Former Rice football/track standout Sam McGuffie was named to the USA men's bobsled team. (Courtesy Molly Choma)

Explosive speed lets former Rice Owl Sam McGuffie fly with USA bobsled

Surely, you offer to Sam McGuffie, there has to be easier ways to keep the competitive juices flowing than trying to jump onto a moving sled going 70-something miles per hour.

“It’s hard,” the former Rice Owls football/track standout — and one of the newest members of the USA Men’s Bobsled National Team — recently told ASN. “But it’s more nerve-racking than anything. If you’re doing the wrong thing, you could be seriously injured.

“That’s the part that’s more nerve-racking than it is particularly difficult to learn. There’s lot of little things you can do to improve your time and stuff, but there are some things you must be sure that you do in order to get down the track safe and not injure yourself. Or others, like your teammates.”

Ya think?

“It’s all violent movements,” McGuffie continued. “Violent movement and having to explode it off the block in the initial movement and keep it going and make it go faster.

“There’s a lot of stuff to it. You have to have proper sliding position; you have to have a good loading (operation), which means you jump in the sled right and make sure you’re real low on the sled and don’t move around a lot.”

And hey: Once a speed freak, always a speed freak. Last month, McGuffie raised a few eyebrows when it was announced that he’d been named to the 15-member national bobsled team, a collective that included two other former NCAA football players in Nathan Gilsleider (Oklahoma State) and Hakeem Abdul-Saboor (Virginia).

One of the best athletes over the last decade to come out of Conference USA got the sled bug earlier this year from an old coach at Rice, Casey Thom, who suggested he might want to give it a shot. Nothing ventured …

“And I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try,’” recalled McGuffie, who hails from very unsnowy Cypress, Texas. “I was looking at different ways I could compete.”

Nor has he ever been afraid to forge his own path, from his days as a running back at Michigan to the 2,299 all-purpose yards he piled up as a do-everything threat for the Owls. A multi-sport ace who’d finished third in the heptathlon at the 2012 C-USA indoor meet, McGuffie always had the Olympics scribbled on his personal bucket list.

Just not the “winter” variety.

“Sports is sports; that’s what I was trying to tell somebody (the other day),” he said. “You’re going to prepare the same way you do anything. Even if it was a job, it was the same thing: You’ve got to prepare with a certain amount of professionalism in everything you do.”

When it comes to the sled game, where acceleration and power — explosive power — are the coin of the realm, football speed actually translates pretty darn well. A pair of former NFL stars, receiver Willie Gault and running back Herschel Walker, made the U.S. bobsled team in 1988 and 1992, respectively; the latter wound up finishing seventh in the two-man bobsled at Albertville, France.

Even at 26, McGuffie can still bring it, having posted a time of 3.56 seconds in the 30-meter sprint. He’s currently training as the fourth man on the sled, the brakeman, which means “I have to pull the brakes at the right time, or else you go flying off the embankment.”

Other than that, no pressure.

“There’s a bunch of little things you’ve got to do to know my position,” said McGuffie, the first Rice football player to collect 1,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 career receiving yards as a collegian. “But yeah, I mean you’re not going to know how to do it perfectly until you go down it a bunch, going down the sled, going down the track. There was a learning curve, for sure. There are a lot of things I haven’t learned. Just practice, practice, practice.”

If anything, the experience of tryout after tryout paralleled the path McGuffie took as an NFL rookie in the spring of 2013, all building toward the final hurdle: A series of races in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“You just go to (a) combine, and basically perform and do all the various combine events,” said McGuffie, who’d hopped around NFL practice squads with Oakland, Arizona and New England in 2013-’14 before a spell last fall with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. “And if you do well enough, they basically just pick you to go to the next round. And then you compete against other people, pushing the sled and this and that and then the next thing … and keep going until the team trials.”

McGuffie and his new teammates are in Germany for most of this month, training in advance of next week’s World Cup in Altenberg; the next major Cup events on U.S. soil are slated for January 5-9 at Lake Placid and January 11-16 in Park City, Utah.

“Every two weeks, there was another thing we had to do,” McGuffie said. “There were a lot of other veterans, a lot of other people doing it, and had done it for a while. So I had to learn pretty fast.”

Fast. And, in this case, on the fly.

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