Janurary, 31st. 2023. It’s a date that coach Danny Sams will never forget. It is the exact date when coach Sams learned he would be getting a new pair of lungs which would save his life. Coach Danny Sams was a coach at East Ridge High during the teams early days and also coached with South Lake High School where he coached junior varsity football. While he was coaching, he became good friends with current East Ridge Head Football Coach Donnie Burchfield.
If you ever saw coach Sams out on the field, you would never have thought anything was wrong with him. However, as time began to go by, he found it increasingly harder to breathe. Little did coach Sams know that within just a few short months he would be battling for his life. Before we get there, we need to rewind to February of 2021 the date that coach Danny Sams was originally diagnosed with a life changing disease called Pulmonary Fibrosis.
(Danny Sams has been involved with coaching for over two decades. He was a part of the historic Merritt Island 1972 Football team that would go 13-0 and win a state championship. This photo was taken around 2021 right after coach Sams was diagnosed.)
Pulmonary Fibrosis is a lung disease that occurs when lung tissue becomes damaged or scared. The thickened, stiff tissue makes it more difficult for your lungs to work properly and makes you short of breath. The disease gets worse over time and eventually prevents a person from breathing properly resulting in death. As coach Sams sat in the doctor’s office that day, he was told that he only had at most 3 to 5 years to live.
It was a shocking revelation for coach Sams. As soon as he was given that diagnosis, he had to process the information. Most people have never been in a position such as this and for coach Sams he needed time to collect himself. The only person who knew at that time that he had the disease was his wife, Kim. It would go on like that for months before people began to see coach Sams using an oxygen bottle.
(The East Ridge Football Team surrounds coach Sams who is seated here in the middle with a mask on, with love every day.)
During this time coach Sams had developed a close relationship to Donnie Birchfield. Coach Birchfield was an Intirm head coach at South Lake High School and Coach Sams was the coach of the JV team. Together they developed a close bond and looked out for one another. If coach Sams needed help, coach Birchfield would take the time to explain things to him and vice versa.
In the Spring of 2022 coach Sams encouraged coach Birchfield to go out and get the South Lake High School head coaching position that became available. Unfortunately, coach Birchfield was unable to get the position with South Lake High School, but another avenue opened up to him in the Spring of 2022. East Ridge High in Clermont was looking for a new head football coach so Donnie Birchfield applied.
Donnie invited Danny to breakfast one morning. The two had nicknames for one another. Donnie was Bulldog and Danny was Gator as the two had ties to Georgia and UF. Even today they still use the nicknames. Donnie said, “Gator, I just wanted you to know that I got the job at East Ridge High as their head football coach.” Danny was so happy for his friend. He knew it was an amazing opportunity that he couldn’t pass up.
Coach Birchfield then asked Danny Sams who was on oxygen at this point “Gator I want to offer you a coaching position at East Ridge.” Coach Sams had decided that the only way he was ever going to coach again was if it was for coach Birchfield. It would be at least a few more months if not a year before a double lung replacement was necessary so coach Sams accepted the offer. The two embraced and embarked upon a journey together at East Ridge High School.
What happened next was truly remarkable. Coach Sams would show up to practice each and every day with an oxygen tank. He would help every way he possibly could. He was a motivational coach and was able to assist with drills to a limited extent. While this was all going on, coach Sams continued to visit doctors as the disease was getting worse.
(Coach Danny Sams was part of the historic 1972 Merritt Island High Football team who went 13-0. He is located on the third level up on the far left wearing #15.)
Coach Sams learned that when a time came for a donor, the surgery would be eleven and a half hours! He also had fears because a person very close to him had a double lung replacement and that person did not make it out of the hospital. But he was reassured that the person in question had other lingering health issues. Coach Sams was in decent shape but needed to lose approximately 50lbs in order to have the surgery. Otherwise, it was a no go.
Coach Sams was determined to survive. He said “I am not afraid to die. I have the lord on my side and when that day comes, I will be ready. But I was not ready to die yet, I felt like I had unfinished business in this world, and I was going to make darn sure I was around for a while longer.”
Coach Sams was 5”10 and weighted 250lbs. He had to get down to 189lbs in order to have the surgery. So coach Sams along with his oxygen bottle would done a full long sleeve sweat shirt and pants. He had a treadmill in his garage and the garage was not air conditioned. He would go out in the garage and walk until all his clothing was dripping in sweat. So much that you could ring it out after he was done. He would do this every day and while the progress of losing weight was slow, it began to have an effect.
