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WHERE ... HAS HE BEEN? ... IS HE NOW? ... DOES HE GO FROM HERE?

9/23/2008
Chris Hornbecker

Where's Sammie? The coach looked across his office at the young man and felt a buzz run up his spine. Sammie was right there, no more than three feet away, yet he was a stranger. His darting eyes focused nowhere. Dialogue was impossible. The coach sat confused and afraid. Yes, afraid—there was no other word for what he was feeling. This was spooky. Where's Sammie? Just feet away, but there were miles in between.None of what happened on that day in June last year made sense to Mike Riley. Sammie Stroughter was the most polite, open, optimistic kid in the Oregon State program, the favorite of every coach's wife and the Pac-10's most dynamic wide receiver. The force of his personality could prod a struggling teammate or coax a smile from a dour assistant. Every Boys & Girls Club, church group and alumni chapter asked for him. The team had a nickname for him that spoke to his seeming completeness:

Perfect Sam.

The coach had detected something the week before during a quick encounter on campus. It was just different—nothing big, nothing alarming, certainly nothing like what he was experiencing now. One day Riley was thinking, I wonder what's bothering Sammie. The next he was looking at a shell of a man and pondering, What if a person you know well was suddenly gone?

Sitting in his big office overlooking the north end zone of Reser Stadium, Riley knew he was supposed to be the one with the answers. This time, though, he could muster only one thought: This is bigger than me. Riley was speaking as much to himself as to Stroughter when he said quietly, "We have to get Sam back." What the coach didn't verbalize was the question that held his biggest fear: Where do we go to find him?

From the outside, Perfect Sam's life was just that, perfect. Stroughter was one of those college kids who embodies all the best possibilities: good student, good person, good athlete. No one was more popular on campus, no one more recognizable. His laugh—"So annoying," teammate Brandon Hughes says with mock aggrievement—was the most distinctive sound in the Valley Football Center, the team's three-story facility. It comes at you loud and quick, like a coughing fit. At home, Stroughter's family had started to talk about the NFL, a preposterous notion three years earlier, when he was being recruited by the likes of Idaho and Wyoming at Granite Bay High, near Sacramento. Preseason All-America accolades for the rising junior were a formality.

From the inside, though, layers were peeling. Joe Brown and Kenneth Hill—two uncles who had given the boy without a father figure "structure to help me be proud of myself"—died within a six-month span, both after car accidents. Talk of the NFL and the 2007 season and the latest public obligation suddenly weighed on Perfect Sam. It's hard to say exactly when the downturn started—or why, for that matter—but he began to doubt people's motives. Skepticism intensified into paranoia. Each conversation was analyzed for subtext. What are they really saying? Even people he trusted implicitly were suspect.

He fought it, hard. He was a football player, and football players tough it out and suck it up and play through. There's nothing wrong with Sam, he told himself. Nothing can be wrong with Sam. But even as he told himself this, he retreated from the world.

As Sammie got lost inside himself, the search to get him back was already on. Riley's first call after that office meeting was to Stroughter's mom, Andrea Brown. And she quickly called Scott Vanderbeek. "Something is wrong with Sammie," she told him.

Vanderbeek shies from the title of surrogate father, but it holds truth. His son Jared, a safety at Sacramento State, is one of Stroughter's best friends, and Stroughter spent his high school days raiding the Vanderbeeks' pantry. He went to church with them every Sunday and is still on their family phone plan. Mr. V, as Stroughter calls him, was a logical first responder. He tried to explain away Brown's concern, but something—"That small, still voice," he says—told him, Get up there.

When he reached Corvallis the next day, Mr. V was concerned to find Stroughter's door unlocked but nobody home. He went to the football facility to ask for Stroughter; no luck. Then he drove around campus, as much to feel busy as anything else, before returning to the apartment to wait. In the early evening, Stroughter walked in and looked at Mr. V without expression. Not surprised or happy to see him, maybe not even aware he was seeing him. Something is wrong with Sammie. Yes. That was the easy part. Mr. V tried small talk, to lighten the mood, to connect. Where you been? How you doing? The words entered the room and died. Stroughter was agitated, on guard. What's he seeing when he sees me? Mr. V wondered. The kid with the hummingbird feet, who could change direction the way others change thoughts, couldn't move. He was tired but couldn't sleep, hungry but couldn't eat, scared but couldn't speak.

Eventually, Mr. V unfolded the futon in the front room and said good night. Neither man slept. Stroughter was up and down, walking from room to room. Mr. V lay on the futon, listening, praying, trying to figure out what to do. Was it drugs? Mr. V hated to think it. His mind went back six months, to Stroughter's 21st-birthday dinner. Mr.V had ordered a froufrou drink because Stroughter wouldn't order one for himself. Stroughter said he didn't want it and didn't finish it.

Still, every answer begins with a question; it was time to start asking. With team doctors consulting, Vanderbeek took Stroughter for a toxicology screen (negative) and a brain scan (no abnormalities). Stroughter fought, first the needle for the bloodwork, then the machine for the scan. He didn't sign the consent papers until his mom got on the phone and pleaded.

