Moab • Sam Woodruff could not sleep, so he made a pot of coffee and woke up his mother two hours before she had to be at McDonald’s to start her 6 a.m. shift. The teenager and his mother had fought the night before, as they sometimes did, but in the early morning he was calm and his attention shifted.
“I’m going to do a good job for them, Mom,” he told her.
His excitement over the season had been growing for weeks. After spending every day of the hot, desert summer working out in the Grand High weight room, he was consumed by football. It permeated his thoughts. On Facebook he posted an inspirational quote, a promise to his teammates, a photo of himself in his new Red Devils jersey.
“I’ve made some stupid choices and I’ve done things and said things that I’m not proud of,” Sam wrote Aug. 6, “but I’m trying to fix those choices and I’m trying to do my best in sports running my hardest and working till I collapse or am about to but I think this year is going to be a good one.”
Then three days later: “Get ready boys hell week tomorrow.”
So in the 4 a.m. dark of Aug. 10, Sam Woodruff gathered his equipment, slipped on his jersey and waited.
Twelve hours later, he was dead.
Cruelty of youth
Moab is a small town, and almost everyone at Grand High knew of Sam. Few, however, seemed simply to know the boy who loved computer games, Magic cards and fishing with his uncles at Ken’s Lake outside of town.
Sam wanted desperately to make friends but rarely did. He spent much of his time with his mother, Merry, and his adoptive grandmother, Sandi Roedel. He was their world. They comforted him on the day his schoolmates threw rocks at him as he walked home, the day they tried to take his bike, the day they took his red coat from the gymnasium and hid it.
Merry Woodruff was particularly sensitive to the bullying her only child endured.
She, too, grew up in Moab. She was born with clubbed feet and learned to walk on her tiptoes. Her hair was unkempt and she was overweight. Children turned a Jell-O jingle into a cruel chorus as she walked by.
“Watch that wobble. See that wiggle.”
Those children grew up. Some stayed in town, had children of their own, came to football games and sat in those bleachers that look out at the sun setting on the snow-capped La Sals.
And Merry would hear some of them mock her boy, the strange freshman who struggled to do a single push-up.
He was 6 foot 2, 230 pounds and yet somehow an unlikely jock.
He was failing classes, and he ended up spending most of his days in Kenneth Windsor’s shop at the high school. The choice angered his mother — but only at the time.
“What he was really looking for in Mr. Windsor was a friend,” Merry said.
Sam quit the team that season.
But a year later, for whatever reason, he decided to try again.
“I’m going to tell you one thing about Sam,” Roedel said. “He did not do victim.”
Sam barely knew his father, a man who was in and out of jail and gave him just one birthday present in his 15 years, and Merry said that added to his longing.
He started to find comfort in football.
“He liked feeling like he belonged,” Merry said, “being a part of something, feeling like he had a brotherhood in a sense. Because he never really knew his father that well, it was a chance for him to be able to really be in camaraderie with the boys. It meant a lot to him because he was looking for that acceptance.”
If Sam had been overlooked previously he wasn’t going to let it happen this season, and as weight training and practices progressed, he became nearly impossible to ignore.
There were a couple of reasons for this:
No. 1 — Sam wore neon shirts. Orange or green and hanging a foot longer than his jersey, the shirts made his teammates delight and Sam easy to spot.
No. 2 — Sam was in the weight room earlier than almost everyone else, and he stayed later working on technique than almost anyone else.
He was only a sophomore, but he wanted to compete against the best. He challenged senior Edgar Gomez, an all-state guard and nose tackle, in drills. He walked up to lineman David Bentley and told the senior he planned to be stronger than him in two years time.
“I told him I was going to make sure he was,” Bentley said.
Sam was one of the weakest players on the team a season earlier.
Now he wanted to work.
“He wasn’t the fastest guy, but he never walked,” quarterback Jacob Francis said.
Sam spent hours lifting, inching toward the moment he would see his name on the board where the coaches displayed the names of the three strongest players from each class.
By August, he dead lifted 325 pounds and bench pressed 155.
On the day his name was scrawled on the white board with marker, he snapped a picture of it to show his mother.
On the last night the team’s summer camp, players stood up one at a time, expressing their hopes and fears. Sam stood up three times, telling his teammates how much he cared for them, how much he felt like he belonged.
He told them he was dealing with weight issues and thought maybe he shouldn’t be playing.
“But he told us this was his family,” Francis said. “This is what he wanted to do and he was going to play no matter what.”
As players prepared to practice with helmets and pads for the first time, Sam hoped to win a starting position on the JV team. His coach wanted to see his dedication on the field, and Sam planned to prove it during Hell Week.
As Roedel drove him to the school, the boy still looked upset from the fight with his mother the night before — a shouting match over a pot of soup. Roedel knew how much football meant to Sam, and she prayed to God to bless him.
That morning at practice, Sam flew around the field, playing better than he’d ever played before.
When Roedel picked him later that morning, Sam beamed. She took him home, told him to rest for the evening practice. Roedel cooked a roast for his dinner before she picked up Merry from McDonald’s around 4 p.m.
It was 4:16, Merry recalls, when they arrived at the house.
Sam wasn’t in his bed. They heard the water running, which wasn’t unusual; Sam often took baths to relax himself. They called his name but heard nothing back. They looked down. Water seeped from under the bathroom door.
As Roedel ran outside screaming for someone to call 911, Merry opened the door with a coat hanger. Her 15-year-old son was slumped over the tub, his face in the water.
She tried to pull him up by his stiff shoulders.
She screamed at the paramedics to do more.
Hundreds of candles cut through the darkness the following night.
At the vigil, Merry and Roedel sobbed at the football team’s guttural cries, cheers for a fallen teammate that the two women swear sounded like repentance from a few.
There have been lessons, indeed, in Sam’s death, his teammates said.
“A lot of time, there are seniors who are pretty mean to freshmen,” Francis said. “This year our senior class made it a point not to be those typical seniors. We weren’t ever that bad, but especially after that we’ve come together.”
At the funeral, two players in particular came up to Merry and Roedel and sobbed in their arms, apologizing for the rocks and the missing coat and the cruelty of their youth.
“We had to let one go,” Roedel said, “but we got a whole team.”
Players gathered in the high school parking lot on the night of the funeral, ordered pizza and remembered Sam, even playing a game of Magic. Gomez laughed recalling how long Sam had begged a friend to let him drive his truck, only to say he was too scared to do it when the boy finally relented; he chuckled at the time during a drill when the coach screamed to stop and chop, and Sam pretended to cut off his arms.
A few hours earlier, their white shirts and ties poking out from under their jerseys, they had carried Sam’s casket from the hearse through the cemetery. Now the stars swirled above them as they talked about how they wanted to dedicate the year to Sam, to win it all.
“You never know when your last down is, when your last play is,” Francis said. “So you’ve just got to be thankful for what you have now.”
The Red Devils are 6-1 and a favorite to make the Class 2A championship game. Sam’s No. 62 is on every player’s helmet, now always at the back of each one’s mind.
Sam’s family still is awaiting the results of an autopsy to learn what caused the boy’s death, but they say they found closure sitting at the front of a packed Grand High auditorium during Sam’s funeral.
“He was a good kid,” Roedel said, “but so many didn’t realize it until after he was gone.”