay a secret. He had become friends with Ohio State coach Urban Meyer in 2003 when he attended a coaches’ clinic in Atlantic City and Meyer was a rising coaching star at Utah. Landburg was so impressed by Meyer’s innovative spread offense, he bought a $100 tape on eBay and began incorporating it into his own schemes. Landburg felt Samuel was the perfect fit for Meyer’s offense at Ohio State and made several trips to Columbus on his own dime to lobby for a scholarship for his star. Meyer, who looking for another Percy Harvin, the hybrid-receiver running back who was star on his Florida championship teams. He was impressed enough by Samuel’s tapes to make the trip to Brooklyn and was sold on Samuel’s character once he met Samuel’s family, especially his mother Nicole, who kept him on the right path.
Samuel didn’t need a hard sell. He was a huge fan of Harvin, calling up highlights on YouTube and modeling his own game after Harvin.
“In high school, every little combine or camp event I went to I played receiver, I never played running back,” Samuel recalled. “I was kind of comfortable in high school, but the plays we ran were sweeps and bubble screens. I didn’t know about running routes and 15-yard curls.”
Samuel arrived at Ohio State thinking he was just going to be a running back. As a true freshman, playing behind Ezekiel Elliott, he finished as the team’s third-leading rusher with 383 yards, averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had seven touchdowns. Then as a sophomore, he was moved into the slot and exploded.
“The footwork was different,” he said. “As a receiver there’s more of a vertical push. My body was so used to horizontal movement, running routes was hard for me,” Samuel said. “I kept gathering my feet every time I tried to come out of a route and my routes weren’t as crispy.
“It definitely took a lot of time. My first practice was horrible. You could tell I had potential there, but the routes were horrible. [Receivers] Coach [Zach] Smith helped me, coach Meyer, the unit room we had was great, they pushed me, they helped me become the receiver I am today.”
Samuel has more than lived up to the hype for this young Ohio State team, which has 43 freshman on the roster and has a limited margin for error against a more experienced Clemson team that played Alabama for the national championship last season. Most believe the Buckeyes must generate a passing game to beat the ACC champions and will need some big plays from Samuel to break down the Tigers’ defense.
“There’s no way we can win without him,” Meyer admitted.
Samuel leads the Buckeyes with 17 plays of 20 or more yards– including a 79-yard reception against Bowling Green, a 75 yard catch against Nebraska and a 74-yard against Penn State. “He is everywhere,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brett Venables said. “He can do it all and you just don’t see that very much in college football. We don’t have that guy on offense. … I’m not sure that we’ve seen any other single player like him this year.”
Dick Weiss is a sportswriter and columnist who has covered college football and college and professional basketball for the Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Daily News for 40 years. He has also co-written seven books with Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Dick Vitale and authored a tribute book on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.