Trying to keep pace with super Sam Gordon
NEW ORLEANS -- Sam Gordon is asking me if I have seen the TV show "Hannah Montana."
The 9-year-old football star is sitting at an outdoor cafe in the French Quarter of New Orleans on Saturday morning, waiting for beignets and hot chocolate. She is wearing black-and-pink Under Armour sneakers, a pair of jeans and her trademark gold football jersey, embroidered with a blue No. 6.
She asks me about the hit Disney show, starring Miley Cyrus, because she has a point to make about that ubiquitous jersey.
"It's like I'm Hannah Montana," she says, laughing. (In the show, Cyrus plays two characters: pop star Hannah Montana and everyday girl Miley Stewart.) "When I wear this jersey, people know who I am. But if I take it off, nobody knows who I am. It's like a magic trick."
I feel like I might be one of the last people in town who hasn't met the Hannah version of Sam. As most sports fans now know, Gordon was personally invited to attend Super Bowl XLVII by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. She has appeared on "Good Morning America," ESPN and on the Wheaties box.
And Saturday night, she will take part in a sketch at the NFL Honors awards show, alongside Goodell and host Alec Baldwin. I am treated to an impromptu rehearsal of it at the cafe, with Sam's dad, Brent, in the role of Goodell, and mom Brooke playing Baldwin. Sam works her lines like a natural, and says she's not nervous -- at all.
This whole whirlwind started in November, when Brent logged onto YouTube and uploaded a four-minute highlight video of Sam running over, around and through the boys in her youth football league, located in the Salt Lake City area. Brent then posted a single comment to the BYU football message board and included the link to the video -- the only place he shared it. Within hours, the video went viral. That same day, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" called.
In fact, the story of making the video is almost as interesting as what happened afterward.
Sam had never played organized football before this season. But last winter, in the months before signing up for the youth league, she started playing two-hand touch with her family -- she is the second-oldest of four kids -- and some friends of her older brother, Max, who's 12. "We realized pretty quickly that whichever team Sam was on would always win," Brooke says. "Nobody could catch her, not even the older boys."
By the time the youth league kicked off, Brent was convinced Sam would have a great season, so he decided to get video of her games after learning a company was collecting footage for the league. Sure enough, Sam finished with 1,911 rushing yards -- averaging 8.2 yards per carry -- and 35 touchdowns. She also made 65 tackles.
After the season, Brent sat down with 12 hours' worth of game footage, for which he paid about $1,500. The steep cost was because the company that produced the video would only release it if all the teams in the league purchased the DVD -- a policy intended to guard against someone buying it and then making copies for everyone else.
Undeterred, Brent shelled out the cash himself and converted the video so he could edit it. He made no money from the footage -- not an insignificant point considering the YouTube video had 4.9 million hits in the three days before he was forced to take it down because the production company claimed copyright infringement. (The videos you currently see on YouTube are copycats of Brent's original.) "We'd probably be at something like 20 million views if I'd left it up," Brent says, without even a hint of remorse.
By this time, Sam has finished her beignets and climbed into her dad's lap. "I made the video for her," Brent says, placing his hand on Sam's head. "So she could watch it whenever she wanted, or maybe show it to her kids when she is older. All of this is more than we ever expected."
And what is all of this, exactly? It's way more than 15 minutes of fame, but who knows just how long it will last? After the Super Bowl, Sam's next big event is the Cartoon Network's Hall of Game awards show, hosted by Shaq and Nick Cannon, at the end of February. Her video is nominated for "Most Viral Player."
The family has no media commitments scheduled beyond that, but Brooke isn't worried about Sam's ability to return to life as normal. "She'll be fine," Brooke says, noting that Sam probably is the most down-to-earth of her children. "If it was any of our other kids, maybe we'd be worried," she adds, jokingly. "They might go around the house yelling, 'Servant!' "
After beignets, the Gordons walk around the French Quarter, then head downtown for Sam's shoot with CNN. At the appointed time, Brooke and Brent hand their daughter over to the show's producer. They watch as Sam walks on stage and sits down next to hosts Rachel Nichols and Ernie Johnson. "She said she was nervous the first time she went out there in front of a studio audience," Brooke says. "But that was the only time."
Mom made one TV appearance with her daughter, on Fox News in November. Brooke says she was so nervous she felt nauseated: "And Sam says to me, 'Just pretend you're talking to a friend. It's just like that.' "
Right on cue, that's exactly how Sam interacts with Nichols and Johnson, chatting with them as if they're friends. The hosts, along with pretty much everyone in the audience, appear charmed by the dynamic girl.
When the CNN spot is done, the Gordons must get ready for the NFL Honors awards show. The red carpet opens at 3:30, and Sam still has to decide what dress to wear. She has six from which to choose, all sent to her by designer Oscar de la Renta. Sam doesn't much like dresses -- when I ask how often she wears them, she says, "Um, never?" -- but she'll happily make an exception for the Super Bowl.
She pulls on her gray hoodie (she's Miley Stewart now, not Hannah Montana), and heads back to the hotel, excited for the glamorous evening ahead.