Karla King anxiously awaited her first face-to-face meeting with Ed Orgeron.
The LSU head football coach had flown into Manassas Regional Airport on a private jet the morning of Dec. 10 for the first of three home visits he planned on doing with local Tiger commitments. The first stop was Woodbridge to see King's son Antoine Sampah.
She’d seen him on television and she’d also FaceTimed with him. But this encounter was different. For all the good vibes she felt about LSU, King still needed extra reassurance LSU was indeed the right place for Sampah.
Between working two jobs and raising a family, King had no time or interest in following rankings or reading message boards.
Plus all the colleges ran together. She wasn’t a football fan and the flood of schools chasing Sampah made it even harder to keep everyone straight.
When they finally met at Woodbridge, she looked at Orgeron’s eyes and found her answer.
“You could tell he was kind and caring,” King said. “That was a big deal for me.”
For 90 minutes, she, Sampah, Orgeron and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda sat around a circular table inside the Woodbridge football office and talked.
Orgeron told his story. After Ole Miss fired him following a three-year record of 10-25, Orgeron served as USC’s interim coach before resigning when the school passed him over for the permanent job. Orgeron became LSU’s full-time head coach Nov. 26, 2016 after taking over on an interim basis that September.
“He’s come a long way and it shows,” King said. “He’s dedicated in whatever he does. It’s all about development.”
At one point during the conversation, Orgeron asked King the name of Sampah’s favorite meal she cooks for him. King told him salmon. Orgeron said the reason Sampah enjoys that meal so much is because King knew how to make it correctly.
“That’s how we work,” Orgeron said to her. “We have all the ingredients.”
Had LSU not impressed King, she would have required Sampah to use all of his allotted five official visits. Instead, he only needed to take one and that was to LSU with his mom and other family members the weekend of Dec. 13. It was her first visit to a college campus during Sampah’s recruiting and she enjoyed every minute of it. And why not? LSU is undefeated, the top seed in the College Football Playoffs and home to this year’s Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Joe Burrow.
But for all of the Tigers’ success this season, King only cared about entrusting her son to LSU.
From the start, she sought a deeper connection, one that began with Sampah’s head coach at Woodbridge, Gary Wortham, and will now continue with Orgeron and his staff.
“[Sampah’s] going from one great family to another,” King said. “I feel safe about that.”
On Wednesday morning, Sampah will finalize his decision and close a strenuous part of his life when he signs his national letter of intent on the first day of the three-day early signing period for high school football seniors.
Since receiving his first offer March 25, 2017, from North Carolina as a sophomore, the 17-year-old’s recruiting profile exploded.
A hard-hitting linebacker with speed, size and length, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior had his pick of elite programs, including Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma, as the line of suitors grew by the minute for the top 100 national recruit.
Fresh off the Tigers’ national championship, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney stopped by Woodbridge Jan. 15. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley flew to Woodbridge Jan. 24 and returned the same day.
To help in the decision-making process, Sampah and other Woodbridge players, under the supervision of Gary Wortham Jr., toured 11 colleges throughout the southeast over six days in March.
Miami caught Sampah’s attention. The weather, the beaches and the “U’s” tradition impressed him when he visited March 24 for a junior day.
King, though, nixed those plans. She had nothing against the program, but King didn’t like the location and she had no personal relationship with anyone from Miami. Nor did the Woodbridge coaching staff.
It was imperative for King to have a rapport with any coaching staff. She adopted the same approach when Sampah entered high school.
As his freshman year approached, Sampah considered enrolling at Hylton. The Bulldogs were a consistent winner and playoff contender, while Woodbridge was an up-and-down program.
Over the six seasons prior to Sampah’s freshman season in the fall of 2016, Hylton had gone 59-12 and reached the playoffs each time, while Woodbridge was 34-30 during the same time with four playoff appearances.
Wortham’s first season at Woodbridge was Sampah’s eighth grade year at Woodbridge Middle School. After hearing good things about Wortham, including his dedication to family and emphasis on education, King believed Wortham could establish a rapport with Sampah. She was right.
Seeing how much Sampah has matured, she never regretted the decision to keep him at Woodbridge.
Neither did Sampah.
“Who knows where I’d be without him,” Sampah said of Wortham.
With Miami off the table, one school still stuck in Sampah’s mind during the mini-excursion through the south.
On the tour’s seventh stop March 22, Sampah visited LSU and met with head coach Ed Orgeron. The Tigers had offered Sampah just over a year before, but Sampah had yet to meet Orgeron face to face.
For 40 minutes, they talked in Orgeron’s office. Known for his ability to connect with players, Orgeron made Sampah feel comfortable right away.
Sampah recalled looking at Wortham Jr. and telling him how taken he was with Orgeron’s people skills, to the point that he considered committing right then.
“Sampah’s reaction was instant shock,” Wortham Jr. said. “He never met a head coach that possessed and displayed such fire and intensity towards a school and football program like coach Orgeron. He immediately fell in love with his passion and energy during that meeting and knew that LSU was the place for him.”
In a surprise move to those outside his inner circle, Sampah committed to LSU April 29 over presumed favorite Clemson.
The backlash from fans shocked Sampah, but he never fully wavered in his choice.
“It felt like home and felt like family,” Sampah said. “You have to understand you can’t find that every place you go.”