Sam McGuffie remembers hearing his name billow throughout Michigan Stadium as he ran through the tunnel and onto the field in front of a roaring sea of maize and blue.
It was Aug. 30, 2008, the first home game of McGuffie’s freshman year and one of the greatest moments of his life.
Fast forward roughly nine years and McGuffie, 27, has the chance to achieve another memorable milestone: Make the Olympic bobsled team and represent the United States at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
From the Big House to possibly the world’s biggest stage, it’s been an unexpected journey for McGuffie since his days donning a Wolverines uniform.
“It's just crazy how life just takes you all kinds of ways,” McGuffie said last week during his off-day from Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he’s training at team camp. “I never thought I'd do bobsled, I'll tell you that right now. There's no way. That's so far from the norm.”
For McGuffie, a native of Cypress, Texas, the norm was football. He began playing in the third grade and always thought it was going to lead to a long professional career.
He arrived at Michigan as a highly-touted running back from Cy-Fair High whose highlight reel received millions of views on YouTube. But he also came in during Rich Rodriguez’s first year as coach, when he replaced former longtime coach Lloyd Carr’s pro-style offense with a spread option, which didn’t exactly fit the team’s personnel.
Still, McGuffie started as a true freshman and scored in UM’s first game against Utah. Two weeks later, he had a breakout performance against Notre Dame, rushing for 131 yards on 25 carries and catching four passes for 47 yards and a score.
Little did he know it would end up being his best game as a Wolverine.
‘Just a kid’
“It was one injury after another. It'd either be my shoulder or be this, it was just nonstop,” McGuffie said. “I'd try to get one thing healthy and I'd have to play and I'd go in there and hurt something else. It was just never ending.
“I was just a kid. I was 18 years old, I was 180-something pounds. In hindsight I wish I would've just waited a little bit and kind of just let my body mature, but I had to play that year so I was just kind of thrown into the fire basically."
When McGuffie committed to UM, he thought he was going to spend all four years in Ann Arbor. But as the season wore on, he began to question whether it was the right fit for him.
"I really didn't know what I was going to do,” McGuffie said. “I just didn't see the Michigan of old when I was there.”
After racking up 486 yards rushing, 175 yards receiving and four total touchdowns at Michigan, McGuffie decided to transfer to Rice. Not only was it closer to home but it had one of the nation’s top offenses in 2008 under coordinator Tom Herman.
But right after McGuffie arrived, Herman left for the same job at Iowa State and took his high-powered offensive system with him.
“It was just one thing after another,” McGuffie said.
At Rice, McGuffie gradually transitioned from a running back to receiver over the next three years, becoming the first player in program history to record at least 1,000 career receiving and rushing yards, with 1,057 yards rushing, 1,059 yards receiving and 16 total touchdowns. He also ran track following the football season, just like he did at Michigan.
His college career earned him a cup of coffee in the NFL in 2013-14. He attended training camp with the Raiders before landing brief stints on the practice squad with the Cardinals and Patriots.
McGuffie then spent the 2014 season in the pass-heavy Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as a running back. But he didn’t see much playing time and was released, further dimming his professional prospects.
“When I played and why I fell in love with football was because I got the ball and got to just run and do my own thing,” McGuffie said. “But as you get older, the game is just not the same, especially when you get higher up. It just kind of took the joy out of why I liked football in the beginning.”
At that point, McGuffie was at a crossroads but knew he was still an athlete and didn’t want his athleticism to go to waste. He thought about focusing on track and field and becoming a decathlete. That’s when a conversation with his former Rice track coach Casey Thom uncovered an idea: What about bobsled?
“I heard (former NFL running back) Herschel Walker did it and people just told me, 'Man, you should try out for the bobsled team,' ” McGuffie recalled. “I'm like, 'What the hell are you talking about? Bobsled? What?'”
According to McGuffie, the only bobsledding he watched growing up was “Cool Runnings,” a popular 1993 Disney film about the Jamaican bobsled team.
A long learning curve
But after realizing bobsledders were strong, fast guys much like himself — not to mention former NFL players, receiver Willie Gault and Walker, made the U.S. bobsled team in 1988 and 1992, respectively — McGuffie figured it was worth a shot.
He attended a combine in Park City, Utah in 2015, where he was put to the test in an array of combine events, including shot toss, 30-meter sprint, broad jump, weight lifting and, most importantly, pushing the bobsled. He excelled at the combine and advanced through a series of races to reach the team trials in Lake Placid, New York, where he was one of 23 men and women named to the 2015-16 USA Bobsled National Team that would prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
McGuffie admits he was “raw” at the beginning and the combination of his power, speed and explosion from his football background was helpful to a degree. But there’s much more than just pushing the sled, like perfecting aerodynamic riding positions, loading into the sled and staying in position while the sled hurtles down the track, all crucial forms of technique.
McGuffie participates in the four-man, which has three push athletes and a pilot, and two-man events as the brakeman, meaning he’s the last guy to jump in the sled. He’s responsible for pulling in the push bars and making sure they don’t hang out during the run, and pulling the brakes at the end of the race.
Since making the national team, McGuffie has been to parts of Germany, Switzerland and Austria to compete in World Cup races and world championships. Earlier this year at the World Cup, the U.S. men’s team finished third in four-man, second in two-man and third overall.
In order to compete in the Olympics, McGuffie will have to earn one of eight brakeman spots when the team trials take place in the fall. At the trials, he’ll have to prove he belongs on the national team and on one of the top two sleds, USA-1 and USA-2, a feat he’s achieved the past two years.
From there, McGuffie will find out if he did enough to make the Olympic team, which will be named three weeks before the start of the Games.
As challenging as that task might seem, McGuffie will have to do so while overcoming the loss of his driver and pilot Steve Holcomb, a three-time Olympic medalist who died in May at age 37 and “took a chance” on McGuffie when he was a rookie.
Yet if McGuffie lands on one of the top sleds, having the opportunity to put on the USA uniform and represent the country on the grand stage will rank among his personal highlights, right up there with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady headbutting him on first day of practice, Patriots coach Bill Belichick helping him put on his practice jersey and his first game at Michigan Stadium.
“I'm really just focused on making (the Olympic team), just trying to fulfill a dream,” McGuffie said. “I never thought that I'd actually have an opportunity to be a part of it because I always thought I'd play football or do something like that.
“It's been a wild ride. So much has happened that I still can't believe it.”