She’s 17 years old and already snagged a gold medal for her feat over the halfpipe, but it’s her dad’s homemade sign and their heartwarming relationship that’s captivating America.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Sam McGuffie has played football in the Big House for the Michigan Wolverines.
He has lived at the height of Internet popularity — a true YouTube sensation after his high school football highlight tape went viral, long before viral even meant viral.
But nothing has prepared him for the Winter Olympics.
“It’s so much bigger than I thought it would be,” said McGuffie, the former Michigan running back, who will compete in the two-man bobsled event on Sunday at the Winter Olympics.
McGuffie, 28, took a video of himself walking in the Opening Ceremonies and tweeted:
“The coolest thing I’ve ever done!!! Walking into opening ceremonies chanting USA!!! USA!!! USA!!!”
He’s soaking up every moment of these Games.
From hanging out at the Olympic rings with his teammates.
To going to a U.S. women’s hockey game.
And his wide-eyed enthusiasm is rubbing off on his Olympic teammates, even the old, experienced ones.
“It brings me back to how special this event is,” said bobsledder Nick Cunningham, who is competing in his third Olympics. “You can see, he is not taking this for granted. He’s going with it. It’s re-motivated me to do it. This is my third Games. I don’t want to say,
‘It’s kind of easy to go through the motions.’”
But it’s easy to go through the motions.
Cunningham marveled at McGuffie, all the experiences he has had.
FILE – In this Dec. 17, 2016, file photo, the Swiss team of Rico Peter, Janne Bror van der Zijde, Simon Friedli and Thomas Andrianov, center rear, celebrates its win in the four-man bobsled World Cup race in Lake Placid, N.Y. The U.S. team of Steven Holcomb, rear left, Carlo Valdes, James Reed and Sam McGuffie, front left, took second place. Canada’s Chris Spring, Cameron Stones, Lascelles Brown and Samuel Giguere took third place. McGuffie has scored at Notre Dame Stadium. Little did he know he was on a path to the Olympics. McGuffie was a running back at Michigan and Rice, bounced around some NFL and CFL clubs, then got told about bobsledding. Not long afterward, he met Steven Holcomb _ and this season, McGuffie’s first Olympic season, has been a tribute to his late friend.(AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File) (Photo: Hans Pennink, AP)
“If I walked out into a stadium with 100,000 people screaming,” Cunningham said, “I would be like, ‘Oh, this is too much.’ ”
Ah yes, that brings us back life in the Big House.
McGuffie remembers his first game in Michigan Stadium, on Aug.30, 2008, when he played against Utah.
“Utah was good that year,” he said. “It was just surreal. Now, I’m in the Olympics. Tons of media. It’s pretty crazy.”
He rushed eight times in his Michigan debut and gained 8 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown run.
When he was asked what he remembered about his time at Michigan, he quickly mentioned that run.
“My first touchdown in the Big House,” he said. “It wasn’t real to me. It was overwhelming to me, as an 18-year-old kid. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. It’s been 10 years, I think, since I played in the Big House. I was 18 when I played. It’s come full circle.
Playing in front of 110,000 people. Just a kid. That was amazing to me. Hearing my name announced in the starting lineup, being in the locker room and hearing it.”
Photos: See USA’s gold medalists!
McGuffie played in 10 games for the Wolverines in 2008, rushing for 486 yards in his only season at U-M. He transferred to Rice, where he finished his college career.
“It was a bunch of issues, really,” he said, of the transfer. “Family issues. We were running a spread-option with a 6-7 quarterback. It just kind of didn’t work out, schematic behind-the-scenes stuff. It was just a lot of stuff all at once. I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know if that was immaturity.”
But he has no regrets.
He did stints with the Oakland Raiders, the Arizona Cardinals and the New England Patriots in the NFL.
But he never played in a game.
“I’ve head butted Tom Brady,” McGuffie said. “I had (New England coach Bill) Belichick put my practice jersey on, when I was on the Patriots. I’ve had some good memories, man.”
Certainly, he’s making even more at the Olympics.
He is no stranger to media attention, but he has found it strange to talk to journalists from around the world at the Olympics.
“The difference is, in America, it’s American media stuff,” he said “Here, it’s every country you can imagine, asking you questions, different questions than you are used to being asked. It’s different. I’ve got to be on my A-game.”
McGuffie picked up the bobsled because, well, he had tried nearly everything else.
“It was always wanting to try new things from BMX to karate to gymnastics, roller hockey,” he said. “I did just about every sport you can do. Bobsled is something I think I’m the best at now, hopefully I am, at the Olympic Games.”
On the football field, McGuffie was known for his speed, strength and ridiculous athleticism, and all of those skills translate to the bobsled.
“The transition of a lot of my football background — sprinting, power, that’s what you need to be a god bobsledder,” he said.
McGuffie will also compete in the four-man event Feb. 24-25.
“Nothing compares to bobsled,” McGuffie said. “It’s a violent sport. A lot of people say it’s like being put in a dumpster and thrown down a flight of stairs.”
McGuffie has spent three years on the national team, winning five World Cup medals, two of them gold.
“He’s a character man,” bobsledder Sam Michener said, about McGuffie. “He’s real relaxed. His mind just kind of works differently than most athletes you work with. It’s a little bit of a space cadet, but he’s a gamer. When it’s time to compete, when we are on the line, he’s always locked in.”
Detroit Free Press columnist Jeff Seidel is covering the 2018 Winter Olympics as part of the USA Today Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.