by Peter Johnson
Rainier Beach High School’s football team could win its first state championship in school history
Coach Corey Sampson’s office is surprisingly comfortable. Its windowed door faces the Rainier Beach High School locker room. The coach’s office is nearly as big as the team’s, and the coach’s office has its own bathroom. But, of course, it’s a football office. And in football, authority is worshiped.
Sampson is not the curmudgeonly, grumpy man of few words that you would expect to coach the best South End team in a generation. He’s animated, excited, and talks a mile a minute. He seems ready to jump out of his seat at any moment.
The coach is incredibly proud. Tonight is the last practice of the year. Tomorrow, the Rainier Beach Vikings play for the state championship.
For Sampson, it’s vindication. He’s the first black coach to take a team to the state football championship. Unlike the coaches at the area’s football powerhouses—Eastside Catholic, Bellevue, O’Dea—Sampson doesn’t have a full-time job coaching and teaching.
Sampson has been perpetually underestimated. He’s been let go from two coaching jobs. His team has faced the same sort of condescension.
“We’re overlooked a lot,” Sampson says. “A lot of people think, the Rainier Beach area—they see there’s a shooting, there’s a drive-by, there’s gang violence. They don’t talk about the positives. You never hear about us giving clothes drives, us feeding the homeless.”
It’s a point of pride for Sampson that his program has achieved true excellence. The Vikings faced harder odds than most football powers to get to the state game. They weren’t ranked. They even faced skepticism inside their own building.
“When I got here, I told the team trainer we were going to the playoffs that year,” Sampson says. “She said, ‘Ha ha, good luck.’”
She was right—sort of. They missed the playoffs by one game, going 6-3. But they’ve made the playoffs each of the three years since then. The Rainier Beach football team became the Beachboyz, a nickname that Sampson has emblazoned on stickers and t-shirts.
It was a lot of work. Clearly, Sampson is a talented football coach. But it’s what he does outside the big office and cramped locker room that makes him special.
“Kids know what I want,” Sampson says. “I built a relationship with the teachers, and walked around the hallways. I’d say, ‘Get out the hallways. Get off your cell phone. Go to class. Don’t skip class.’ So then they knew what I was about.”
Some of Sampson’s team still cuts class and acts out—teenagers will be teenagers, after all—but he says that his team’s behavior in school has improved. He finds out about it right away, and acts fast to hold his students accountable.
“It’s building that tough love,” Sampson says. “That hard discipline. I let those guys know that’s our expectation. Discipline, being accountable. Just as hard as you try on the football field, try as hard in the classroom. Don’t do nothing that you wouldn’t do in front of your mom—always think that eyes are watching you. This is what we need to do to be successful in life.”
Sampson leads by example. He’s been on campus every day (except Sundays) since March, leading practices, meeting with teachers, and getting to know his students better. Sampson fundraises relentlessly—the Vikings have six uniform designs and two helmets, compared to one incomplete set when he started—and he’s been able to raise money to take the team on a retreat and to out of state road games.
Sampson and one of his assistants also feed the entire team dinner on Thursday and Friday. That’s partly for teambuilding, but it’s also prosaic.
“Some kids don’t have food. Some of ‘em don’t have anywhere to eat. They’re hungry.”
Sampson has created a close-knit team culture. The kids are loose and animated when I walk into the locker room. A big, junior year offensive lineman is sitting on top of the lockers, singing and rapping. A very small freshman receiver is getting him to crack up as they pull on their pads and cleats.
When we go out to the field to watch the team’s walkthroughs—Sampson runs a college-style spread offense with sophisticated zone blocking, a scheme that’s more advanced than most high school offenses—Sampson checks in with the players he sees. One is lagging in the locker room, and Sampson makes sure he’s feeling right. Other players come up and ask questions. It’s clear that they trust him.
“I was one of these kids, so I know,” Sampson says. “I can relate to ‘em. I didn’t have a father. As I got older, my coaches helped mentor me, so coaching and giving back to the community, and helping mentor these kids—I talk to em, I love em, I hug em. And I give some of them second chances. Some of them do deserve second chances.”
Sampson is clear-eyed about the structural barriers his team faces. Mass incarceration has taken its toll on the majority-black team. “I got 30 something, 40 something kids, and only three have their dads.”
Race has spilled over to the field. Last year, the Vikings lost to Bellingham football powerhouse Squalicum in the second round of the playoffs. The game ended in a loss with four minutes left on the clock. Squalicum’s provocations and chippy play caused the Vikings’ tempers to snap. A fight broke out. Sampson says that racist behavior by Squalicum instigated the fight.
“They were pulling our face masks off, ripping off our helmets, throwing punches on the ground, calling us names,” Sampson says. “I tried to tell the ref to control the game, but he told me to shut up and told our kids to be quiet.”
He says that the team was portrayed as thugs in subsequent press coverage of the game.
“They made us out to be this big, bad villain. We’re not wild dogs, animals. That hurt me. That really, really hurt me.”
Sampson used the game and the dustup as a teaching moment. He wants to make sure his kids get to use their scholarships—seven Vikings have Division 1 football offers this year, and all but one PAC 12 school visited practice—instead of getting stuck in the school to prison pipeline.
“What they did to us in the game, it’s messed up,” Sampson says. “But I told the guys, that’s how life is. You gotta watch how you move around, because they’re automatically thinking that you’re an animal outta control. If you do anything wrong, it’s gonna be magnified.”
“That’s something they got to deal with in society. Do you react to it, or do you think about it? I’m always telling guys, you need to think about it before you react, and just walk away from it. If you just react, and you do something that you don’t want to happen, you’re gonna wind up someplace you don’t wanna be at, or locked up.”
The air was crisp and cold. Out on the field, as the punt unit was practicing, the other thirty boys ran drills, joked, and talked trash to each other. A bad snap dribbled past the punter, and one of Sampson’s assistants got right on the center. Sampson, who was nearly manic during our interview, watched it play out calmly, and went over to give the line some advice.
Sampson strode back to the sideline and slowed his pace. All his work, and his teams’, was coming to fruition. He was savoring the moment, even though he’d had to put on long johns and an extra set of warm up pants to ward off the early winter cold. He was smiling.
“Man,” he said, “I love November football.”
Peter Johnson is a freelance journalist and resident of the Rainier Beach neighborhood
Featured image by Marcus Green