Coach Sams says that he is bad at dieting but that the exercise worked. So, he kept at it and a few months before the surgery he hit his goal of where he needed to be at which was right around 190lbs. It took coach Sams about 1 year to lose that weight “When you are facing death it’s scary, but the doctors know what they are doing.” said Sams.
(Coach Sams never wanted photos taken of him with his oxygen on. No known photos of him exist on the field with it but here is a recent photo of Sams on the field during warmups in the gray shirt with no oxygen and with donated lungs. Absolutely incredible.)
During Pulmonary Fibrosis the surgery is not done until it is deemed necessary. There is a small 3-month gap in which it can happen. Doctors try and hit that exact mark by monitoring patients. In coach Sams case, that gap began in December of 2022 and went for a few months. At this point coach Sams could barely walk long distances. The time was nearing. Each day that went by was nerve-racking. Coach Sams never gave up hope for a donor, but as time went on his window of opportunity was narrowing.
“I had so much support during this time from the kids and the coaches and family. It took me a good 3 to 6 months to tell my family what was happening. I had to process it myself and that took time. But the love I received from everyone was more than I could ever thank them for.” With time now becoming a factor and having heard nothing for months, that would all change as the phone would ring and Danny’s life was about to change forever.
February 1st, 2023, A Donor Is Found.
Danny Sams gets a call from a nurse up in Gainseville at UF Medical Center. She simply ushered the words… “We found a match. We need you to get to UF Gainesville right away.” Just like that, coach Sams was on his way to the hospital with his wife Kim. At that moment coach Sams thought to himself if he was truly ready for this. The recovery would be brutal and there was no guarantee he would ever be the same let alone walk out of the hospital under his own power. But he knew it was his only chance at survival and he knew he had the best team in the world at UF Health.
For Danny Sams he knew he was not going into the surgery alone “I knew I was not going to be alone because the Holy Spirit wrapped his hands around me and I knew everything was going to be fine. It was not physical, and I did not actually feel it in a physical way, but I just felt it in a spiritual way, and I knew everything was going to be fine. I put my full trust in him.”
While coach Sams was in the waiting area the surgery was delayed. The donor who remains anonymous to this very day, was to be kept alive long enough to allow doctors from all over the country to fly in and perform different parts of the surgery. During an organ donation, the lungs, heart, kidneys, liver and other vital organs are harvested for other patients who are also going to be undergoing lifesaving surgeries.
This was something that coach Sams did not take lightly. “I said to myself, if the good lord can get me through this. I will live every day for that individual whose lungs I am getting. I will live every day to honor their sacrifice so that I may continue to live.” As the moment arrived coach Sams was ready to undergo one of the most intensive surgeries in the industry. A double lung replacement.
He was wheeled into the operating room. He said that the operating room looked like the space station. “The people at UF health have some of the most incredible equipment in the world. The place literally looked like the space station. They had some cool gadgets in there and I felt like I was in an episode of Star Trek.”
The last thing that Danny said to the surgery team with his original lungs was “If you can do me a great job, I’m going to reward you all and do a great job afterwards.” The team nodded and assured him he was in the best hands in the world. The next thing Danny remembers was waking up in the ICU.
(While very few photos exist of coach Sams during his rehab. He did send us this one. This was a few days following his surgery. We see coach Sams with one of his many nurses and helping him walk short distances. Those short distances would turn into longer distances as the rehab would progress.)
Eleven and a half hours. That’s how long it took to perform this surgery. When coach Danny Sams woke up in the ICU, he was surrounded by machines keeping him alive. “You couldn’t have fit anything else in that ICU. There was so much equipment it was almost not even believable.” But the nurses wanted to get to work right away with Danny.
“They let me recover for a while, but they wasted no time trying to get me out of bed. After 11 hours of Anastasia, I had to relearn how to walk. That stuff really messes with you let me tell you..” The nurses would help Danny walk in increments. “First it was 100 feet then to 100 yards, then to a half mile, just walking around the ICU.”
Sams cannot be more thankful for the care he received at UF Gainesville. “The nurses were absolutely incredible. But I could never have done any of this without my wife. I sucked the support out of everyone but my wife, God bless her for helping me through this.”
