Sam McGuffie has scored a touchdown at Notre Dame Stadium . His college football career started with him calling Michigan’s Big House home. He played before crowds of more than 100,000 at Ohio State, Penn State and Texas.
He’s seen big crowds and felt big moments.
And he knows something even bigger may be waiting.
America’s latest unique bobsledding phenom is a former running back from the not-exactly-winter-sport-hotbed of Houston. His knack for hurdling defenders made him a YouTube star as a high schooler. He briefly had a taste of life in the NFL, including a stint with the New England Patriots where he got a congratulatory headbutt from Tom Brady.
Next up is racing in the Pyeongchang Olympics, where he will help push USA-1 — a sled that the Americans think can contend for a medal in four-man bobsled.
“We might not go and be out there in front of 114,000 people,” McGuffie said. “But what we’re going to be competing for is something a whole lot bigger than football. We’re competing for our country. This is your team, this will always be your team, the USA has always been your team ever since you were a kid. Everybody in your country is part of this team.”
McGuffie has been a quick study since first trying bobsled three years ago. He’s already helped the U.S. win five medals in World Cup races, and has been teamed with driver Codie Bascue and fellow push athletes Steven Langton and Evan Weinstock for Pyeongchang. Langton has won two Olympic medals, Bascue is thought of as the future American driving star and Weinstock is generally considered the best pusher in the American stable.
Being put with that group shows what the U.S. thinks of McGuffie’s talent.
“Sam’s an incredible athlete,” Langton said. “He’s definitely a unique individual, but when you put him on the line he wants to go.”
That wasn’t always the case. At least, it wasn’t the case in the beginning.
Bobsledders say that nothing properly prepares them for the first trip down an icy track. It looks super-smooth on television, a sleek sled gliding over ice at a high rate of speed. Those looks are most deceiving. Every trip, regardless of how clean it is, leaves people inside the sled bruised and battered as they get tossed around a high-tech tin can.
“It’s different than you think,” McGuffie said. “It’s violent. It’s like being put in a garbage can and being kicked down a flight of stairs for a minute straight. Bruises on my arms every day, legs get beat up.”
Oh, and carsickness happens a lot. The only detail McGuffie remembers about his first time down a track was the nausea he felt at the end.
Steve Holcomb didn’t warn him about any of that.
Holcomb, the former U.S. bobsled driving star who died unexpectedly last May, saw McGuffie’s talent right away. He took McGuffie under his wing, eventually getting him into his sled. That changed everything: McGuffie was eligible for more funding because he was part of the USA-1 team, and he realized that getting picked by Holcomb for anything was the ultimate seal of approval around the U.S. team.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” McGuffie said. “I knew I had the physical gifts, but Holcomb took a chance on me. In a way, him being gone makes me feel like I lost the reason why I was able to do anything in this sport.”
It has been a difficult year for the entire U.S. bobsled program, in large part because Holcomb isn’t there. McGuffie’s year only got more challenging when Houston got hammered by Hurricane Harvey, a deadly storm that dropped several feet of rain on his city and caused massive flooding. McGuffie’s family was largely spared major trouble, but many of his friends got hit hard by the storm.
And when he learned that some students at his former high school were affected and lost homes, McGuffie arranged for the delivery of several backpacks with solar panels — so they could at least be able to charge their phones and keep in contact with the world. The school’s football team played on, and McGuffie was there when they captured a state championship.
“A very big deal for me,” McGuffie said.
He was there to watch them, and he knows Houston will be watching him in Pyeongchang.
McGuffie finished his college career at Rice after deciding Michigan wasn’t the right fit, still calls Houston home and it’s a badge of honor for him to represent Texas on the Olympic stage.
“I’m representing all the kids that are trying to do something with their lives that maybe might not make sense at the time,” McGuffie said. “It means everything to me. Life’s short, man. This opportunity that I have, to represent the United States, to represent Houston, to represent Cypress, I’m going to take it and try to do my best.”
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org