Skip to main content


Father Knew Best: Karlos Dansby wouldn't be where he is today without his dad



BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Karlos Dansby didn't say a word as he stalked the sidelines of Arkansas' Razorback Stadium. Boos rained down on the Auburn linebacker, but nothing fazed Dansby at this moment.

One, two, three, four. Dansby walked steady laps around the field hours before the Tigers' biggest game of the season to date as jeers morphed into an uneasy puzzlement. Dansby tuned it all out. He was following his father Samuel's advice to a T, and, just like it always had, it was working.

"You confuse your enemy when you get quiet," Samuel said.

Five, six, seven. Karlos stopped dead in his tracks and looked to his left and right before unleashing a primal scream.

Samuel nodded with confidence.

"Mark your territory, don't say nothing," Samuel said. "If he would mark his territory and shout, they'd win that ballgame."

With Auburn clinging to 10-3 lead, Karlos made his seventh and final tackle when it mattered most. On fourth-and-8 inside the Tigers' 40-yard line, Dansby blew through the line of scrimmage and dropped quarterback Matt Jones for a 5-yard loss to clinch the victory.

The moment not only foreshadowed what was to come in Karlos' football career, but symbolized the everlasting bond between the coach-turned-preacher and his star athlete son.

"I always knew he would do something great," Samuel said. "I always taught him to expect something great to happen. In a football game, before the fourth quarter is over, something big or something great would happen."

Samuel's head didn't move an inch. He wasn't a gambling man, but he knew a bluff when he heard it.

Karlos was a gifted, two-sport athlete on a terrible football team and an elite basketball team. As Karlos prepared for his senior year at Woodlawn High, an inner-city school set in the center of the hardscrabble Woodlawn neighborhood four miles east of downtown Birmingham, his mind wandered.

What if I had more money to buy fancier clothes? How good would I be if I only played basketball?

Leaving football behind, to Karlos, seemed like the logical play. He was confident enough to approach his father, who bought Karlos' first set of football pads under the condition he wouldn't quit.

"Give me one good reason why," Samuel said.

Karlos stammered as Samuel shut down both of his initial reasons.

Even if he wanted more, Karlos had all the clothes and money he needed. And as far as focusing on one sport? No boy of Samuel's -- either by blood or surrogate -- would be forced to specialize while he was still in high school.

"As a coach, you don't want to restrict kids," Samuel said, "because you don't know where the blessing was coming from."

Karlos had no reason to lose faith in his father's decision-making now.

It was Samuel who encouraged him to trade pick-up, backyard football for a much more structured setting. It was Samuel who would come down from the bleachers and inspire confidence in his son when his nerves were rattled enough to make him sick. It was Samuel who surrounded Karlos with children of all ages who grew up in far worse circumstances, making him appreciate even more what he had inside the walls of his home.

And it's Samuel, to this day, who continues to inspire Karlos with daily phone calls and blessings that help guide the Browns' veteran linebacker as he embarks on his 12th NFL season.

"He has a special gift that's phenomenal," Karlos said. "He's been doing it for over 30 years now. That's what really opened the door to me to have faith in myself and believe I can do whatever it is I can do."

Uncle Kent was the father figure Samuel didn't have.

Samuel grew up in Birmingham's Avondale neighborhood, an area that is now one of the city's hottest locations for restaurants, bars and coffee shops. When Samuel was a child, though, it was one of the city's roughest with a bevy of "shot houses, violence and neglect," Samuel said. The vast majority of his friends didn't have their fathers involved in their everyday life.

It could have been a vicious cycle, but Kent was there to provide food when Samuel needed food, sports equipment when the seasons changed and a pat on the back when he was feeling low. Kent started a baseball team for Samuel and 11 of his friends, a group that stuck together for years and remains close to this day.

It set Samuel on a journey that wouldn't have happened without these resources, as he played multiple sports on scholarship at Lawson State junior college and Alabama A&M. He vowed to do the same not just for his children, but others who faced similarly tough circumstances.

"You have to stir up a gift in children and know you're wired for success, born to win," Samuel said. "When you encourage that, it will come forward. I always tell them, there's a king in every man. You just have to speak to him and draw him out. Greatness is there, you just have to speak to it and draw it out."

