Bellarmine’s KJ Carta-Samuels has followed in his brother’s footsteps — with one step still to take.
By DAVID KIEFER | Contributor
When K.J. Carta-Samuels’ high school football career is done, he may be most remembered for a title bestowed in a camp as much as a championship won on the field.
Carta-Samuels, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior quarterback at San Jose’s Bellarmine College Prep, is one of the Elite 11. It sounds as prestigious as it is.
Only 18 quarterbacks throughout the country secure an invitation to July’s Beaverton, Ore., convocation that has become the premier quarterback competition for recruiters. Ultimately, only 11 enter the inner circle.
“It was a grueling six days,” Carta-Samuels recalled. “You had to be on point the entire time — attitude-wise, throwing-wise, everything. I remember not wanting to make a mistake, but wanting to shock people at the same time.”
Carta-Samuels welcomed the unrelenting scrutiny, on the field and off. They were tested mentally and physically, with the result that could fluctuate on every drill.
“You had to be perfect all the time,” he said.
Carta-Samuels had to be perfect, but he wasn’t. A poor 7-on-7 performance caused him to tumble completely off the 11-player list completely.
But perfection is fickle.
“The next day I was perfect,” he said.
He reclaimed his spot and made the final coveted list into high school football’s most exclusive club.
“I was happy with the way I responded,” he said. “I was proud of myself for taking a bad situation and making it better.”
For Carta-Samuels, the exercise proved something to others that he already knew about himself. While Bellarmine’s run-oriented double-wing offense showcases one part of his game — his legs — events such as the Elite 11 showcase quite another.
“His greatest attribute is his arm,” Bellamine coach Mike Janda said.
Carta-Samuels is a complete player, one that Vanderbilt University will welcome in 2014. In Nashville, K.J. will have a chance to succeed his brother Austyn, this year’s projected Commodores’ starter.
It was Austyn who, in 2008, led Bellarmine to its first Central Coast Section championship in 18 years. The 21-0 victory over Valley Christian-San Jose in the Open Division championship culminated a 12-1 season and returned a program to the greatness it held in the 1980’s, when it annually ranked among the best in the state.
Austyn brought a flash to the Bells’ conservative offense, beating defenders around the edge just as easily as he could loft a deep touchdown pass.
But K.J. brings a different style: Smashmouth. The differences are physical — K.J. is noticeably stockier than his brother — and hereditary.
It wasn’t long ago that K.J., four years younger than Austyn, followed his big brother everywhere. Everything Austyn did, K.J. would want to do too. Everything Austyn wore, K.J. would want to wear too. And when Austyn brought his friends over to play basketball on the driveway hoop, K.J. would join too.
Take it easy on the little guy? Not a chance.
“They were the worst trash talkers ever,” K.J. recalls. “They’d go on a rampage and rub it in my face. I couldn’t take it anymore and I’d cry to my parents every time.”
“Not at all,” he said.
Today, K.J. is thankful for the hard lessons. After all, his style is just as gritty — a quarterback who runs inside as much as he throws.
K.J. was a team ballboy during Austyn’s years, intently following a team that featured tailback Usua Amanam, linebacker Michael Clay, and offensive lineman Kevin Danser.
The passage of time has proven the quality of that Bells team. Clay starred at Oregon and is a rookie with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, Amanam is a fifth-year defensive back at Stanford and Defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl, and Danser, also at Stanford, is on the watch list for the Outland Trophy as college football’s top interior lineman. Austyn adds to that excellence from his perch in the vaunted Southeastern Conference.
At Bellarmine, they took on the likes of Valley Christian running back Cameron Marshall (Arizona State; Miami Dolphins), Serra-San Mateo back De’Leon Eskridge (University of Minnesota, San Jose State), St. Francis-Mountain View tight end Rhett Ellison (USC; Minnesota Vikings), and Archbishop Mitty-San Jose tight end Anthony Miller (Cal). And that was just in West Catholic Athletic League play.
“It was insane to watch,” K.J. said. “There were so many playmakers in the WCAL back then. I’d sit in the stands with my Pop Warner pads on, still in my pants because I’d be rushing from practice.”
