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Sam has soccer

Story of survival makes Barlow High senior a finalist for national scholarship
by: Jim Clark Sam Porter was named the Mount Hood Conference Player of the Year and earned all-state honors during her senior season as a defender with Barlow High.

The mother, her 17-year-old daughter and the girl's soccer coach sit on three wooden chairs around a dining room table. It's the last pieces of furniture that remain in the dark and nearly empty home that sold two months ago.

A single light fixture hangs above the three of them, its glow the only thing illuminating the nearly empty room - well, that, and the memories they're rehashing.

Sam remembers her father, Phil Porter, calling a couple weeks ago, saying that if he every had to have somebody take care of him again, then he was going to kill himself.

With her trademark comforting and support, Sam was there, reassuring her father that she loved him.

Sally Tapanen looks at her daughter through eyes growing heavy with tears.

Sam's coach, Jason Hubert, takes it in with his trademark stoicism. As her coach, a Portland police officer and a father figure for the past year and a half, he is one of the only people Sam feels comfortable sharing such dark moments with.

So he's heard this story before.

'If you can't get a hold of your mom, I want you to call me,' the coach says, looking directly at Sam, reassuring her that she has someone else to lean on.

Since Jason started coaching Sam, the two have forged a bond that's allowed Sam to blossom. Shy and usually unwilling to talk about her home life, Sam now turns to her coach when faced with something like a terrifying phone call.

Jason may hear the stories, but Sally's lived them alongside her daughter.

She was there to consol Sam, who read his letters from jail filled with promises he'd never keep.

And then there was his accident, which left him paralyzed.

Yet, through it all, there's something else both mother and coach have seen: Sam's strength.

With Sam, actions speak louder than words - and that's as true in soccer as it is in life.

'She's so deceiving,' Jason says with a smirk.

She's quiet but confident. Shy but fierce.

At 5-foot-2 and 118 pounds soaking wet, she doesn't look like an athlete, but her Mount Hood Conference Player of the Year honor from this season proves the girl can play. Off the field Sam is an honor student status and a budding missionary. In her spare time, she makes care packages for military service personnel and their families and coaches peewee soccer.

'Sam is a player who coaches get only once in the span of their coaching career,' Jason says. 'Teams that don't know who she is, they're going to be totally shocked.'

That's nothing new for Sam. She's spent her life surprising people.

Instead of being swallowed by family disfunction, Sam has found a different escape.

That's because life's hardest moments have forged a steely drive Sam channels into her game.

Looking at Sam with the kind of pride he has for each of his own children, Jason says, 'This girl has had every reason to quit but hasn't.'

****

Sally and Phil met in 1987 through Alcoholics Anonymous. Phil chauffeured individuals in treatment to the meetings, and Sally was one of his stops. They dated for four years before Samantha Lee Porter was born Feb. 6, 1994.

For the next three years, it was family life at its idyllic best. Phil was a model father, and Sally says, 'He did 70 percent of the care of Sam.' So, in 1997 the couple eloped.

On the day video poker became legal in the state of Oregon, Phil went out to try his luck.

He didn't come home.

This scene replayed for months. Phil bounced from bar to bar while Sally took 4-year-old Sam on all-night trips looking for him.

Following failed treatment for her husband's gambling addiction, Sally had enough. Just 11 months after they wed she left her husband.

Phil became depressed … deeply depressed. Despite more than 10 years of sobriety, he started drinking again, and through the downward spiral emerged a violent, verbally abusive side.

One night it culminated in a call to Sally, threatening to kill her.

With Sam, 5, spending the night at her aunt's house, Sally - frantic and alone - called the police.

But, they couldn't help her.

Phil kept calling.

'I'm going to be there in five minutes,' he said. 'I'm going to be there in four minutes. I'm going to be there in three minutes.'

Finally, Phil arrived and started to break down the front door.

Sally locked herself in her bedroom. Frightened, defenseless and fearing she might die, Sally grabbed her lighter. If she started a fire, it would force the fire department to come.

As she fumbled with the lighter, she could hear the thuds of Phil trying to kick down the door. 'I could hear him outside saying that he was going to kill me,' Sally says.

Just as Phil was about to break through, police arrived and apprehended him.

He spent more than six months in Inverness Jail. It would be the first of six trips to jail for Phil.

Sally didn't tell Sam what happened that night. Or about the countless other events that transpired over the next decade. She wanted to protect her daughter.

****

With Sam's father in and out of jail, her mother sought out a healthy outlet for the girl's energy.

They tried dancing. They tried gymnastics. Then, they tried soccer.

With her small stature and ponytail flying, 7-year-old Sam surprised everyone by scoring four goals in her first game, leaving the coaches giddy over their new ringer.

Sam took off in the sport. She went from playing in a recreational league in Damascus to Eastside United Club in Gresham to a club team in Beaverton and eventually was selected to the Oregon Olympic Development team.

