LAKEWOOD, Wash. -- Sammie Long slips his left arm out of a long-sleeved black shirt. As he rolls it up his biceps, he reveals a tattoo. It starts at his shoulder and stretches to his elbow.
Three big, block letters -- F.O.E. -- cover his shoulder. The letters stand for family over everything. Chains run down each side, piercing a heart at the bottom. There are five names in the middle -- Adriane, Gabriele, Quenessa, Zayda and Asanti.
Each name represents a woman in his life -- his mother, grandmother and three sisters. The tattoo, which he had done in January, provides a visual reminder that his family is “locked into my heart.”
“The only thing you have in life is family,” Long said.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound receiver (Lakewood, Wash./Lakes) wanted a road to wind around the names on his arm. The 17-year-old wanted something else to symbolize the journey that pushed him to this point. But, much like Long’s life, it was complicated. It wasn’t going to translate well. He didn’t add the element.
The only boy in a family with four children raised by a single mother, Long matured into the man of the house at an early age. It wasn’t easy. His family has been homeless at times, and there was rarely enough money to play organized sports.
But, much like his mother, Adriane Wilson -- a high school dropout who put herself through college later in life -- Long fought forward. He persevered through tough times. He became the first player to join Washington’s 2013 recruiting class, giving the Huskies a verbal commitment in March.
“I can do anything I want, because I’ve been through the hard times in life,” Long said.
For Long, hard times are living in a hotel down “Crack Alley,” going to sleep while his mother was buried in books. Hard times are spending a week on a train with no money, no place to sleep and nothing to eat. Hard times are growing up with a father in prison.
Those hard times shaped the person and the player.
“Every day you wake up and you realize where you’re at now and how much further you have to go to get to somewhere better,” Long said. “On the same hand, you’re thankful you’re not going through the same thing that you were.”
The tough times
Adriane Wilson needed a scholarship. She was trying to raise four kids and put herself through school. When she went in to to submit an application, she told the man on the other side of the desk her story.
She held little back.
“I thought that would make me look good in front of him, because I was still trying to get my education,” Wilson said.
After hearing the story, the man asked a question.
“Why didn’t you give your children up for adoption?”
Wilson headed home hurt. She asked her children if they had any regrets about the way they were raised.
“They told me no,” she said. “They liked that they had been through those things, because now they can see life through different eyes. They see some of their peers, how they can’t handle some of the little stressors in their life. They have all these big stressors and can still get through. I think that helps them. They’re able to hold it and be strong about situations.”
There was no shortage of difficult days.
The family was once forced to flee the state during a domestic violence situation. Wilson had enough money for one-way train tickets to a shelter in Florida, but they couldn’t afford much food during the weeklong trip. There was no place to sleep.
During the journey, a woman noticed the family. She handed Wilson $40.
“It was like a million dollars to me, because we didn’t have anything,” she said. “I could go buy them something to eat and I remember just crying.
“That’s what happens in our life. Sometimes I can’t get us to that next point, but there’s always somebody in the community that helps me.”
While Wilson put herself through school, she struggled to come up with money for rent. A one point, a teacher provided enough for a hotel room. It was in a dangerous area nicknamed “Crack Alley.”
Every night, long after her children went to sleep, Wilson sat in that room and studied.
“Regardless of being homeless, I did not give up on school and I did not quit,” said Wilson, who now works at an elementary school in Lakewood. “Those are the values I try to implement.”
When she went to bed each night, she slept on the side closest to the window.
“If something happens, if a bullet comes or something, I would rather it hit me first than hit them,” Wilson said.
During the family’s stretch of tough times, they also lived in an apartment abandoned by a military man who went AWOL. They always found a way to move forward.
“It’s pretty impressive, because, as you can see, we didn’t have anything, but we were still able to do stuff,” Long said. “Now it’s my turn to try to do what she did.”
A brighter future
Leveryll Wilson is the kind of uncle who doesn’t sit in the stands. He doesn’t clap and cheer. When he watches his nephew play football, his focus is fixed on each play.
A few years ago, when Long was in middle school, an official came over to ask Leveryll who he was watching.
“My nephew,” he said, gesturing in Long’s direction.
“He’s probably going to be a future Heisman winner,” the official said.
At that moment, Leveryll quit looking at his nephew as the little boy he played catch with in the yard.
“From that day on, I always looked at my nephew as a Heisman,” Leveryll said. “The best way I can explain it is kind of like a movie, because we were just throwing the football around, not thinking anything would come of it, just having fun. To see him get a scholarship from UW, it blows my mind every day when I think about it.”
Lakes assistant coach Terry Leifson has been working with high school athletes for 42 years. After watching Long for three seasons, the longtime coach said the receiver isn’t very vocal, but his example sets a standard in the Lancers’ program.
“Sammie is a special kid to me,” Leifson said. “Ever since I’ve known him, he’s done the same types of things. He’s 100 percent all the time.”
Long doesn’t delve into the details of his past. His father has been in prison the length of his life, so he only thinks about it on the days he goes to see him.
“Once we leave, I will just leave it there, because I know I’ve got more stuff to think about and look forward to,” Long said.
The bond between mother and son has been built through tough times. Life hasn’t always been easy, but Wilson always encouraged her children to develop their dreams.
As she said to her son, “Don’t block your own blessings.” With Long's senior season approaching and a college career on the horizon, Wilson added, “I think he realizes that his blessings are coming.”