It was a combination of friends, family and football that led Eddie Sampson to the LDS Church.
Sampson, a native of Tacoma, Wash., arrived at Brigham Young University in 1992 seeking a quality education and the opportunity to play football. Over the next five years, he earned a scholarship, obtained a degree and experienced one of the best seasons in Cougar football history.
But that's not all he gained.
By the time the walk-on-turned-starter finished his playing career, Sampson had been baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was ready to serve a full-time mission. The now 34-year-old calls his conversion a "six-year story" one composed of chapters about personal faith, commitment to football and the positive influence of others.
"The Eddie that left (BYU) had an incredible light in his eyes," said Barry Lamb, a BYU assistant who coached Sampson from 1994-96. "He was excited to go on a mission and excited to be a member of the church. He was converted."
For Sampson, religious inclinations were in place long before he arrived in Provo. He already had a conviction of prayer and the existence of a Heavenly Father, developed while he was a youth.
"Believing in Christ and believing in a God was always there for me," he said.
Sampson became introduced to the religion he would eventually join thanks to some friendships established in high school. His girlfriend was Mormon and so was his fellow co-captain on the Lakes High football team. Sampson often attended church with his girlfriend's family, and on one occasion traveled to Provo with them to see a BYU homecoming game. While there, Sampson was sought out by then-recruiting coordinator Chris Pella, who took him into the Cougar locker room and introduced him to Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer.
"It was just a great experience," Sampson said. "That's how it all started."
Sampson credits the mother of the girlfriend's family with contacting Cougar coaches and making them aware of him. But his decision to attend the Provo school was based less on football and more on the values instilled in him by his dad, whom Sampson described as a "Tiger Woods father." Edward Sampson, an African-American who grew up in Louisiana, was a dedicated father who educated his son about world issues, racism and black history. He told Eddie he would have to work twice as hard as the next person in life.
While Sampson had scholarship offers from four Division I-AA schools, his focus was on education, and he determined he would feel "more comfortable and confident" with a degree from BYU.
"I wanted the best academic school that I was going to be able to go to," he said.
Initially, however, his experience was "miserable." Sampson was a walk-on defensive back who wasn't seeing any playing time. He also wasn't accustomed to campus life in Provo.
"In both worlds I was in awe," he said. "I was a walk-on ... and on campus I was the nonmember, I was a minority. ... So in both my worlds at the time, I was very uncomfortable and not grounded."
After his first year, which ended up being a redshirt season, Sampson went home to Tacoma and considered dropping football in favor of becoming a full-time student at another school. He even applied to the University of Washington and was accepted. Sampson's father, however, encouraged him to "follow through" with his initial decision.
Sampson returned to Provo, and as his situation on the football team improved, so, too, did his perspective of his surroundings. After two years in the program, then-head coach LaVell Edwards told Sampson that the upcoming season would be his opportunity to prove himself. That year, he played in every game, starting one, and earned a scholarship at season's end.
Lamb, who arrived in the spring of 1994, recalls Sampson being a fifth-team safety who was "very raw" with somewhat of a "chip on his shoulder" despite having an otherwise fun and upbeat personality. But through steady improvement and taking advantage of opportunities to play, Sampson "grew into a very good player and not a bad leader," Lamb said.
Lamb recalled BYU's upset of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., in 1994, when Sampson found himself on the field with the ball as time ran out.
"It was kind of a special moment for him," said Lamb, who acknowledged it was meaningful for him as well.
Knowing he had a place on the field helped Sampson feel comfortable at BYU.
"I think football was really the catalyst," he said.
Sampson's junior year was not only his best season but also the beginning of his conversion. After becoming roommates with a group of returned missionary friends he met during his freshman year, Sampson began attending church regularly. In fact, he was called as a Sunday School class president even though he wasn't a member. He also began to "branch out more" socially. That year, he became a starter at safety and was named honorable mention all-conference.
"I just felt there was a direct connection with me living my life right and going to church," he said, "and I had this great, successful football season."
He still, however, had not joined the church. That changed during a walk to a spring practice session in February 1996 with friend and fellow safety Lane Hale, who said, "Eddie, I think you're ready." Sampson was baptized on March 31.
With the season approaching, Sampson was determined to have a standout senior year and was even entertaining professional football aspirations. But it didn't work out that way. While the Cougars went 14-1, won the Cotton Bowl and finished the year ranked No. 5 in the country, Sampson had a difficult, injury-plagued season. The experience was humbling, and his perspective "did a 180," he said.
Sampson began considering a full-time mission.
"I wanted to go out and give back," he said. "I wanted to share that with people. I knew right away, even before the season ended, that I wanted to look at the idea of going on a mission."
When the letter arrived from church headquarters, Sampson had a typical mission-call experience gathering around the table with family members, all guessing where he would go. While his mother, father and siblings are not members of the LDS Church, they supported his decision "100 percent," he said.
His father, who was in the Air Force for 30 years, told him, "I've served many missions around the world. I think you should as well." Sampson's call to the Japan Sapporo Mission helped his mother, who is Japanese, feel calm about his departure.
"They've always been there for me," said Sampson, who now lives in Sandy and works in medical device sales.
Lamb, who is himself a convert to the LDS Church, is currently in his 15th year of coaching at BYU. He considers his association with players like Sampson more memorable than wins and losses."It's the stories like Eddie that we get our true joy out of," he said.