By Tim Linafelt, Senior Staff Writer
The oldest of nine siblings in a blended family, Asante Samuel Jr. has long thought of himself as a role model for his younger brother and sisters.
A junior cornerback on the Florida State football team, Samuel has excelled in athletics, having led the ACC in pass breakups and earning all-conference honors as a sophomore a year ago.
But as far as Samuel is concerned, he’s living proof that those who look up to him can do anything if they set a goal, create a plan and are willing to put in some elbow grease.
“They look at me for guidance,” Samuel said. “To see how life can be if you stay focused, stay motivated and stay on your grind.
“I went through the stuff that they’re going through right now, in school and in life. So, I try to help them accomplish what they want to accomplish and just be a good example.”
"I try to help them accomplish what they want to accomplish and just be a good example.”Asante Samuel Jr.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Samuel very nearly became more than just a positive example.
In the late summer of 2014, just weeks before the start of his freshman year of high school, a shockwave tore through Samuel’s family when they learned that his mother, Candice Doe, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
In the matter of an afternoon – Doe had felt dizzy at work before heading to the doctor – life had changed, perhaps permanently.
Instead of enjoying the summer, planning for the freshman football season and dreaming big about what the future held in store, a 14-year-old Samuel instead had to contend with the fact that his mother had a serious illness.
One that often claims lives, and forever alters others.
“It was eye-opening,” said Samuel, who goes by “A.J.” within his family. “It makes you realize life is short and you need to be grateful for the time you have with your loved ones. You look at life differently.”
Doe recalled the experience with a slightly different perspective.
“I was scared,” she said. “They (the kids) were scared out of their minds. … That’s the only thing I could think of – ‘Please, I need to be here for them.’”
On August 19, 2014 – Samuel’s second day of ninth grade, as well as younger sister Sanai’s second day of kindergarten – Doe went in for surgery to remove that tumor that had lodged inside her brain.
“I was scared. … That’s the only thing I could think of – ‘Please, I need to be here for them.’”Candice Doe
What followed might have been the biggest blessing that Doe, Samuel, or anyone else in their family might ever experience in their lives: The surgery was a success and the tumor non-cancerous.
Doe would have a long road to recovery, three months or more, but doctors expected that she would be OK.
“Seeing her overcome that, that motivates me,” Samuel said. “Seeing how strong she is and how she kept the family together. It just helped me.”
Doe, however, remembers her oldest son doing most of the helping.
While she rested and recovered from her operation, Samuel was the one helping with homework. The one going over school agendas. The one making sure that his young brother and sisters were staying on track.
All while managing the pressures, demands and changes that come with being a freshman and a football player in football-crazed South Florida.
“He really stepped up,” Doe said. “I really felt like, after that experience, that’s when he became a young man.
“He said, ‘I have to help my mom. I have to help my siblings.’ It was a really emotional time for them.”
And for Doe, of course.
Not only was she dealing with both the physical and mental ramifications of a life-defining health event, but she also struggled with having to miss some milestones in her children’s lives.
Perhaps most painfully, that meant missing the first half of Samuel’s freshman football season at St. Thomas Aquinas High.
For a mom who’d watched her son start playing sports from the time he could walk, first basketball and baseball, then finally football at just four years old, that was a tough reality.
“He said, ‘I have to help my mom. I have to help my siblings.’ It was a really emotional time for them.”Candice Doe
“It was very hard. This was his first year in high school, first year playing on the high school football team,” she said. “I had always been there.”
And she was again, midway through the season.
As she made her way into the stadium, overlooking the field where her now mature-beyond-his-years son was set to play football, Doe couldn’t help but be grateful.
Just a few months before, neither Doe nor Samuel could have ever imagined what was coming. The tumor, the surgery, the recovery. And also the fear and uncertainty.
But on a Friday night in Fort Lauderdale, none of that seemed to matter as much anymore.
“It was amazing,” Doe said. “I was just so thankful to God that he allowed me to be able. Because there are so many horror stories that happen when people have brain injuries or surgeries. Some people can’t walk. Some people are never the same again.
“I was so thankful that I had no memory loss. Within time I was able to drive, I was able to work. I was able to resume my normal activities. Seeing him, seeing all my kids do what they love is just such an emotional thing for me. When he’s out there on the field and he’s doing what he said he was going to do, I’m almost in tears. Because it brings so much joy to me.”
Nearly six years later, Doe says she’s feeling fine – “like nothing ever happened.”
She received a clean bill of health from her surgeon and has since embarked on a career in real estate.
And the young man who emerged from that ordeal has continued to grow, too.
Given a perspective on life not often afforded to those his age, Samuel is still determined to make the most of his own opportunities while serving as a friend and mentor to his siblings.
“I check on all my siblings on a day-to-day basis,” he said, “and make sure they’re focused and doing the right things.”
Living 400 miles away in Tallahassee meant that Samuel usually had to keep tabs on his family through phone calls and text messages.
But recent events have allowed him to take a more hands-on approach.
After the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted FSU’s spring practice schedule, Samuel headed home for a while, where he found an eager sparring partner in his 15-year-old brother, Cameron.
An aspiring wide receiver, Cameron made for the perfect foil to his brother, and the two often went at it while staying active throughout the last several weeks.
Each brother stood to benefit. Samuel got to work out against live competition – who knows his skills and tendencies perhaps better than anyone – while Cameron was able to test his mettle against an All-ACC caliber cornerback.
All while providing endless entertainment for their mother.
“They’re so competitive,” Doe said with a laugh. “You have A.J. trash-talking – ‘You can’t beat me, you can’t do that,’ and then Cameron saying, ‘Well you can’t catch.’
“It’s fun. It’s all fun.”
For Samuel, it’s one of the many ways he tries to show his siblings that, with the right attitude and work ethic, they can do anything.
Even if that means little brother getting one over on big brother on the practice fields every once in a while.
“He looks up to me,” Samuel said. “We grew up together and he comes to me for everything. So I feel like everything I do is a reflection of what he’s going to do. If I’m doing good, then more than likely he’s going to do good. It doesn’t even have to be with sports. It can just be everyday life, doing good things.
“I try to lead by example.”