Phil rarely saw Sam play. When he wasn't in jail, he was traveling, often to far-away places like the Caribbean.

Sam was trading her tears for sweat that she left on the field.

'Soccer's always been there for me,' Sam says. 'That's the one stable things that's always been there in my life. I don't have to worry about soccer going away because I can play soccer any time I want.

'It's given me a place to take out my anger and forget about everything that's going on in my life.'

Her commitment to soccer was therapeutic.

Sam never shared her story with the child therapists that Sally took her to see.

'I didn't like to talk about things that were going on,' Sam says.

But with a ball at her feet, Sam was finding joy.

****

Lynn Hollenbeck had been the girls head soccer coach at Sandy High School for seven years. She knew when a player had talent.

'Sam's going to get player of the year when she's a senior,' she said.

'No way, they never give it to defenders,' Sally said.

'Mark my words, she's gonna get it,' Lynn said.

Lynn had shifted from the sidelines to the bleachers, and was now a team mom, watching her daughter, Shelby, who was a teammate of Sam.

'She was just such an outstanding player,' Lynn says. 'She came on with such talent. She probably has the D-I potential you don't see around here too often.'

Sam was one of the youngest - and definitely the smallest - players, but there she was, taking on the biggest girls, racing past opponents, blindsiding everybody.

'People don't expect that when she runs out there,' Sally says.

People around Sam were noticing this young girl who couldn't be overlooked despite her small stature.

'She understands what she has to do, and she gets it done,' says her coach Jason. 'She doesn't complain. She doesn't make a fuss. She doesn't make a face.

'She just gets it done. You give her a task and she goes and does it, perfectly.'

She was developing into a remarkable player, but few knew that it had become an escape for Sam.

****

Sally remarried when Sam was in seventh grade. They moved out of their Rockwood apartment and into their current house just a stone's throw from Barlow High.

Sam's new stepfather became a stable, reliable male figure in her turbulent life.

Soon after moving into the new house, however, Sam faced yet another struggle. Sally and her husband divorced, and Sam saw her newfound stability crumbling.

'That affected me a lot,' Sam says.

A few months after the divorce, Sally got a call from a Portland hospital. It was about Phil.

Now homeless, he was sprinting through the woods to catch a bus when he slipped on a mossy stump. He fell and hit his head on a fence post, the impact crushed his spine, he said.

A stranger heard the fall, saw Phil motionless and called an ambulance.

The news was unthinkable - except to Sally. The years of Phil's self-inflicted abuse made her prepared for almost any phone call.

'I was shocked, but I wasn't surprised,' Sally says.

Sally waited until Sam got home from school the next day to break the news to her.

When Sally told Sam what had happened, Sam was terrified.

Sally was prepared for this - Sam was not.

It had been a couple of months since Sam, 16, had seen her dad, which was nothing new. Often she would not see him for long periods of time, and when she finally did, he always seemed like a different person.

But when her mom told her what happened Sam wanted to see him, immediately.

'That's huge hearing that your dad is paralyzed,' she says. 'And to see my dad like that was so scary.'

'It was a pretty emotional visit,' Phil, now a Vancouver, Wash., resident, says. 'I know it scared Samantha pretty bad.'

But the darkest times are when Sam shines brightest.

****

Of all the stories Sam's coach could tell about her, one encompasses her spirit.

Sam is one of the only girls on the team with a car, so every day she'll chauffeur some of her teammates to practice.

'I don't ask her to,' Jason says. 'She just does it.'

But one day she couldn't because she knew she didn't have enough gas to get to practice. She didn't want to ask her mom for money - even though Sam had been driving her white 1998 Cadillac Seville STS with the fuel gage on empty for a couple of days. So she called her teammates to let them know she wouldn't be able to pick them up.

'That's when I started to cry because that was really hard,' Sam says. 'I felt so bad, and I felt I was being unreliable.'

Sam called her friend and teammate, Kayley King, for a ride. When Sam got to practice, her coach could tell something was wrong. He's learned to read Sam, even when she tries to act like everything is fine.

'Sam, what's wrong?' Jason asked.

Teary-eyed, Sam replied, 'I don't want to talk about it.'

Coach let it go - but could see that Sam couldn't.

'Fifteen minutes later, I can tell she's not focused,' he says. 'She's not the leader she usually is every day.'

So he pressed a little harder, but Sam remained tight-lipped.

'Tell me,' he pleaded.

Reluctantly, Sam told her coach what happened.

She was doing the coach a favor by driving her teammates, so he offered her $50 for helping him out. She refused to take the money. Jason kept offering, but Sam remained stubborn.

As Sam ran back to the drill, the coach slipped the money in her bag. She didn't find it until she got home but texted him to say thanks.

'That's how she is,' Jason says. 'She doesn't want help. She doesn't need help. That's just how Sam is. She would literally give you the shirt off her back.'

****

After Phil's accident, Sam was there to help him. During his two months in the hospital, Sam came by to keep him company and lend him a hand.

