Sam Darnold was only 2 years old when his grandfather passed away, so he never got to know the Marlboro Man.
Dick Hammer left behind a legacy of larger-than-life tales, though, and the New York Jets‘ newest quarterback has heard them all. Family gatherings have been filled with the stories of Hammer’s athletic accomplishments as a college basketball player and a U.S Olympian in volleyball, his bravery as a firefighter and his creative side as an actor.
“My mom always tells me how much I remind her of him,” Darnold said Friday during his introductory news conference as the No. 3 overall pick of the NFL draft at the Jets’ training facility.
Darnold’s mother Chris, sitting in the front row with her husband Mike and daughter Franki, wiped tears from her eyes as Sam mentioned his late grandfather.
“When Sam was really little, we used to tease him because we would say he got all the DNA because he could do anything,” said Chris Darnold, wearing a Jets cap. “He was big like his dad, got his dad’s girth. He got my dad’s agility and athletic ability. My dad was the type of person that could pick up a game by just watching someone play.
“Sam’s a lot like that.”
Hammer was 69 when he died in October 1999, just four months after Sam’s second birthday. He played basketball at USC and helped lead the Trojans to the 1954 Final Four. Hammer picked up volleyball after his hoops days were over and ended up making the United States’ 1964 Olympic volleyball team that competed in Tokyo.
He was a captain in the L.A. County Fire Department and played Captain Dick Hammer — yep, named after himself — in the first season of the 1970’s television drama “Emergency!” Hammer also landed a gig as the cowboy hat-wearing Marlboro Man in the cigarette company’s advertising campaigns, despite not being a smoker.
It is that innate ability to pick up anything and excel at it that Darnold’s mom has always seen in her son, who was also a terrific basketball player in high school.
“An example was when (Sam) played in a volleyball tournament with my daughter, who was playing in college (at Rhode Island) at the time and she was missing out on a partner for co-ed doubles,” Chris said. “He was all like, ‘Uh, sure, OK, I’ll go play some volleyball.’ We’re watching them play and they got to the playoffs and he’s doing all these dinking serves and playing like he’s been playing his whole life. That is a lot of what my Dad was like.”
Dick Hammer would certainly think his grandson is a chip off the old block. And, Darnold now has a chance to create his own legacy.
The former USC star quarterback from Capistrano Beach, California, played just two seasons for the Trojans, but showed enough eye-popping ability as a playmaking passer to be rated by many as the No. 1 player at his position heading into the draft.
Darnold is now tasked with helping lift a franchise that has been seeking a savior since the glory days of Joe Namath nearly 50 years ago. The Jets have been to just one Super Bowl — you know, the one Broadway Joe delivered after his guarantee in 1969. That’s a lot of pressure for a kid who won’t even turn 21 until June, but Darnold is becoming fully aware of what he’s getting into.
“Winning a Super Bowl is everyone’s goal entering a season, whether I’m a backup or whether I’m starting quarterback,” he said. “Everyone on the team wants to win a Super Bowl. That’s the goal for everyone. Anything short of that is a failure, and we’re aware of that. Everyone’s aware of that. And whatever my role is, I’m going to star in that role to work us toward that Super Bowl.”
Darnold already has a prominent place in Jets history, being the highest-drafted quarterback by the team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
“Getting that phone call, it changed my life,” Darnold said. “I know it’s going to change my life, and I’m very confident here that we’re going to win some games, and I think I’m going to be here for a long time.”
Coach Todd Bowles said Thursday night after New York drafted Darnold that the team won’t necessarily throw him into the fire, but also won’t hold him back. That means the rookie could have a chance at starting if he can beat out veterans Josh McCown, the starter last year, and Teddy Bridgewater, who’s still recovering from a knee injury that threatened his career nearly two years ago.
“There’s a ton of room for growth, and that’s the thing I’m really excited about,” Darnold said. “Just being 20 years old, I know that there’s a lot of room for growth, but I’m also very confident in my ability to go out there and play. But that being said, I’m going to do what the coaches ask me to do, and I’m going to come in here and learn right away and just go about it that way.”
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