At 6’4, 320 lbs, Sami Kassem has the size and strength that NFL teams covet, but as he prepares to enter the wild unknown, he can’t help but feel a sense of Deja vu. In a very weird sense, he’s been in this spot before.
After putting on pads for the first time in fourth grade, Kassem’s love for football began to manifest. He’d exceed the weight limit until much later, but he naturally assumed a role on his High School’s offensive line. From his first snap, to this present moment, offensive line play is all that Sami has ever known…yet it’s almost been ripped away from him so many times.
In his freshman year, Kassem was attending the #1 academic school in Ohio. But when his Mother decided to move, Kassem transferred to Indian Hill, where he finished his High School career. Grades were never really a concern prior to the move, but when the accolades started pouring in after his junior season and attention from bigger schools heightened, they started to be emphasized. His older brother, Ali Kassem, previously went down the JUCO route and went on to play for NC State and positioned the same to his younger sibling. He then took one giant leap of faith that took him away from his family, across the entire country.
“Going up to New York, I remember I took the charter bus out there and it’s about a 12-hour drive.” Kassem told me, almost reliving the heat he must have experienced inside that cramped Bus. “I never went out there with anyone from my family. I only came home once every four months or so. Having to leave my family and girlfriend helped me be on my own and focus on football instead of going to the mall or going to eat. Being around football players, we were always pushing each other to go and get extra work.”
Getting extra work is one thing, but traveling two miles just to find a turf field is something else entirely, yet it’s something Kassem did almost religiously. That gritty work ethic typically associated with JUCO was only intensified at a college as notable as ASA. Taught to treat it as a punishment, Kassem had his eyes opened to a very different way of life.
“It prepared me to face hard times.” He said. “Coming out of High School I didn’t know what was out there for me. You don’t really know what’s coming when you’re in JUCO and it’s a shorter stint. You’re competing with a lot of good guys and I lived in a room that was small with five other guys on three bunk beds. Not having a lot of stuff teaches you how to survive on your own.”
Coming back to Ohio was huge for a player who had just spent two years shining at JUCO, claiming first-team All-Northeast Football Conference honors along the way. Kassem signed with the Toledo Rockets, stunned by the campus and warmed to see a suburban surrounding once more. He’s not a big City guy, having grown up in a rural backdrop, and although he may have been joking when saying it, you could hear the appreciation in his voice, to the point you could almost how happy he was to see the blue skies and grass wet with dew.
But then, his career took an unexpected turn. In the spring of 2014, Kassem injured his back and when wanting to work his way back into the rotation, things got complicated. Given cortisone shots and regenerative medicine, the young lineman was presented with a very different challenge.
“When you go from being in High School and starting in JUCO for two years, having a year out and all of that taken away, I had to take a really big step back and figure out how to make the best of the situation,” Kassem said, opening up on how soul-crushing it must have been. “I came back strong the next year but, I got injured again in camp. I fought my way through the season but wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I would have done anything at that point. Football had been part of me since my freshman year.”
Kassem’s a leader. He inflicts it in the way he talks. When he opens his mouth, your attention is immediately drawn to what comes out. But even this unbreakable energy took a slight knock in such a trying time.
“It’s crazy because I’m a pretty vocal guy. I love talking to my teammates. When I re-injured my back for the third time, people could tell I was down. They knew something was up. I missed playing the game and honestly, I worked so hard to get where I was at in the two years I was at Toledo, to keep getting injured, it took a toll on me where I wasn’t sure if my health was worth playing this game. For me, it was like ‘wow, you’re taking away the only thing that made me feel valuable in life’.
Kassem attacked his Senior year with a chip on his shoulder and he had every reason to. Time was running out, the changing of the guard was quite literally happening in front of him as the leaders in the classes above graduated and his window to shine was beginning to close. All of a sudden, that leadership trait spiked through the roof.
“I’m loud every morning, I love being around my teammates and sometimes at 6 AM they get annoyed when I’m so fired up when they’re just waking up. Getting the guys together to do extra work after workouts, we got told to stop doing extra workouts because we were working so hard outside of Football that we were picking up injuries that were beginning to hamper. Guys were getting sore and coming in with tweaks. When you get guys together to do extra work and there are no coaches around, you bond as a team and as a line.”
Kassem would appear in 12 games, making nine starts at left guard and help spearhead an offense that ranked first in the MAC and crucially, third in rushing offense. Seeing himself as a north/south player, the left guard told me that while he works hard on his pass protection, nobody’s beating him going downhill. The very comparison he used was ‘A Tank’ and to put it simply, I’m not going to disagree with him.
During his time on the sideline, ‘in the pit’ during practices, Kassem spent a lot of time diving into film. Whether it was former NFL Center, LeCharles Barkley’s instructional videos, or simply helping his teammates break down their own tape, Kassem developed a greater technical understanding of the position, something that helped massively in the season to come.
Kassem was granted another shot. A sixth-year due to the two season’s missed when he first arrived at Toledo. One last opportunity. But even then, he didn’t find this out until May. As he continued to battle through the spring and lead his teammates, he felt slightly conflicted. Not wanting to tread on anyone’s toes in case he couldn’t play, but wanting to earn every ounce of respect in the event he could.
Slowly, but surely, his NFL Draft dream became reachable again. One day, his coach was trying to hammer home just how important this season was, pointing at Sami and telling him directly that a scout from the Jaguars was here purely to watch him.
That final season saw Kassem develop into a mauling left guard that took the MAC by storm. Starting at right guard throughout, he once more helped lead the offense at the top of the MAC conference in scoring and second in both total offense and rushing. His sound fundamentals paid dividends as his path to the NFL was solidified once more…and that isn’t lost on him.
“If you’d have asked me at the end of last year whether or not I thought I was going to the NFL, I’d have said probably not. It’s like Deja Vu. This thing I’ve been doing every single day since High School is now an unknown whether I’m gonna play another snap or not. Not knowing that, you know you’re going to miss being part of something bigger than yourself.”
Now, it’s preparations for the future…but again, just like entering his Junior year, just like JUCO, just like High School, it’s an unknown. That hasn’t stopped him making the most of it however. Training in Cincinnati, Kassem is working 9-3:30, six days a week. A group of 7 guys from across the country are all working toward the same goal. Some from LSU, some from Tennesse State. It’s like JUCO all over again. A whole wealth of different personalities and cultures are thrown into a room with the aim of bettering themselves and one another for the unpredictable road that lies ahead…and it’s not just collegiate talent either.
“(2018 1st round pick) Billy Price is at our gym almost every other day. Being able to go to a guy like that and see the process he goes through, it’s crazy. Being able to watch guys who have done this for so many years, whether it’s ripping your arm back after the snap or the positioning of hands on pass pro and how they fight with hand combat, there are guys like Chance Warmack and Joe Tooney who I admire.”
If you’re looking for a player who embodies determination, it’s the man who through a High School Transfer, a stint in JUCO and three back injuries, is still competing for a shot to be drafted in the NFL. If you’re looking for a technically sound guard, it’s the man who has sunk more hours into the film of players like Chance Warmack than most, because of that adversity. If you’re looking for a player with heart, it’s the guard who is at his team’s facility whenever he can get there, helping the underclassmen get better.
What lies ahead for this young man? Nobody really knows, but that hasn’t stopped him before and I doubt it stops him now.