There was a time when Antoine Sampah pushed back against facing older competition. He was so adamant on this point he almost quit football for good.
Preparing for his second season of youth league ball, the then-third-grader was ruled too big to compete in his age group’s weight class. If he wanted to stay, Sampah had to play against kids in the sixth-to eighth grade range. Sampah was taller and heavier than his peers, but he had no interest in sticking with football if this was his only option. Plus, coaches wanted him to play on the line and Sampah preferred linebacker.
“I was just going to be crushed,” Sampah said.
In stepped Sampah’s mother Karla. Knowing how much her son loved to play, Carla found the Dale City Patriots that allowed Sampah to play with kids his own age regardless of size.
Sampah flourished with the Patriots, earning the nickname “flatline” for the ferocious hits he laid on opponents.
“That made me want to play,” Sampah said.
Even though he’s a 15-year-old sophomore starting linebacker for Woodbridge High School, Sampah no longer worries about holding his own against older players.
He became a varsity starter midway through his freshman season and went on to become the youngest player named to the Conference 4 first or second-team defense. He’s picked up six major-college offers. And he enters the 2017 season as a MaxPreps Preseason Sophomore All-American and the top-rated inside linebacker for the class of 2020, according to the 247Sports.
Sampah attributes his increased comfort level to two things: Woodbridge’s coaching staff and the fact he’s more physically mature. Even now, his 6-1, 205-pound frame belies his age, but his upside is tremendous. Height runs in Sampah’s family. His father Kasse is 6-3 and his mother is 5-8.
“He won’t stop growing,” Woodbridge head coach Gary Wortham said. “That’s what’s crazy. He’s growing every day.”
Sampah began his freshman season on the junior varsity, but two games in, it was obvious to the coaches he was ready for a promotion. He’d racked up a ton of tackles in both games and returned an interception for a touchdown in the first game.
“We gave Antoine a couple of good tests in practice after seeing him play the second junior varsity game,” Woodbridge head coach Gary Wortham said. “He passed those tests on the field.”
Woodbridge eased Sampah into the varsity lineup as he adjusted to the speed of the game. Defensive coordinator Endor Cooper and junior varsity head coach and varsity linebackers coach Danzel White have overseen Sampah’s development. Cooper and White both know something about playing linebacker. Both were standout performers at that position at Hylton. Cooper went on to become the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year at Howard, while White started at Towson.
Sampah was nervous his first game, but he remembered calming down after making a big hit on the opposing team’s running back along the sidelines. By his third game, Sampah was starting.
“[Antoine] reads and tackles extremely well,” Wortham said. “That is something you clearly see on his film.”
Those abilities along with his size attracted immediate attention from college coaches.
Sampah received his offer March 25 from the University of North Carolina followed by offers from Virginia Tech, East Carolina, Maryland, Cincinnati and Virginia.
The flurry of offers surprised Sampah. After North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora extended a scholarship during Sampah’s visit to the campus, Sampah added two more offers over the next seven days.
“I was having a good week,” Sampah said.