Sam Winter looked down at his knee in disappointment and thought he was never going to be able to play sports again. Of course, it had to be his last year of high school during a football game that he tore his ACL. Basketball, the following winter — and maybe the rest of his sports career — was out of the picture.
Sam had been dribbling a basketball since he was six years old. By the time he was in middle school, he discovered his passion for basketball, named it his favorite sport, and started taking it seriously. He grew up hearing about how his mom played basketball for Boise State in the 90s and felt like he always wanted to do the same. In high school he played football and basketball at the same time. That’s when calamity struck.
His dream was shaken when he went in for ACL surgery (a notoriously difficult sports injury to recover from) and started his long recovery. Enter the 2020 pandemic.
He continued physical therapy while life was on pause, even though it was a challenge. “There’s a period of eight or nine months where I’m like ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen,’” Sam said. He emailed one of the coaches to see if he had a chance at playing even though he was still relearning how to run. He’d always imagined he’d go on to play college sports, but while he recovered, he just had to wait in limbo to find out what his next steps were going to be.
The summer before his first year of college, he was determined to keep getting stronger and not let this setback ruin his dream of playing basketball even though he still didn’t think that being on the Boise State basketball team would become a reality.
At least that’s what he believed up until one day in August when he got a call that gave him hope. Mike Burns, a Boise State assistant basketball coach, told Sam that there was a spot on the team if he wanted it. Sam eagerly said, “Yes, of course”. He joined the team as a walk-on (an athlete that isn’t recruited on a scholarship and usually has little playing time), enthusiastic to take advantage of the opportunity in front of him in order to continue playing the sport he loved.
In fall of 2020, he moved from his small town of 5,000 people to Boise. He said he had to adjust to the size of Boise compared to Montesano, Washington (where “everybody knew everybody”), but he enjoys the fact that Boise offers so much more to do.
Sam’s first year of college was challenging since the team couldn’t meet because of COVID-19 regulations and they couldn’t play an actual contact 5-on-5 game for the first six to seven months. On top of that, he was still recovering and relearning his basketball skills, “It still took awhile getting used to playing again.”
During months of uncertainty and a long recovery, the people in Sam’s life who supported and believed in him impacted him and gave him the mental strength to be where he is today. “[My parents] are a big factor in motivating me just because they have given up so much and wanted to see me succeed so much…I was lucky to have them.”
Sam said one of the most encouraging people in his life has been his girlfriend, Anna. “She goes here too, so it’s nice having somebody that has always been there.” Sam expressed his appreciation for Anna and recognizes that being busy is hard on them both, but he knows she’s understanding. “She is a big supporter of me, for sure.”
Sam spends the majority of his time with his basketball community who he shares love and support for, but he’s also found a community within a group called Athletes in Action, a nationwide organization of Christian athletes. When the group in Boise started, Sam was one of three people that attended, but over the last year, that number has grown to 20 who gather in the Biblical Studies Center, next to the main campus on Monday nights.
These student athletes have a camaraderie around growing their faith, while being dedicated to their sports. “It’s hard because your main focus is obviously your sport and sometimes you get lost in that,” Sam said, “but being able to show faith through your sport is a big thing that they try to help us do.”
Being a part of Athletes in Action has been a growing experience for him, “I feel like I’ve been able to have deeper conversations with people,” he said. The biggest lesson he’s learned through being a part of the group is, “Being able to glorify God through basketball or just my everyday life.”
When the arena is packed on game nights with people chanting loudly, Sam said he has to remember that he’s “playing for an audience of one”. No matter how many people are watching him, it matters more to him that God is watching. “You have all this success at your sport, but without Him you’re nothing,” he said.
Sam, who’s currently in his junior year, said that for the last three years he’s been busy constantly. “It’s hard on people close to me too because I’m busy so much, but I think it’s worth it and I look back and think, ‘This is what I wanted to do when I was a kid.’”
Being a student on top of being an athlete is an extra aspect Sam has to balance. He’s studying entrepreneurial management in hopes to continue working in sports from a business standpoint, with a professional team or a company one day. He’s even toyed with the idea of having his own business most likely related to sports, of course. This semester, he has all online classes, which helps him get homework done when his schedule allows.
Traveling takes up a lot of his time. “Even if it’s only a few hours, it takes a lot out of you mentally and physically because you’re so tired,” Sam said. One week, the basketball team traveled for an away game, got home from that trip around 2 a.m., woke up for practice the next day, and then left again for another away game. It makes sense why he would be tired.
Here’s a glimpse into an average week for Sam:
- Tuesday afternoon: Had a game walk through at 1 p.m.
- Tuesday evening: Played in Extra Mile Arena from 7 to 9:30 p.m.
- Wednesday: Team workout, lifting, and a game walkthrough.
- Thursday: Hopped on a plane headed for New Mexico.
- Friday: Played against New Mexico at 9 p.m.
All this time put towards practicing and preparing for games even though he knows he’s not going to be playing a ton as a walk-on can be challenging for Sam. “There’s some moments where I’m like ‘dang, what am I doing?’” But these thoughts are few and far between because when he steps out on the court — even just for time outs during a game — his mindset switches to “dang, I’m really here right now.”
Even though he doesn’t get much play time during games, he still enjoys practicing on the team and warming up for games. “That’s my time to shine. Warmups,” he said confidently. He just loves that feeling of excitement he gets before a game — especially a home game. He’s grateful for the times when he gets rewarded by going out on the court to play towards the end of games.
Sam knows how easy it is to compare yourself to other athletes on social media, but his advice to people who are in a similar position that he once was when he waited in uncertainty after his injury is, “Do you, just keep going hard, just keep believing in yourself and just focus on yourself.”
Sam has a great attitude given his circumstances of experiencing a devastating injury. But that didn’t deviate him from his goals. He possesses an inspiring level of determination to keep pursuing his passion for basketball despite setbacks. He said not everyone is cut out for the demand of being an athlete, but it’s clear to see that he faced the challenge head on, even though it appeared the odds were against him. He’s shown that patience is key in getting to where you want to be and trusting the process it takes to get there.
“Every day I’m still grateful for the opportunity and thankful that I was able to be here,” Sam said, “I still can’t believe I’m doing it.”