The script for last week's football game between Amherst and Bowdoin couldn't have been written much better for Kevin Heller '12 and Mike Samela '12.
With Amherst holding a 13-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, Bowdoin dropped back to pass from its 10-yard line. Heller read the play perfectly, made a leaping interception along the right sideline and ran the ball down to the 4-yard line. Less than one minute later, Samela lined up at quarterback in the wildcat formation, read the defense and sprinted to his right toward the end zone, dodging two Bowdoin players for a touchdown that put the game out of reach.
Not bad for a couple of guys who didn't think they'd be playing football in college. It's not that they weren't good enough or didn't want to play. Samela was part of state championship teams at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., and earned All-Conference recognition as a standout quarterback. Heller earned All-City honors as a defensive back at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, N.Y.
But baseball was their first love. They both attended Yankees games as kids, albeit for very different reasons. Heller vividly remembers sitting on his dad's shoulders as he high-fived fellow New Yorkers in the subway station after Game 6 of the 1996 World Series. Samela—a diehard Red Sox fan—attended Yankees games only because he lived near the city and his friends were Yankees fans. (Needless to say, Samela doesn't recall high-fiving New Yorkers after Yankees wins.)
Samela was an All-State catcher at Staples and had an opportunity to play baseball for Division I schools. Heller helped lead Poly Prep to two state championships as a three-time All-League outfielder and considered playing baseball in the Ivy League. "During the summer before my senior year, I thought there was no chance I'd play football in college," Heller says. "As a senior I had a great bonding experience with my football teammates, and I decided I wasn't ready to give that up."
After Heller and Samela saw limited action as freshmen on Amherst's football team—as is the case with most freshmen—they were ready to make a difference on the diamond. They were both highly touted, but their introductions to collegiate baseball couldn't have been more different. Heller was named the NESCAC and ECAC Player of the Week after hitting .622 and slugging .946 during the team's 2009 Spring Break trip to Florida. He would finish the season with a .397 batting average as the conference's Rookie of the Year.
Samela earned the starting catching role as a freshman but lost it after hitting .129 with only one extra-base hit in Florida. He finished the season with a .163 batting average. "There were a lot of things wrong with my swing," Samela admits. "I had to get back the mentality that I had to earn my starting role."
It didn't take long for Samela to get back to form. As a sophomore he recorded the second highest slugging percentage in program history (.753) and became the school's first player to hit five doubles, five triples and five home runs in a season. Last year he hit .383 and was named NESCAC Player of the Year—another program first. He is regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in New England across all divisions.
Heller, meanwhile, has been cruising along since day one. He has hit at least .330 and slugged at least .550 in each of his first three seasons. He is on pace to break the school's career records for hits, home runs, runs scored and runs batted in. During a 2011 NESCAC Championship elimination game against Middlebury, he broke a 3-3 tie with a no-doubt-about-it grand slam in the eighth inning—one of his fondest memories at Amherst and a mere sample of his outstanding performances.
Major League Baseball teams began noticing Heller and Samela after Amherst's 2011 season, but it was the success they saw this past summer while facing Division I pitchers in prestigious wood-bat leagues that really turned heads. In his second game with the Vermont Mountaineers of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, Samela went 4-for-4 with two home runs. "I've always thought I could play with kids I knew from high school who played Division I or got drafted," Samela says. "To see success against some of the top players in the country was great reassurance."
Heller was named the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League's MVP, an incredible accomplishment for a Division III player. He hit .319 and led the ACBL in home runs, slugging percentage and runs scored. His 11 homers marked a new league record and helped the Westhampton Aviators win the Hampton Division title. "To play at the same level as guys who go to schools like Duke and Stanford was awesome," Heller says. "Simply being out there meant a lot to me. It's hard to put into words."
Amherst baseball head coach Brian Hamm has been contacted by MLB teams interested in both Heller and Samela. There is a legitimate chance both could be selected in the June Amateur Draft, which hasn't happened for an Amherst player since 2000. "Kevin and Mike have worked hard during the past three years to develop themselves into complete players at the college level," Hamm says. "Their success this summer against the best college players in the country shows that they have the ability to perform at the next level after they graduate."
Heller and Samela have talked about playing baseball after Amherst since they were freshmen. Over the years the conversations have evolved with their friendship and the reality of the situation. "It's nice to have someone to talk to while our friends are talking about Morgan Stanley," Heller says. "I'm there for him, and he's there for me. We're in it together."
Their admiration of each other's work ethic has pushed them at Amherst. Samela says Heller's infectious passion makes him easy to follow and is the reason so many people respect him. Heller admires how Samela shows up to practice before everyone and stays late in order to improve. "We absolutely feed off each other," says Heller. "We're very competitive when we're together, but only because we want each other to succeed."
Their friendship and respect for one another made last week's fourth-quarter sequence against Bowdoin truly special. After Samela's touchdown, they hugged on the sideline and laughed about the situation. "It was a really special moment for both of us," Heller says. "It was something I'll never forget. Mike has both hit a home run and scored a touchdown for Amherst, and not many people can say that. Hopefully my time will come."
Heller and Samela humbly acknowledge that there's a chance they won't get drafted in June. They know a lot can happen in a year, and at the moment they're doing all they can to help the football team win a NESCAC title. Heller gets better every day and has become an exceptional free safety. His interception against Bowdoin was executed nearly to perfection. (Though head coach E.J. Mills gave him grief for not making it into the end zone.)
Samela, meanwhile, seems to be doing everything right for Amherst these days, from blocking to scoring touchdowns and everything in between. "There are so many ways in which Mike has helped us win," Mills says. "Very good things happen when the ball is in his hands. He and Kevin are playing great football, and I anticipate nothing else as we move forward." (Again, not bad for guys who didn't plan on playing football in college.)
Heller and Samela have only six football games left to play, but their baseball careers have no end in sight. They have one more season to challenge the Amherst record books and draw the attention of MLB teams. If all goes well, maybe the Yankees will pick Heller and the Red Sox will take Samela. Maybe they'll play against each other down the line and reminisce about the touchdowns they scored and the home runs they hit as teammates.
Or, if their childhood is any indication, maybe they'll both wind up playing for the Yankees. Even Samela would be okay with that.