After college and a brief fling with professional baseball, Samuel returned to Birmingham and became a preacher because that's what Dansby's do. Two of his brothers and two of his sisters are preachers. Some cousins, too.

When Karlos, the youngest of three children, was born, the Dansby's lived just down the street from Woodlawn High. A few years later, the family moved into an apartment in a nicer part of town. On Sundays, though, Samuel would take Karlos and his siblings to the Collegeville neighborhood, an area of town that closely resembled what Samuel experienced as a child.

Sick of "sitting in church with a tie on while the people outside of the church were being destroyed," Samuel would take his children to the Collegeville Community Center on Sundays. He'd arrive at 10 a.m., open the gym and preach to the children as they ate free Happy Meals that Samuel used his own money to purchase. Afterward, they'd spend hours playing basketball, football, baseball or softball.

"I was in a meeting with about 60 kids. I said how many of you guys live with your father? Three hands went up and two of the kids were mine," Samuel said. "My purpose in the community is to go in and be a surrogate father.

"They respond to that and a lot of time that's what they're looking for."

The weekly gathering was known as "Bibles and Balls." It began as an eyeopening experience for Karlos and became a staple of his upbringing.

"I'm glad my dad was called to do that," Karlos said. "It opened so many doors and saved so many lives."

To this day, Karlos can't explain it.

He was a dominant athlete on a dominant pee-wee football team, yet his nerves would kick into overdrive before every single game. For a while, both Karlos and his friend Remus would spend the hours before games vomiting and crying. It became a routine that ultimately ended with Samuel coming down from the bleachers to give the boys a pep talk that tapped more into Samuel's coaching side than the preacher in him.

"I'd get those helmets and make sure they understood we won't allow fear to take over," Samuel said. "When you're raising sons, you can't let fear take over them. You have to encourage them and push them past the fear."

The fear was gone when Karlos stepped between the white lines. He played with reckless abandon on both sides of the ball. Even against older boys, it wasn't fair.

By the time Karlos was a teenager, the nerves had disappeared. It morphed into a competitive fire that would burn even when he was playing video games by himself.

By then, he'd fully realized just how special of an athlete he was.

"I was glad I had him there to get me going and let me know I was going to be all right. If he wasn't there, it would have been an issue," Karlos said. "I don't think I would have been able to get to this point that I'm in right now. Him instilling faith in myself and me believing in myself that I could get it done."

Not even a player as talented as Karlos could rescue Woodlawn High's football team. As a sophomore and junior, Karlos, who primarily starred as a wide receiver, experienced back-to-back 2-8 seasons. Like the Cavs in this year's NBA Finals, there just weren't enough bodies for sustained success.

The losing got to Karlos. So did a few outside voices who implored him to focus on basketball even though he hadn't received much interest from colleges in his talents on the hardwood.

After his heart-to-heart with Samuel convinced him to stay the course, Dansby delivered with a season that ended with more losses than wins, but saw him earn all-state honors and a scholarship offer to some of the nation's top programs. He chose Auburn and closed out his high school career with a boys basketball state championship.

"That's when I knew this was it," Karlos said. "I can do this and go to the next level."

The son of a preacher carries certain responsibilities and duties as he grows up inside a church's walls. Every now and again, Karlos would be called upon to deliver a speech to the congregation.

To put it lightly, the experience was traumatizing. Think what happened before his pee-wee football games, only with hundreds of people watching the tears stream down his face.

"I wouldn't let him walk off the stage," Samuel said. "I'd come up and lead him through it. To see him stand before a camera now and handle a mic, it's amazing."

Anytime leadership comes up in conversation, Karlos is quick to reference a slew of prominent players he's played with throughout his college and NFL career. He was a "sponge" with them, absorbing anything and everything they passed along to him.

At Auburn, it was decorated offensive lineman Kendall Simmons -- a regular sparring partner of his when he was on the scout team during his redshirt season -- who showed Dansby the necessary work ethic and attitude required for success and sustainability. He took those lessons to heart and eventually emerged as the Alpha Dog leader in the heart of Auburn's defense.

In Arizona, which selected Dansby with the first pick in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft, it was Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, running back Edgerrin James, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and quarterback Kurt Warner. With Miami, where Dansby played from 2010-2012, it was future Hall of Fame defensive lineman Jason Taylor.