Coach Sams also had the support of the East Ridge High School Football team who would send him videos of support along with Donnie Burchfield as well. “It was a humbling experience getting so much support. The good Lord had guided me through this and now I was going to make sure that I lived every moment I could for Him and the organ donor.”
Coach Sams said “I wrote a letter to the family of the donor after some time went by. Still to this day I do not know who they were, and I have never heard back from them. But if they somehow hear my story. I want them to know I am living every day for he or she. I will always be grateful but sad at the same time that someone had to die in order for me to continue to live.”
March 1st 2023 Walking Out Of The Hospital
“I was in Gainesville still going to Pulmonary Rehab for the whole month of March. I was also doing a lot of walking on my own as well. I thought I was going to be there for 3 months doing rehab and at the end of March they asked me if I wanted to go back to Clermont. I was totally surprised and blown away by that. They said I had surpassed all the standards of rehab for me to be released to go home. I still continue with my treadmill work every day.”
After a full month of rehab in the hospital and unlike his friend who was unable to walk out of the Hospital, on March 1st of 2023, Danny Sams walked out of UF Gainseville under his own power with his new set of lungs. It would take some time to get readjusted to life but Sams eventually found the strength to make it back to the practice field.
April 10th 2023. The First Day Back To Work
On April 10th of 2023. Coach Danny Sams along with his donated Lungs walked out onto the East Ridge High School football field. With a thunderous roar of applause from the East Ridge High School teammates and a warm embrace by his good friend Head Coach Donnie Birchfield, coach Sams was back.
“I will never be the same as I was before. I have no immune system anymore and I can no longer swim in the ocean due to bacteria and other things. But I told myself, what good is a lung replacement if you’re not going to live life? I love my life and live for the glory of God. Be it a year or a few years, I am going to enjoy every bit of life I possibly can, for the donor, for God and for my family.” coach Sams said.
Coach Sams credits his old teammates and coaches for encouraging him through the process. Sams was part of the 1972 Merritt Island Football team that went 13-0 and won the state championship. His former coaches of that team who are in their 80s and 90s now gave him the strength to attack the surgery like an athlete. “
“I will never forget my high school coaches. When we had double sessions which are now outlawed, that was the hardest thing I have ever had to go through in life. But becasue of them, it allowed me the strength and courage to go through this. I thought even a double lung replacement was not as bad as double practice sessions in August in Florida.”
October 12th, 2023 Current Day
That brings us too today. At this point coach Danny Sams is winding down his coaching career. This will likely be the last year that coach Sams takes the field in a competitive fashion. He will continue to coach as a motivational speaker and hopes that this story inspires others who may be going through something similar, to fight and trust that God has a plan for you.
(Coach Danny Sams who is pictured left has no immune system and must wear a mask most of the time to protect himself so his body does not reject his new lungs. He stands with #2 Devin Dingman and #1 Anthony Stoneburg.)
“I can’t advise on what to do for any person because at the end of the day it is up to them and their family on what to do. But all I can say is that having faith in God and having a good attitude will get you through. Without a good attitude it could lead to depression. I never allowed myself to get like that and it truly had a profound impact on my recovery.” Said Sams.
As Danny Sams takes the field for the final remaining games of the 2023 football season, East Ridge High School plays not only for him but for the unknown donor. That donor went on to save multiple lives. But that donor also has had an influence on the team members of East Ridge. Many of the team members have become organ donors which is reflected on their licenses. Even some of family members and alumni have become donors.
(During a recent game the East Ridge Knights Football team took a team photo. Notice anything? The only coach in the photo is coach Danny Sams. The team showed him great support and love during his surgery and recovery period. The team is motivated every day by his story.)
“If my story can change just one person’s life, then I have done my job.” says coach Sams. “I love my life, I love my wife, I love everyone who was a part of this journey and I live for the glory of god each and every day. Life is now a gift and I am forever grateful for the team at UF Health who provided it for me. There are too many doctors and nurses to list but each and every one of them I thank from the bottom of my heart.”
We were absolutely blown away by coach Danny Sams story. We hope that you got something out of it. Thank you to Cassandra Burchfield the wife of head coach Donnie Burchfield for letting us know about this story. We are grateful you took the time to write to us about it. We wish coach Danny Sams the best in life. His story is not yet finished, and we look forward to seeing that journey play out.