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Ex-Lobo star RB Scarber: UNM to the NFL to the big screen

Sam Scarber played football at the University of New Mexico from 1968-1970. He then went on to pro football and entertainment careers. (UNM photo)

With the kickoff of the NFL draft less than two weeks away, there are a handful of Lobos filled with anxiety and excitement to learn when/if their names will be called. Offensive lineman Javon Mosley, cornerback De’John Rogers and linebacker Alexander “Mo” Vainikolo are among them.

Back in late January 1971, however, former New Mexico star fullback Sam Scarber didn’t have any anxiety before the selection process. Or feel any excitement. After all, this was long before it became a TV spectacle.

“I wasn’t familiar with the draft and didn’t know what to expect,” Scarber said in a phone interview from his home in southern California on Monday. “I didn’t think I’d get drafted.”

But he was, in the third round by the Dallas Cowboys, going 69th overall.

That moment began Scarber’s wild and often woolly pro football journey with eight teams and three leagues and that culminated in a Hollywood ending.

Draft day

Today’s pro candidates likely pick up the phone on the half-ring in hopes a team rep will be buzzing. On Scarber’s draft day he didn’t pick up on any ring.

He wasn’t home.

“At the time I was living with the family of William C. Marchiondo on Hannett Avenue in back of the (UNM) law school,” Scarber said of the longtime pre-eminent criminal defense attorney. “I was out running. And when I got back they were saying, the Dallas Cowboys just called to say I was drafted.”

Once word got out, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Scarber with 4.6-second speed in the 40-yard dash went from big man on campus to an extra big man.

“I couldn’t go anywhere without anyone recognizing me,” he said.

Lobo days

Scarber, a native of St. Louis, had caught the eye of the Cowboys with a standout career from 1968-70 after transferring from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. He was first-team All-Western Athletic Conference his senior year.

Among his highlights:

• Scoring on an 88-yard TD reception in 1968 against UTEP, at the time the second longest pass play in school history.

• In 1969, helping UNM snap a school-record 21-game losing streak with a 16-7 home victory over Kansas, which beat the Lobos 68-7 a season earlier en route to the Orange Bowl. Scarber had 130 yards on a then-team-record 38 rushes. “They carried coach (Rudy) Feldman off the field after the game,” Scarber said.”

• In 1970, Scarber was the leading rusher in the WAC with 961 yards (5.2 a carry) for an offense that led the nation with 350 ground yards a game. Those Lobos, who featured Rocky Long at quarterback, finished 7-3 after going 0-10 two seasons earlier.

To this day, Scarber laments not being able to come back for another year and play in 1971: “We would have come out guns a-blazing. If I could have stayed one more year, Arizona State would have been in big trouble.”

Instead, ASU won its third consecutive league title, with New Mexico finishing as runner-up a second straight year.

Back to earth

Once he got to the Cowboys’ summer camp in early July, Scarber quickly tumbled to the bottom of the football food chain along with the rest of the rookies. The feisty Scarber said he was treated harshly by Dallas’ veteran players.

And he didn’t put up with it, either.

“It seemed like every day I would get in a fight with (linebackers) Chuck Howley and Lee Roy Jordan – we would go at it,” he said of players now in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.

And then one day Margene Adkins, a four-year pro wide receiver, apparently went a step too far.

“He was always running his mouth and I just got on him like a cheap suit,” said Scarber. “I jacked him up and stuffed him in a locker. I then told the other vets, ‘If you’re looking for Margene Adkins somebody better go get him out of that locker pretty fast or he’ll miss dinner.'”

Long story less long, Scarber eventually was among the final cuts by future Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry on Aug. 31.

“He was an unusual cat,” said former Cowboys player personnel czar Gil Brandt in a phone interview Saturday. “He was an amazing guy, a smart guy. He was a near miss at making our team.

“Today, with expanded rosters, he’d probably be a team’s third running back and a special teams star.”

Adding salt to the wound of being cut, less than five months later Dallas celebrated a Super Bowl championship. Missing out on a league crown would become an unusually common thread throughout his career.

Although he was picked up by the Los Angeles Rams two days after his release, he was let go again Sept. 16.

Heading north

Fast-forwarding to 1972, he began a rocky stay with the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos. That relationship didn’t get off to a great start, either.