Ruling out options felt good, something like progress, for Vanderbeek. But Stroughter asked to go home to Granite Bay. On the way, he saw traps everywhere. At the Portland airport, he refused to go through the metal detector until Mr. V convinced him it was the only way to get back home. At the airport in Sacramento, Stroughter grew upset when he saw that Mr. V had parked near a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. "You're gonna turn me in," Stroughter said accusingly.

But when he met his family at the Vanderbeek home, the pressure eased. Stroughter found a psychologist he liked. After two weeks, he began to split time between the Vanderbeeks' and the apartment of his half brother, Eric Blair. He fielded regular calls from coaches and friends in Corvallis.

As August practice neared, Stroughter decided to return to school. Blair decided to go too. Eight years Stroughter's senior, Blair had fought depression for several years. He left his girlfriend in Sacramento to find his brother—and maybe himself—in Corvallis.

When they got there, though, they were met with more bad news: Jim Gilstrap, the coach who had recruited Stroughter and whom Sammie says was his "Corvallis pillar," had died on July 19 of cancer. In a nod to his fragility, Stroughter wasn't told until he returned.

The impact was noticeable. He went to practice sporadically and soon stopped going at all. Blair made no demands or judgments. When he'd struggled with being the man of the family before his time, he learned demands and judgments were the worst thing. He did encourage Stroughter to take up the Native American redwood flute he'd started to play his freshman year. "He needed something just for him," Blair says. "It seems small, but he did it because he wanted to, not because someone told him to."

Stroughter's actions led doctors to consider a range of disorders before they agreed on a diagnosis: severe depression. "I was unrecognizable," Stroughter says. "People saw nothing but a blank stare. It took hold and wouldn't let go. I stressed over things I had no control over. I battled myself constantly over the smallest things."

Blair kept working from his end. "We'll get through this," was his mantra. "We'll get through this together." Before the season began, media relations director Steve Fenk took the local media behind the football building to ask them to respect Stroughter's privacy and refrain from interviewing him. They agreed.

Where was Sammie? In therapy, taking medication, speaking to a university pastor. The players made a schedule. After each evening workout, two Beavers would visit Stroughter and his brother at their apartment. Quarterback Lyle Moevao says, "We wanted Sammie to know it wasn't just his brother by blood who was there for him. His Oregon State brothers were there too." When Riley overheard his team discussing plans, he asked to know the schedule so he could tell the bed-check guys to cut the designated visitors slack. "I've never been so proud of a group in my life," Riley says.

If Stroughter wanted to talk, they talked. If he didn't, they didn't. Some nights felt fruitless, everyone watching movies or playing video games in silence. "It was tough," says Hughes. But after three weeks, Stroughter finally began to show interest: How's practice? What are we running? What's the game plan look like?

With the 2007 season closing in, Stroughter went to Riley's office. The coach repeated what he'd said in June—"We have to get Sam back"—before adding, "I'm not talking about the Sam who plays football. I'm talking about the Sam who comes into my office laughing." Stroughter appreciated the significance. "Once Coach knew there was something wrong, he didn't talk about football," he says. "He didn't care if I played another down. He just wanted me better."

Stroughter returned for the end of preseason drills but sat out an opening win against Utah and didn't catch a pass in a win at Cincinnati. Then, at home against overmatched Idaho State, he thrilled Corvallis with nine catches for 160 yards and two scores. Stroughter was back—for a week. That next Saturday, he hauled in six passes for 106 yards before lacerating a kidney in a loss at Arizona State. His season was over, but Stroughter wasn't disappointed. "It was a blessing," he says. "Getting hurt allowed me to reevaluate my life, get stronger, grow spiritually and come out better."

Blair went home to Sacramento in March. Soon after, Stroughter was granted a medical redshirt. In the first weeks of this season's workouts he's been a revelation, better than before. He will take one class this semester—mentoring—and graduate in December with a sociology degree. Perfect Sam.

"I've found I'm an outlet for a lot of people," Stroughter says. He's heard from students, teammates, even opponents. "Depression is everywhere. Once people found out about my struggle, they came up to me and said, 'I've been there too. Keep fighting.'"

Any stigma has lifted with the darkness. "When I was going through it, I couldn't talk about it," Stroughter says. "Now I'm attacking it. A lot of college people go through this, and their mechanism for dealing isn't developed." Stroughter went off medication and finished therapy months ago—and so far, so good. But what happens when 110,000 people get in his ear on his first road trip to Penn State, on Sept. 6? And how will he handle the season-long glare of attention and the NFL's prodding? "I know where to go now," Stroughter says. "If I need something, everything's in place."

If a teammate needs a receiver to catch balls after practice, a partner for extra work in the weight room, Stroughter's his man. Riley named him a captain, and Hughes shakes his head and says, "It's Sammie Stroughter's world."

Where is Sammie? Right now he's walking through the football facility cafeteria, talking to everyone. A trip of about 100 feet goes on for 15 minutes. He ejects that laugh in his wake, like a car's backfire. Hughes is right: It could get annoying. But no one is complaining, not even close. The people here have heard the silence. For them, Sammie Stroughter's laugh is the most comforting annoyance.