Towering over most at 6-foot-3-inch and 260 pounds, Sam Acho is a gifted athlete. But the nine-year NFL veteran has never thought of himself as just a football player.
The Texas football alumnus is currently enduring the uncertainty of NFL free agency. But as the sports world remains paused amid the coronavirus crisis, Acho knows that life without football is just a glimpse of the future.
“I've never considered myself a lifelong athlete. So for me, life without sports isn't that different,” Acho said.
As a defensive end for St. Mark's High School, Acho dominated the ranks of Dallas high school football. While Acho’s impact on the field has been on display since his youth, his high school head coach Hayward Lee said that his presence in the community was just as large.
“Sam had an impact on life at St. Mark’s that went far beyond just football,” said Lee, who is now an assistant coach for the Lions. “And he had an impact on his classmates. He was just a really beloved guy.”
At Texas, Acho picked up unanimous All-Big 12 honors, but his sharp mind wowed even more than his play on the field. Acho won the William V. Campbell Trophy as the nation’s top football student-athlete, was a member of the UT Friar Society, graduated from the McCombs Business Honors Program and was listed as one of Sporting News’ 20 Smartest Athletes in 2010.
Oscar Giles, Acho’s defensive line coach at Texas, said that his intelligence made him a natural-born leader in the locker room.
“Sam studies the game and he studies his opponents, and he’s just a really brilliant guy,” Giles said in an email. “We had some interesting conversations in the (defensive line meeting room) with him knowing Shakespeare and literature and things like that. I learned as much from him as he learned from me.”
After Acho was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft, he spent the better part of the last nine years in Phoenix and Chicago. Acho signed a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a year ago but has played in just 12 games in the last two seasons.
Now, Acho awaits his next opportunity to sign with an NFL roster. But he’s no stranger to the unpredictability of his current situation. After just four games, Acho’s 2018 season came to a halt when he suffered a torn pectoral. Then in 2019, he signed with the Buffalo Bills in the preseason, only to be released two weeks later.
“I'm realizing that life is not about just the highs. It's about the highs and the lows,” Acho said. “There was definitely some uncertainty there. So I think some of that has helped prepare me for where we're at right now.”
Even during this unprecedented time, Acho continues to be a leader in his community. He coordinated an outreach event on Chicago’s West Side with several other professional athletes in response to the recent protests of police brutality and racism. Additionally, Acho published an article in the Players’ Tribune about the lack of Black representation in NFL front offices.
With his future in flux, Acho is doing what he knows best — supporting those around him.
While some may be looking back, Acho said he’s used this time not to reflect, but to look ahead at what’s next.
“It's been an opportunity to think about what would life be outside of sports because I know … eventually, football is gonna be over,” Acho said. “What will bring me joy?”