Meanwhile, Phil was having trouble coming to grips with his new reality.

'It was pretty scary for me because in that first month I didn't want to live,' he says.

But Sam's care gave him reason to live.

She visited after he was transferred to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. He then moved into an assisted living home in Vancouver, Wash., making it easier for Sam to see him.

Five months after the accident, Phil had regained the use of his upper body and could walk for short spurts with a walker. So he and Sam would take walks around the block - Sam rolling along in his wheelchair with Phil pushing along with the walker.

'Those were some of the better times,' Sam says.

The building blocks were forming in what had been an estranged relationship. Sam was willing to put in the effort during Phil's tough time, if for no other reason than he's her dad and she still loves him.

'Sam looks for the weaker people, in life and also on the soccer field, and she tends to bring herself to them and makes them better,' her coach says. 'She'll find those weak links and make them better. She doesn't even know she's doing it. I just think she does it. It's some gift (Sam) has. I wish I had it.'

****

Sam struggled through her first two years at Barlow High, searching for acceptance and a sense of belonging.

She found her self-esteem in soccer, but the sport couldn't always be there.

'I was looking for a place to belong,' Sam says. 'I could feel that I was looking for someone to accept me.'

Her boyfriend at the time came from a family that was devoutly Christian. Every time she stepped into their home, she could see the love between them. She could feel their bond, feel their care, and feel that they were there for each other. It's what she had been searching for.

Sam started attending Good Shepherd Community Church during her sophomore year.

'The first time I went, I felt so much love, and I could just feel that this is where I belong,' Sam says. 'To see that whole family of siblings, parents, to see how they function was so awesome. My whole life changed. I just feel that I've changed as a person, and that's where I felt that I gained a lot of confidence. And I changed as a player on the field, too.'

Sam had always been one of the better players on her soccer teams, but she never saw herself as a leader. The summer before her junior year, she went on a short-term mission trip to an Indian reservation in Browning, Mont. Surrounded by young children affected by crime, abuse, alcoholism and drug use, Sam was seen as a guiding light.

'I was a leader to these little kids, and that's something that was new to me,' Sam says. 'It changed me, and it just changed the way I interacted with people, and it changed me on the soccer field. In the way that I knew I could lead other new players on the team.'

The girl who seemed indestructible was now stronger than ever. The difference: Now she had confidence and the belief that a different father was taking care of her.

'You give this girl confidence, and she'll be out there taking over the world,' Jason says.

***

A few boxes are scattered around the house they must move out of by the end of the weekend.

Sam and Sally start packing up their kitchen, hoping to make some progress before it gets too late. Sally, who's living with her boyfriend, has an hour-long drive to get home. In order to stay at Barlow, Sam is living with a friend's family. They say the situation is hard on them, but they still manage to see each other about twice a week.

Sam is still receiving scholarship offers from universities and will be playing college soccer come next fall. Her choice will come down to the school that can offer her the best scholarship and financial aid. She knows it won't pay for everything, but it's a start.

She's trying to piece together the remains of a tattered relationship with her father. This season he came to a couple of her games for the first time in three years. While important to Sam, it wasn't quite what she had hoped for.

She was constantly looking toward the sideline, trying to spot him in his wheelchair. Just before halftime he arrived. He was gone before Sam could see him after the game.

There's also the occasional late night phone call, which forces Sam to face the demons that her father still brings into her life.

'Right now we have a pretty good relationship,' Sam says. 'I'm in a place in my life where I can forgive him and still love him even when it's hard.'

'There's a lot that I regret,' Phil says. 'But the times that I've been here and watched her play, I'm just so proud of her, its unbelievable. When I was her age, I was nothing like her. She's so well-rounded.'

Her final season at Barlow began by being chosen as team captain and ended by being selected first-team all-state and becoming the first defender in 12 years to be named the conference player of the year.

'I can literally say that she'd probably be on the wrong path if it wasn't for soccer,' Jason says. 'It's obviously an outlet. Some people drink. Some people do drugs. Sam has soccer.'

HOW TO VOTE FOR SAM...

• Sam Porter's inspirational story and the heart she brings to the game of soccer have allowed her to be nominated for the Inspireum Soccer Award. Out of 250 entrees from around the country, Sam is one of 12 remaining finalists. Inspireum will award academic scholarships totaling $25,000 provided by the Trusted Sports Foundation. Each of the 12 finalists receives a minimum scholarship of $1000. The winner will receive a $7,500 academic scholarship. Three runners up will receive $2,500 scholarships, and both a female and mal Fan Favorite selected by the public will receive a $1,500 scholarship.

People can show their support for Sam by voting through Jan. 2 at www.InspireumSoccerAwards.com . From there, click on finalists in the top, right-hard corner, and then select Sam. On her page you can read comments people have written about Sam, as well as feature stories that have been written about her.

The final results will be announced Jan 3, 2012, and the winner will be named on Jan. 14.