MOBILE, Ala. A number exists, but isn’t necessary, to identify the Samuels home on this modest street quietly baking in the April sunshine. The neighbors, the sort who wave to total strangers, would tell you its location just as soon as you asked. And even if they wouldn’t, the gray van with the singsong lettering, the one out front, says it all.
“A Time and a Season,” reads the van’s side, announcing the message that came to Shirley Samuels three years ago, after she fell while working at Food World and was rendered, like her husband, James, permanently unable to work. In the wake of the injury, Shirley became a pastor for disadvantaged youth, a job that pays nothing but fulfills her in a way money never could.
“The Lord gave me the name,” Shirley explains. “A lot of people lived terribly, or were doing a lot of things, and the Lord spoke to me and said, ‘There is going to be a time and a season for you.’ It was just as clear. And at that time, I named my radio ministry ‘A Time and a Season,’ and I named my church ‘A Time and a Season Outreach Holiness Church.’ ”
She flashes a bright smile. Just a week earlier, her youngest son, Chris, was made the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft, ending the family’s worries about money. But before Chris’ future was secured by the Washington Redskins, before he became college football’s best offensive lineman, there was James’ frightening car accident, Shirley’s nasty fall and financial worries galore.
Yet all along, the Samuels have stayed the same, with fervent camaraderie and piety. Today the road is winding past a decidedly happy outpost, but the Samuels, led by Shirley, are fundamentally unfazed by professional football’s selection of Chris.
“My mother- and father-in-law,” Shirley recalls from draft week, “they said, ‘Y’all don’t act like nothing going on. Y’all don’t even act excited.’ I said, ‘No. Maybe if Chris was a really big-time preacher, I’d probably be really excited.’
“I told Chris, ‘If you put God first, God will continue blessing you to be in the spotlight. But if you let the world [influence you], then you’ll lose sight of God. Then you can fail like other people.’ “
The smile comes of age
To be sure, the Samuels boys James Jr., Lawrence, Dexter and Chris, in descending order possess nowhere near the religious fervor of their mother.
“She’s on a different level,” Chris says. “I’m a fairly decent Christian, but I have a long way to go.”
Yet religion remains the most important part of Chris’ life. He puts his family second, himself third, and describes his ultimate goal as “just making it in life, and trying to help as many people as possible. I believe if I treat other people right, God will smile upon me.”
And Chris will smile back, just as brightly as his mother. He already has endeared himself to Washington fans with his pearly whites and self-deprecating humor not to mention his domination at the University of Alabama. Last season, en route to the Outland Trophy, Chris allowed no quarterback pressures in more than 900 snaps at left tackle.
But back to the smile.
“That pretty smile he’s got?” Shirley says. “We used to tease him: ‘Chris, you don’t even know how to smile.’ And he would try, but Chris could not smile for nothing.”
Chris’ smile is something of a family joke. An awkward smirk in kindergarten, it blossomed into a charming grin in grade school. The change came one year maybe first grade, maybe second when there was a smiling contest at Forest Hills Elementary School.
Chris, to his family’s disbelief, made it to the contest’s final heat, staged in the principal’s office, where he went head-to-head against one of his best friends. Ultimately, Chris finished second.
“I came a long way in that contest,” he recalls with a laugh.
When Chris wasn’t leading his peers with an all-star grin, he was doing it in football. Don’t be fooled now by his massive girth (6-foot-5, 317 pounds). When Chris was little, he could run and throw and catch and play just about every position on the field. He retains fantasies about playing wide receiver, and his favorite NFL player is Jerry Rice.
“I used to be a pretty good athlete,” Chris says. “Quarterback, running back, wide receiver I used to run the team. Now they just throw me on the line.”
Chris also enjoyed playing basketball in the street, playing with toy trucks and, especially, fishing. James Sr. used to take his sons to Dolphin Island, off Mobile’s southern coast, and Municipal Park. At Dolphin Island Chris caught white trout and mullet, and at Municipal he hooked bass, bream and crappies.
“If it’s a nice cool day, I don’t mind being out there even if they’re only biting once every 15 or 20 minutes,” he says.
Chris enjoyed a childhood virtually devoid of trouble. Maybe there were a few scrapes, but he never had a major incident or a run-in with the law.
“We all kept each other out of trouble,” Lawrence says.
