Parker Sampson delivered the best performance of this career Oct. 5, as Northwest football earned a hard-fought 34-23 win over Emporia State in Emporia, Kansas.
Northwest’s junior placekicker went 4-for-4 on field goal tries. He drained a 53-yarder, the longest of his career and the second-longest in program history. He was named MIAA Special Teams Player of the Week.
And Sampson did so in the wake of a family tragedy. While Northwest was fighting through a close game with the Hornets, Sampson was fighting his emotions, with the weight of the tragedy on his shoulders.
Sampson’s half brother, James, died Sept. 28, a week before the matchup with Emporia in what Sampson described as a “tragic accident.” He was 40 years old. After spending the early parts of the week away from the team, Sampson returned, a tribute to his half brother penned on his cleats, and accounted for 12 points in a game Northwest won by 11.
In the aftermath of the performance, Sampson thanked Northwest’s coaching staff for sending him out to try the 53-yard field goal. He said Northwest’s win over Emporia meant more to him than most.
“It means a lot to me and my family,” Sampson said. “The best thing for me was just to come back and be with my teammates, and I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. … I don’t want to get emotional, but I just — I think he was with me today. I’m kind of just lost for words right now.”
On a Saturday in Emporia, emotionally drained, Sampson gave the Bearcats his all. And Oct. 7, the Bearcats did what they could to return the favor.
Coach Rich Wright and his team loaded into two busses after practice Oct. 7 and headed toward Platte City, Missouri, to the site of Sampson’s half brother’s memorial service. Wright, after consulting with Northwest’s captains who agreed unanimously, altered the Bearcats’ practice schedule in order to make the trip.
The team wanted to be there for Sampson, Wright said.
“Parker’s a part of our family,” Wright said. “There was never really a question. When I found out where it was and that we could make it work … (We) drove down to support him and his parents. It was just a really hard deal.”
Northwest never broadcasted the team’s appearance at the event. It only became publicized when an attendee pointed out the act of kindness on Twitter.
Wright said it wasn’t about the team. It was about supporting Sampson and his family in the wake of tragedy because Sampson, Wright said, is family.
“We talk about family all the time, and that’s what families do,” Wright said. “I don’t want our kids to just hear about family; I want them to feel family.”
So close to 80 football players, dressed identically in their travel apparel, sporting green sweat jackets and black pants, piled into a cramped room in Platte City in an act of kindness and support. Wright said he was impressed with how the players carried themselves and said he hopes the moment was as “powerful” as it seemed to him.
The moment, Wright said, served as a teaching tool for the coaching staff, one he hopes will stick with his players well-past their playing days.
“Everybody on our team could have sent Parker a text, but to actually, physically be there — and we weren’t there for very long…” Wright said. “To be able to go do that and spend the personal time with him and his family, you know, the lessons these guys learn from football are great, but hopefully one or two life lessons along the way go with it.”
In an age where dozens of football programs across the country preach family values, it’s unclear how many others would have done what Wright and company did Oct. 7, ending practice early to drive an hour to a visitation. Wright himself isn’t sure how many other programs would have done the same. That doesn’t really matter to him.
“Don’t know,” Wright said. “I know ours always will.”