COLUMBIA — The California sky was an uninterrupted stretch of blue, and Austyn Carta-Samuels sat at peace for a couple of hours on the graveyard hill.
In the days after this July afternoon, he would be boarding a flight across the country to his new home in Columbia, where his hopeful coaching career would start as a graduate assistant for the Missouri football team.
It would be yet another new beginning. Carta-Samuels, 23, has lived a life of those.
But before this one, he wanted to visit the man who served as his guide, his bridge, through all the others. He wanted to sit awhile with the man he wants to be. He wanted to leave a few mementos. They were from his past senior season as quarterback at Vanderbilt University, and he placed them where his grandfather, Tom Samuels, rested.
“He was just there at every step of the way, to mentor me, to push me through adversity, to push me through success,” Carta-Samuels says. “I aspire to hopefully live the life he had and affect as many people as he has.”
Circuitous would be one word to describe Carta-Samuels’ path. “Miraculous” is the word he uses. In telling his story, he mentions the grace of God often. That, along with his grandfather.
Sports came naturally to Carta-Samuels, the son of a mother who was an all-world swimmer and a father who was an all-conference tight end at Utah. As a high school freshman in 2005, he learned the ways of quarterbacking from Tom Martinez, who had retired that year from his coaching post at the College of San Mateo. At the time of Martinez's death in 2012, the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady called him his mentor. Tom Samuels, a well-regarded psychologist in northern California, had introduced his grandson to the coach.
“The only reason he trained me,” Carta-Samuels says, “is because of the relationship he had with my grandfather.”
In his junior and senior seasons, Carta-Samuels and his hard-throwing right arm led Bellarmine College Prep to a combined 22-3 record. He looked to continue his career close to home at San Jose State. Carta-Samuels had built a strong relationship with quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo.
Ten days before Carta-Samuels signed, SJSU head coach Dick Tomey came to visit him at his house.
“And Marcus wasn’t with him,” Carta-Samuels recalls.
For the 2009 season, Arroyo was joining Wyoming’s first-year staff as an offensive coordinator under Dave Christensen, who was Missouri’s offensive coordinator the previous 11 years. Carta-Samuels decided to follow Arroyo.
What happened next seems like a blur, a sweet sliver of nostalgia, to Carta-Samuels today.
In his first year in Laramie, he engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks en route to a 35-28 double-overtime victory over Fresno State in what was the Cowboys’ first bowl appearance in five years. He was named the game’s most valuable player.
Carta-Samuels was 18 years old, and he couldn’t get through a meal at a restaurant without taking pictures with families, signing autographs for kids. It was fame that he could not have imagined. All the smiles, all the hospital visits, all the instances he felt he was affecting someone in some way — all of it motivated him.
“It sounds crazy, and I am not comparing myself to Tim Tebow at all," he said. "But at the time, in that community, that’s how it felt."
He looks back at that time “as a magical ride.” It came to a crash a season later.
In 2010, Wyoming slumped to a 3-9 record. Arroyo, currently coaching quarterbacks for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, left the school. Carta-Samuels looked to do the same.
“I decided academically I wanted to be at a better place, and whether it's the right thing to say or the wrong thing to say, I felt there was more that I could accomplish on the football field outside of the city of Laramie,” he said.
But Christensen denied his request to be released from his scholarship and be eligible to play right away at another Division I program. Schools that once seemed interested in Carta-Samuels no longer were.
“It sent me into a whirlwind,” he said.
Per NCAA rules, his only chance to go on scholarship at another four-year university for the 2011 season was to first earn his associate degree. And so, for the spring semester, he signed up for 24 credits at a community college back home.
Desolation overcame him. He was once the main source of attention, and now he was just … normal, just a kid in a classroom. Should I have transferred? he wondered. The question haunted him: Did I just make the worst decision of my life?
During those three months, he frequently sought the comfort of his grandfather’s house.
And when Carta-Samuels got a call from Vanderbilt’s admissions office informing him of his acceptance into the school, it was his grandfather, a Vanderbilt alumnus, who offered to cover the tuition cost.
“He believed in me that much,” says Carta-Samuels, who walked on to the team and served as a scout team player for the 2011 season.
Two years later, he was the Commodores’ starter and captain. He threw for 300-plus yards in four of his first five games.
During an October bye week, he made a spontaneous flight home to watch his high school brother quarterback a game. He snuck up behind his grandfather and wrapped his arms around him, and there were tears in Tom Samuels’ eyes when he turned to see his grandson.
“It was probably the most magical thing that's ever happened to me,” Carta-Samuels said.
Two days later, Tom Samuels suffered a stroke. He died at the age of 76.
Carta-Samuels played against Georgia that week and exited the game with a left knee injury during the second quarter. Before even knowing his diagnosis, he flew home to speak at his grandfather's funeral.
He played the remaining four games of the schedule, and he won each. He missed the bowl game, however, and had surgery for what turned out to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“It's the grace of God or the grace of my grandfather, whatever you want to call it,” he said of the strength in his leg that allowed him to finish out the regular season.
Though he couldn't play in the BBVA Compass Bowl win against Houston, he took pleasure in serving as an extra coach on the sideline.
Over the summer, he interviewed with Missouri’s staff for the graduate assistant position. He told his story.
On Friday, after his first full day on the job, he reflected on what the years have taught him, and what in turn he can offer one day as a coach.
“Everybody’s so vulnerable from 18 to 22. I really think that's when your character’s pretty much shaped,” said Carta-Samuels, who will be assigned organizational recruiting tasks while he pursues his masters in educational leadership. “For me, to influence people in a positive manner, I think there’s a special opportunity for me to help collegiate athletes.”
With football, he wants to continue a legacy.
“My grandfather always told me something,” Carta-Samuels said. “If you’re not giving, what are you getting?”
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.