Until that time, K.J. wasn’t necessarily as passionate about the game as his brother, but those teams changed his thinking. K.J.’s destiny was all but sealed.
“I would never have imagined I’d be in the position I’m in now, topping his achievements,” K.J. said. “ I feel like I’ve gone through high school twice. I went through his years and then I had my years.”
But K.J.’s stardom — leading the Bells to a perfect season in the powerful WCAL and into the 2012 CCS Open final — was not as predictable as that of Austyn, who led the Bells to a 22-3 record as a starter.
“His role in my life is a real important one,” K.J. said, while sitting in the kitchen of his family’s Saratoga home. “He was my idol. He was my older brother. I always looked up to him. When he would find success, I would want to do the same.”
The foundation was largely established when Austyn began training under private coach Tom Martinez, best known for tutoring Tom Brady.
K.J. was in middle school when he first tagged along. Shortly after, he began taking lessons himself. Martinez was an expert on the technical side of passing — hand position, elbow angle, release point, follow through. Just as Brady continues to hear Martinez’s voice in his head when he makes a throw, Carta-Samuels does the same.
“He’d just grill you every time, yelling at you for whatever you forgot to do,” K.J. said. “I can still hear him saying, ‘Pee-yew, that stinks!’ Or, ‘That’s so bad it made an onion cry!’”
K.J. credits Martinez, who died of a heart attack while on dialysis on Feb. 12, 2012, with making him the quarterback he is today. Now, young players like Carta-Samuels will be the ones to carry Martinez’s legacy beyond the career of Brady.
Still, Carta-Samuels remained somewhat overlooked. He was not pulled up to varsity as a sophomore during the postseason and by no means had the quarterback position locked as a junior. But between his sophomore and junior seasons, Carta-Samuels matured physically while focusing more intensely on weight training.
“I just blew up,” Carta-Samuels said. “It came out of nowhere. I think I saw the potential, and that allowed me to grasp what I wanted to do and how hard I wanted to work for it.”
Carta-Samuels took his new-found strength and confidence on the camp and 7-on-7 circuit, attracting attention and committing to Vanderbilt before the summer was out — and before he’d even played in a varsity game. Having his brother there helped, but K.J. also was intent on finding a strong academic school with a big-time program that was far enough from home to satisfy his quest for adventure.
The camps and tournaments allowed him to showcase his arm in a way that Bellarmine’s offense won’t. Passing opportunities are limited and there is little sophistication when the Bells do throw.
“I just throw to whoever’s open,” K.J. said.
However, an emphasis on running also has its advantages.
“I’m a pretty big kid,” Carta-Samuels said. “The offense we run is a pretty good one for the type of body that I am. I run up the middle all the time; I’m going to take some hits. All that running will give me good preparation for college.”
The quarterback’s most memorable play for Bells’ coach Mike Janda was one that didn’t make the game story or result in a touchdown.
In the CCS Open semifinal with Serra, Bellarmine faced 3rd-and-9 at the Padres’ 12. Carta-Samuels went wide on a sweep keeper, but “they knew it was coming,” he said. “I just tried to lower my head and got hit with five yards to go, but somehow I got the first down.”
Janda described how Carta-Samuels “ran into a pile of Serra tacklers, and dragged them,” past the marker, while K.J. described the sensation akin to “Angels in the Outfield.”
“It was like someone was pushing me,” he said.
Last year, Bellarmine’s 11-2 season surprised many, including its quarterback.
“I didn’t know the type of season we would have,” Carta-Samuels said. “I did not think we could beat Serra twice. That was a shock to me. But it showed how much we worked to get to that point.”
The Bells’ season ended with a shocking 13-10 overtime loss to St. Ignatius-San Francisco in the CCS final. It was a team the Bells had beaten in league play on the road during an 11-game winning streak. The season included six games decided by six points or fewer.
Bellarmine carries a 15-game league-winning streak into 2013 – unheard of in this league. But Carta-Samuels said he is no closer to understanding what the Bells are capable of.
Carta-Samuels has proven himself among the elite. He has the title. Now, he wants a championship.
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