Granite Bay ex-NFL assistant takes over at Rio

By: Jorden Hales
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Sammie Stroughter is about the basics. It is this reality that brought him back to high school football after playing in the NFL.

“I knew I wanted to do something with football, and I thought the purest part of football was at the high school level,” the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer said. “I was fortunate enough to make it to the NFL, but those were the days - out there grinding in high school - the guys that I played with: Those are the (most meaningful) bonds. As I moved up (to Oregon State University and the NFL), I was able to meet some friends, but the purest was at the high school level.”

The former all-Pac 10 standout spent two seasons as an assistant coach with his alma mater; he now has a head coaching position with the Rio Americano High Raiders, a program looking elevate its profile both on campus and in the community.

His presence, and that of his players and staff, has made this apparent in just a few short weeks together.

“He’s over there,” a substitute teacher said Thursday afternoon, motioning toward the soccer field where players were walking through Stroughter’s new defensive schemes.  

This awareness of both the team and its new mission will certainly be new to students when they return for classes after summer, as the school’s football has not been revered by peers for some time.

“We’ve got a reminder each day when we drive past and see Jesuit,” Straughter said as he gazed of campus as if the sizing up the program he aspires to rival. “That’s where we want to be … not the wins and losses, but the mentality, because our kids are just as important as the kids over there.”

None of the program’s previous four coaches posted winning records during his tenure, though the Raiders did post a 5-5 record (2-3) in league last season under Michael Willis.

In the early stages of his tenure, Stroughter is looking to push his players farther than they have been in offseasons past, believing that as thresholds are broken, the squad’s reputation will follow, bringing vitality to the campus and community that supports it.

“This is a place that (doesn’t) really have a tradition, but OK, let’s change that,” Stroughter said. “Why not? Rio is in a great neighborhood; they have great kids. … Our message to these kids is ‘be uncomfortable,’ because that’s when you find out more about yourself.” 

Four coaches – including Rio Americano football alum Andrew Bell – were retained from the previous staff. Stroughter made a point to keep these coaches with him for continuity and credibility with his new players.

“The transition is great. It’s a (180) from what I went through here,” Bell said as a group of players filed in for in circuit training. “My head coach retired; we had a new head coach come in; he got fired eventually.

“Now we have players coming out for all three teams. These are the best numbers we’ve had in four years. We’re (here) five days a week. … The biggest tradition here is the stuff that Stroughter’s just implemented.”

Bell relays the importance of this experience to players as they work out. He recalls his time as a Rio Americano football player when teammates would not communicate effectively during school or games. 

“The first thing I did was keep the coaches that were here,” he said. “I said, ‘I can’t afford for you guys not to be here, because if I get rid of you, I lose these kids. … These kids are the most important.”

Every player in the program – freshman, junior varsity and varsity players – has repeated two words ad nauseum for the past two weeks.

“Accountability and discipline,” three players said as they walked into the weight room.

As they walked into the room, they smiled at one another, acknowledging a sense of shared pride.

The immediate response from players comes as no surprise to Jeff Evans, who brought Stroughter onto his staff at Granite Bay in 2015. 

It was Stroughter’s first experience on a coaching staff, and he thrived from the jump. Evans considers it to be a tremendously successful hire on his part.

“His influence will stick around for a while here, too,” Evans said emphatically. “We’re going to miss him tremendously. He can carry with him his experience as a player, but also be a great communicator. That’s a huge hole to fill, and we won’t fill it anytime soon. There’s a reason he was so sought after.”