James Sr., of Queens, N.Y., and Shirley, of Mobile, were married Dec. 1, 1968. At 23, James Sr. began a 10-month stint in Vietnam, from which he emerged without injury. But four years after returning, on Jan. 23, 1976, his life changed irrevocably on a stretch of Highway 43 called Telegraph Road.
“I was on my way home,” he recalls. “[The road] had a little bit of rain, and I lost control. I piled up into the bridge… . I cracked my pelvis. The bone came out this leg, and I fractured both of my ankles.”
Chris wouldn’t be born for 1* more years, on July 28, 1977. By then, James Sr. had endured three months in the hospital in a sling, three more in a body cast and nearly a year after that in a wheelchair.
James Sr. had worked a variety of jobs, and was unloading boats when the accident happened. He was unable to do physical work, and his post-traumatic stress syndrome from Vietnam led doctors to say he shouldn’t work, period.
“I’m still recovering,” James Sr. says.
His injury forced the financial burden on Shirley. She started working at the Food World bakery when Chris was 3, but that wasn’t enough after James Sr. stopped getting disability checks in 1984. By the time Chris was in eighth grade, Shirley took up housekeeping as a second job.
Then in 1995, she fell at Food World.
“All hell broke loose on my body,” Shirley says. “I slipped, I broke my wrist. I had pins in my wrist, two pins in my arm… . They just fired me off my job. They told me I refused to go back to work.”
Shirley, whose devotion to the job made the firing an insult, eventually lost a lawsuit against Food World, then failed to get appeals to trial in civil court and the state supreme court. Finally, she let her frustration go, and turned to the career in religion she had eyed all her life.
“I told people that when I turned 55, I would do this for a living, but the Lord brought me off my job earlier,” Shirley says. “That’s when I got the Word of Knowledge. It was just wonderful.”
Shirley’s congregation has swelled to “about 30, when everybody shows up,” she says. Strangely, she has found that an old temptation helps build her flock. Where once Chris wanted to attend church after he learned Dexter was getting to visit McDonald’s after services, Shirley realized she could guarantee attendance by promising her congregation food.
“I told them if they came every time in January, I’d take them to dinner,” Shirley says. “And they did. But when the end of the month came, I didn’t have the money. The Lord spoke to me and told me to bring refreshments. We had sandwiches, hot dogs, chips, cookies and drinks.”
It is this type of generosity that makes Shirley’s job one she actually must pay to do, rather than getting paid. She also searches Goodwill and yard sales to find clothes for the more disadvantaged members of her congregation. Chris, Shirley says with a laugh, calls her congregation “Momma’s other family.”
Says Chris: “You have no idea how many young kids are raising their younger brothers and sisters, with no one else around. They just need somebody to spend time with them. I know they love her a lot.”
Of course, love didn’t pay the bills.
“Times were hard back then,” Chris recalls. “But as a family, it made us stronger… . Sure, [my brothers and I] had to wear the same T-shirts sometimes, but now we know how to live and treat people right.”
Chris, who will become a multimillionaire when he signs with the Redskins, hasn’t changed his lifestyle one bit since his draft status became clear.
“Honestly, I’m still driving my ‘93 Pathfinder, and it is raggedy,” he says with a laugh. “At the stoplight it’s shaking. But it’s just not a big-time priority to get anything new.”
Quite an ironic sentiment from someone who, as a 4-year-old, liked to pretend he and his mother were rich when they went shopping at the mall. But now the Samuels take pride in staying subdued about money.
“We’re praying and asking the Lord, ‘Don’t let us get high and mighty,’ ” Shirley says. “Because God always blessed us, and we always stayed the same.”
Here’s another irony: After James Sr. and Shirley suffered the injuries that permanently sidelined them from their physically oriented jobs, Chris rose to the top of one of society’s most physically demanding professions.
You don’t think there’s a connection between the NFL Draft and the Lord’s own heavenly selection?
Take a ride in the gray van.
“All I knew was that I want [my congregation] to have the best,” Shirley says. “I want to help these kids. And I yet want to do it. So I was taking care of God’s business, and God was taking care of my business, through Chris.”
Shirley settles back, and flashes her bright smile once more.
“Am I right?” she cackles. “You probably have the Holy Ghost before you leave here!”