FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The Jets’ first-round draft pick comes from a family of athletes.
Sam Darnold, 20, is getting all the attention right now as a future starting quarterback in the NFL, but everything started with his famous grandfather, Dick Hammer.
Better known as the Marlboro Man (one of several), Hammer was a cowboy-hat wearing model on those billboard and magazine ads for Marlboro cigarettes in the 1960s and ’70s. One little-known fact: Hammer didn’t smoke and ended his association with the campaign when the surgeon general put warning labels on cigarette packs.
Everything about Hammer reminded his daughter of her son.
“Growing up, you just want to do as much as you can and have as much fun as you can,” Sam Darnold said. “And once you hear the stories, especially about my grandfather, who sadly passed away when I was 2 years old, I didn’t get a chance to know him that much. But my mom always tells me how much I remind her of him. It’s an amazing thing, it’s really cool to live through him.”
When Sam Darnold mentioned his grandfather during a news conference Friday, his mom wiped away tears.
“When he was real little, we used to tease, he used to have all the DNA, he could do anything,” Chris Darnold said. “He could do anything, he was big like his dad, got his dad’s girth and my dad’s agility and athletic ability. My dad was the kind of person who could pick up a game just by watching someone play and Sam is a lot like that.”
Hammer was more than a model for an ad agency. He played basketball at USC and was part of the team that lost in the national semifinals in 1954. He took up volleyball after finishing basketball and made the 1964 U.S. Olympic team.
His playing days over, Hammer became director of recreation for the city of Long Beach, California, when he took a test for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. He eventually became a captain and was assigned to a Universal Studios unit. One day, an ad producer needed someone to slide down a pole. Hammer was the one, setting off a brief acting career. Hammer got a small role on the 1970s television show “Emergency.”
“He was Captain Hammer,” Chris Darnold said.
It’s almost no surprise when you see why the rest of the family is into athletics.
Chris played volleyball at Long Beach Community College. She currently is a physical education teacher.
She ended up marrying Mike, Sam’s dad, who played football at the University of Redlands.
And their oldest daughter, Franki, played volleyball at the University of Rhode Island.
Sports is just everywhere in the Darnold family.
When Franki lost a partner in a coed volleyball tournament, she turned to her little brother, Sam, to participate.
The brother and sisters were always there for each other. Sam would watch the cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants” with his sister, then go watch ESPN with his dad. He played baseball, basketball and football.
“Going into high school, I thought he would be a baseball pitcher,” Mike Darnold said. “I thought he would pitch in the majors, but he said baseball was boring.”
Sam Darnold didn’t even play in the famed seven-on-seven AAU summer football circuit as a teenager, but when he emerged as a talented basketball and football player in high school, he leaned toward football. And he went to USC.
In his two seasons, Darnold completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 7,229 yards with 57 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. The expectations were high on Darnold coming into the 2017 season. Many NFL fans looking for a franchise quarterback started campaigns hoping their teams would tank for the right to get Darnold. That included Jets fans.
He was deemed the California Golden Boy in his race with UCLA’s Josh Rosen, another highly regarded quarterback prospect, as the No. 1 quarterback in the country.
“USC prepared us last year with all the scrutiny of what is going on and it prepared Sam, as well,” Chris Darnold said. “Being in the L.A. market, it prepared all of us . . . watching every emotion he went through last year, it helped me prepare him for the college process. He did his college thing. Now he’s going through graduate school, doing all this stuff and hopefully he’ll be a good pro.”
Even getting through the draft process was difficult. Darnold had to answer questions about why he led the nation with 22 turnovers and if his throwing motion needed changing. He didn’t throw at the NFL Scouting Combine, bringing some criticism on that, but at his pro day a few weeks later, Darnold was throwing in the rain. Darnold also said he wasn’t changing his throwing motion.
The Jets were always impressed with Darnold and were hopeful they would select him with the third pick.
Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan said there were three players he was interested in with the third pick. He wasn’t sure if Darnold was going No. 1 to the Browns, but when they passed on him and went with Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, the only uncertainty was the Giants, who possessed the No. 2 pick. When the Giants grabbed Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, it opened the door for Darnold and his athletic-proud family to head to New York.
“Sam is the full package of a lot of good genetics stuff going around in our family,” Chris Darnold said. “We’re real proud of him.”