“They had come down to Albuquerque to get me and I told the GM I wanted this amount of money, a car, an apartment and a fridge full of food or I wouldn’t play.”

When he arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, Eskimos management came up short on his lists of demands.

“Nothing was prepared,” Scarber said. So he said he stayed in a nearby motel until all the boxes were checked.

The Eskimos relented and Scarber was a regular in the lineup despite injuries to both shoulders. In July 1973 he was released.

Another league

A year later he found new football life with the Detroit Wheels of the newly minted (but soon to dissolve) World Football League. Scarber led the team in rushing, with New Mexico State’s Jesse Mims second. Ex-Lobo teammate Long played defensive back and was second on the team with three interceptions. He also was a punt and kick returner.

Said Long of Scarber in an email to the Journal: “He was the key to our success in the triple option at UNM. He was the first option.

“With the Detroit Wheels Sam was a dominating running back and bigger than life driving. A green Cadillac with monster white walls and a great loyal friend.”

But the cash-strapped franchise folded with a 1-13 record, six games short of a full season. After the ensuing dispersal draft, Scarber finished the year with the Southern California Sun. The entire league disappeared at midseason a year later.

The Sun was Scarber’s fifth pro team in four seasons. But in the process he had drawn the attention of another NFL franchise.

Sixth team is the charm

In 1975 the San Diego Chargers called, and Scarber became a steady contributor under the tutelage of another future Hall of Fame coach, Bill Walsh, who served as offensive coordinator.

Over the 1975-76 seasons, playing primarily as a blocking back, Scarber participated in 25 of the team’s 28 games, including three as a starter, and scored four touchdowns. Twice he was awarded game balls.

As for which games …?

“Those balls are on the floor here somewhere, but I’d have to go looking for them,” Scarber said with a half-chuckle.

Maybe one was from the 1976 opener when he rushed for 68 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter of a 30-16 victory at Kansas City.

In 1977, though, he was released after training camp, landing a year later with the Oakland Raiders and yet another Hall of Fame coach, John Madden.

Scarber was with the team for the next 2½ seasons, but largely because of injuries saw game action only in some exhibitions before his 1980 midseason release. And for the second time, a team he had just been with went on to win that season’s Super Bowl.

Past 30 years old, Scarber gave the game one more shot, trying out for the 1981 49ers, now coached by Walsh. But Scarber said he soon realized his body was too beat up to continue and retired.

And, yes, those 49ers went on to win the world title.

“I never did get any rings,” Scarber said wistfully.

Sam Scarber, left, University of New Mexico alumnus and former Lobo football player, arm wrestles actor Sylvester Stallone in the 1987 movie “Over The Top.” (Courtesy of Glan-Globus Films)

Career about-face

Living in North Hollywood, It wasn’t long after football that he made use of his physical education and recreation degree and concentrated on being a fitness coach/trainer. Ted Danson of “Cheers” fame used to be one of his patrons.

“Today I have clients as young as 12½ and as old as 98,” said Scarber, who has a personal workout studio.

He also has made contacts with TV and movie industry folks through the years and had many noteworthy supporting roles on screen.

Among his TV credits, he had a part in two Cheers episodes in which he played a postal worker who was the “friend” of Cliff Clavin. On “Love Boat” he was the boyfriend of Vanessa Williams, Miss America in 1984. He also was on “Fantasy Island” with Ricardo Montalban. On “ER” he was a bed-ridden patient.

On the big screen, Scarber appeared in “Over The Top” and got to arm wrestle – and lose to – Sylvester Stallone. (“Yeah, I could have beaten him,” Scarber said.) He also played the part of a referee in “The Karate Kid.”

Scarber has been no stranger to Albuquerque since his college days, often getting in a round or two of golf with fellow ex-Lobos.

Former UNM football player Sam Scarber, left, is recognized with ex-Lobo basketball players Willie Long, center, and Petie Gibson during a UNM basketball game in 2018. (Courtesy of Sam Scarber)

“I like to get back to town for a bite to eat and to kibitz with my friends,” Scarber said. “I slip in quietly and look forward to eating at the Frontier for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I just played golf with (former Dean of Students) Chuck Roberts.

“Don Woods and I talk quite often. Tom Walker, John Stewart, Tommy McBee, Brad Bramer. We miss one another.”