Now, when Browns players talk about the leaders who inspire them and give them advice they'll be able to pass along to the younger players who follow them, it's Karlos Dansby.

"When you know you have that kind of gift, it humbles you," Karlos said. "They don't have to say anything but I know they look forward to me encouraging them and motivating them to be the best they can possibly be. That's what I try to do. I try to do it with actions and use my actions.

"When people sit down and talk to me, they understand and they can feel it. I don't have to say anything. They feel the energy."

The words aren't hollow. At 33, Dansby hasn't shown any signs of slowing off the 100-tackle-per-season pace he's posted through the first 11 years of his career.

Dansby, in his first season with the Browns, was on the path to his first long overdue Pro Bowl invitation when he went down with a knee injury in November 2014 that kept him out of four games. He remained an integral part of the team even while he couldn't participate, as he made the trip, stood on the sidelines and delivered non-stop encouragement throughout the Browns' dramatic win at Atlanta. Even with the Browns' playoff hopes on life support, Dansby returned for the final two games and combined for 20 tackles.

Dansby's keys to longevity center on his ability to "evolve."

"I tell my guys all the time, if you want to play in the league as long as this guy, take stock in what he does," Browns inside linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach said. "He takes unbelievable care of his body with sleep, nutrition, time in the weight room and he still practices like a rookie. When we hit the sled, which we do every day, I say ''Los if you don't want to hit it ...' and he says 'coach, I got to hit it.'

"To me, he's the perfect leader."

Early last season, the Browns placed a small microphone inside Dansby's jersey to make sure he was making all of the right calls while he directed the team's 3-4 defense. As he reflected on it months later, Driesbach called it an "eye-opener" for the Browns coaching staff as they not only discovered Dansby had a firm handle on yet another new defense he was tasked to learn, but also the way he talked to the players around him.

There was purpose behind everything that came out of his mouth.

"I think it comes through in his leadership," Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "He's chatty but he's not a yeller. It's rare when what he's saying is negative. You don't see that. If he's got to say stuff, it's not derogatory in any sense. It's usually uplifting.

"The common thing that came back was positive energy. This guy brings a lot of positive energy."

The doors open, and Samuel is swarmed. He can barely move as 60 or so children leave their trays of food and gravitate toward him as he walks through the cafeteria.

Samuel has resumed life as a pastor at New Bethlehem Baptist Church in the same Collegeville neighborhood where he preached from a gymnasium. He also volunteers at a community center in nearby Leeds, where impoverished children of all ages flock for a day full of recreation, meals and, simply put, structure.

On a hot and swampy Tuesday earlier this month, Samuel stood in the center of the same gymnasium that NBA legend Charles Barkley played in as a middle schooler, leading a teenage boy one-on-one through a variety of dribbling and shooting drills.

"I treat these kids I work with just like I treat my own," Samuel said. "I love you when you need loving, I'll check you when you need checking. They respond to that and a lot of time that's what they're looking for."

Karlos applies that philosophy with his own children, Karlos Jr. and Kameron Martez, who reside in Florida but visit with their father constantly throughout the season. Karlos prays with them every night, just like he does with Samuel, who calls every day. Before games, Karlos isn't nervous like he used to be, but Samuel's words of encouragement have remained a constant.

Samuel was in attendance for the Browns' historic comeback at Tennessee last season and made the short drive over to Atlanta to see another Cleveland victory. He was Karlos' plus-one at the Browns' annual Christmas party.

"It helps him to stay level," Samuel said. "I'm not a fan, I'm his daddy. I tell him the truth. I won't brush him up or puff him up. I'll tell him the truth."

Karlos doesn't hide from the truth when it comes to life after football. He's already worked extensively with less fortunate children through his "Difference Makers" program and expects to be following in his father's footsteps because he knows he has "the gift" to preach.

"You've got this force that keeps pulling you and pulling you and pulling you. I know that's what God is doing to me," Karlos said. "He's pulling me, pulling me and using me and he's working on getting me ready.

"I've got that gift, I know I have it and I know there's a lot of power that comes with it so I have to use it wisely."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content