Sam Westbrook is an imposing figure when he steps on a football field, wrestling mat or throwing circle.
The recently graduated Bayfield High School three-sport star was a statewide star in all three activities he participated in during the 2016-17 school year. He faced as much adversity as any athlete but handled it all with a smile on his face. His positive demeanor paired with his athletic prowess earned him the Durango Herald Male Athlete of the Year award.
"It truly means a lot," Westbrook said of the award, "because in this county, we have a lot of great athletes. A lot of people could've been chosen for something like this. Being chosen, it sends chills and gives me goosebumps. It's a reward for how hard I've work, and it shows me that it's been noticed. I'm glad for that."
Westbrook edged fellow Bayfield senior and three-sport star Brian Mashak for the award. Durango's two-sport star and strong off-the-field leader Peyton Woolverton also was considered.
Westbrook was named to the first-team all-state list in football. As the team's center on the offensive line and nose tackle on the defense, he was a matchup nightmare for opponents all year. He signed a scholarship to play football at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction as part of National Signing Day in February. He finished his senior season with 71 tackles, 16 for a loss and eight for quarterback sacks. He did it all while fighting through double teams nearly every snap.
"Sam has a great motor every play no matter the situation, good or bad," BHS head football and track and field coach Gary Heide said. "His size and strength is remarkable, but also his technique. I don't remember a bad snap all year from him as a starting center, and it doesn't take a smart person to figure out what he gave our defense drawing double teams every play."
Westbrook also went undefeated in wrestling entering the Class 3A state tournament at the Pepsi Center. He held a one-point lead in the semifinal match before being assessed a stalling penalty with less than 10 seconds to wrestle in the third period. Westbrook's coaches all felt it was an unfair penalty, but the match went to overtime and eventually into a sudden-death period. Westbrook didn't win an all-important coin toss, and his opponent scored the match-winning escape point to end Westbrook's undefeated season. Heartbroken, the gentle giant wrestled his way to fifth place in the consolation bracket. He finished the season with a 41-2 overall record with his only two losses to state champions.
"It used to be hard to look back at," Westbrook said of his state semifinal loss. "It was painful. But, for me, it's more of a lesson now that it is hurtful. It hurt for a long time, but I learned from it and it kind of gave me a foundation factor that has helped me. When things get a little rough, now I know it's going to be fine."
Westbrook capped off his impressive four-year career at BHS with two second-place finishes at the state track and field meet. He threw the shot put 51 feet, 5.75 inches to finish less than one foot behind the state champ. He also finished second in the discus throw with a distance of 157 feet, 7 inches.
Wrestling and track and field weren't first loves of Westbrook, who always played football. He played basketball and baseball as a freshman but didn't fall in love with either sport. Faced with the option of only playing football and working out all offseason, he was anxious to find other activities to pursue.
"I wasn't capable of just doing nothing," he said. "I really, really love being in sports, and I didn't want to be bored."
He admitted he had no clue what he was in for when he started wrestling. Eventually, his work ethic turned into strong results and he began to fall in love with wrestling. After his sophomore year throwing on the track team, he set goals to finish on state podiums in both his winter and spring sports.
"I really wanted that success for wrestling," he said. "I wanted to be the top dog. I needed to have that in me every day in practice. Some days I wouldn't have it, but I would see everybody else around me working as hard as they could - sweating, bleeding - and I knew I was not in the same position they were. I looked at myself, stopped and asked how hard I was truly working and if I really wanted that state title. In those moments, I would turn it around."
Heide said more than Westbrook's results on the field, including a state championship in football during Westbrook's junior season and a state semifinal appearance in 2016, he will remember Westbrook's smile and positive energy. Heide recalled the team's tough overtime loss at cross-county rival Durango during the 2016 football season and how it nearly fractured the team. He turned to Westbrook to unite the team.
"Sam always led by example, but if he spoke, everyone listened," Heide said. "After Durango, we all had thoughts about what we could've done different. It was a big blow on that young man losing a big rivalry game we all wanted. But Sam stayed positive about it. He said, 'Guys, there is a season before us to go out and do the best we can.' It was a defining moment for me with Sam and seeing his leadership. That Monday, he was the positive guy talking about moving forward.
"That's Sam. He never had a degrading thing to say about a person or institution. Every little conversation I had with him, he had a smile on his face and talked about something positive."
Westbrook had to work hard in the classroom to make his college aspirations possible, too. He sat out a weekend of the wrestling season to focus on retaking the ACT exam. He poured the same work ethic into his studies for the test as he did his athletic pursuits, and he won the challenge ahead of him.
"We talked a lot about his college career and what he needed to do, and the grades did came into play there the middle of winter," Heide said. "He was bound and determined to improve that ACT score. He retook the test and dedicated himself to be the best he could. He believed in himself and was willing to get better. It paid off."
Westbrook credited his family support, including parents Kirsten and Mark Westbrook, as well as his coaches for his award-winning success, from Heide, BHS football line coach Frank Hawkins, defensive coordinator Mike Wnorowski, former wrestling coach Neil Barnes and track and field throwing coach Chip Hodlmair.
"As an athlete, you can only go as far as a coach will push you," Westbrook said.
Westbrook also thanked his fellow senior class at Bayfield and said he will miss the brotherhood they built together as Wolverines. Heide said they will miss his leadership and ability to reach younger athletes who looked up to the mighty figure.
"Bayfield sports has grown me up," Westbrook said. "It raised me and taught me life lessons. Sometimes you get down, but you need to get back up. The seniors were all a huge support factor, and they are all great athletes themselves. As a group, we made each other look really good."