“I was probably about 6 or 7,” said Toney, currently the top scorer on the New Jersey City University men’s basketball team. “Dad was locked up and Mom didn’t have a place for us to stay.”
So the New Jersey State Division of Youth and Family Services removed Sam and his older sister La-Shonda from their Plainfield home.
“It started the process of being in foster care,” Sam Toney said. “At that age, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Toney was placed in a few foster homes in Plainfield.
“But I would run away and want to go to my Dad’s place,” Toney said.
He figures he was placed in approximately 50 different foster homes during his lifetime.
“A lot of people were doing it for the wrong reasons,” Toney said. “They were taking kids in for the money. My sister and I weren’t able to stay together. They had to break us up, so that was hard. I just tried to go with the flow.”
One of the foster parents was Toney’s own grandmother, but she couldn’t provide proper care either.
Toney said, “I was put into group homes. I had a lot of different scenarios.”
Finally, at age 13, Toney met a man by the name of Ronald Price, a single father who helped to raise foster children over the years.
“That was my last foster home,” Toney said.
Toney moved with Price to Sicklerville, N.J. in the southern part of the state.
“I have two other foster brothers that are still around,” Toney said. “I lived there for six years. He’s my ‘Pops.’”
Toney enrolled at Williamstown High School and although he loved the game of basketball, he didn’t play varsity until his senior year.
“I tried out for the team my senior year and made it,” Toney said.
He graduated from Williamstown in 2010 with a grade point average of 3.8, but he didn’t get a chance to go to college.
“I had a bunch of different scenarios that didn’t work out,” Toney said.
Toney said that he tried to go to Camden County Community College, but instead got a job working at a supermarket in Jackson, stocking shelves.
Toney then got a job at a Walmart in southern Jersey and remained there for a year and a half. He was steadfast to remain on the straight and narrow, even with the temptations of possibly falling afoul of the law.
Soon after, Toney’s story becomes even more incredible. You see, Toney was homeless for a few years. He was living out of his car for months at a time, then spending time in hotels and motels throughout southern Jersey. But a lot of cold, lonely nights were spent sleeping in a car.
“I had to do it to stay on track,” Toney said.
At the age of 24, Toney met Marvin and Toni Woodson, who agreed to take Sam into their home in Somerdale on one condition -- that he enrolled full-time in college.
The Woodsons had a family friend named Butch Ingram, who had a son Kyle who once played for New Jersey City University. Butch Ingram was an old teammate of legendary NJCU basketball coach Charlie Brown, whose son, Marc, is currently the head coach.
“Kyle Ingram is one of my all-time favorite players,” Marc Brown said.
Butch Ingram recommended Toney to Brown.
“Butch said that he thought Sam might be a good fit for us,” Brown said. “I didn’t know anything about him. Butch called me out of the blue and said that Sam never went to school, that he was working and 24 years old.”
Toney didn’t know what to expect.
“It was always my goal to get back into college,” Toney said. “Mr. Ingram gave me Coach Brown’s number and told me to give him a call.”
“I really trusted Butch Ingram because of my Dad,” Brown said. “If a kid wants to get his life back on track and we can get him into school, then it was all fine. I told him to come to an open gym to come play with us.”
Sure enough, Toney showed up in Jersey City to play some pick-up games. As it turned out, he was on the same team in those pick-up games with Brown, who at age 45 still plays actively after a great career at Siena and playing professional basketball overseas.
“We hit it off very well that day,” Brown said. “We had a lot of fun that day. He looked great. It was obvious he could play.”
Brown and his staff checked into Toney’s past to see if he could be a legitimate college prospect.
“We did our research,” Brown said. “He was worth the chance. I got to know Sam and met his step-parents. He was a good fit.”
As it turned out, Toney was an even better fit on the hardwood. Last season, Toney averaged 12.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, earning New Jersey Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year.
This season, Toney has been nothing short of incredible. He’s averaging 20.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game overall and is scoring at a 22.2 ppg clip in the NJAC and grabbing 11.2 rebounds per contest in the league. Toney has enjoyed games of 42 points against Ramapo and 36 against Rowan and William Paterson, all league games.
The Gothic Knights own a 19-5 record and a 13-4 mark in the NJAC as the NJAC playoffs begin this weekend. Toney stands a good chance of being named the NJAC Player of the Year at season’s end.
Brown said that he knew Toney would be a standout player for the Gothic Knights, who look to be headed toward their second straight NCAA Division III Tournament berth.
“I saw the potential,” Brown said. “I saw his strength and his ability. I knew what he could do.”
Brown was so sure of Toney’s contributions that he named him team captain this season, despite being only a sophomore. True, he is a 26-year-old sophomore, but Toney has been with the Gothic Knights for only two seasons now.
“He was our team leader in the preseason, in the weight room, in open gyms,” Brown said. “It was natural that he became captain. It all took care of itself. I look for a lot from Sam. I saw it in him. He adjusted to our style of play. He worked hard at it.”
Toney is also working hard in the classroom, posting a 3.2 grade point average last semester. He’s majoring in national security studies and hopes to own a private security company in the future. He also aspires to play pro basketball somewhere.
Toney doesn’t mind telling his story to others.
“I hope I can inspire some others who feel helpless,” Toney said. “There aren’t a lot of people who could go through what I’ve been through and been successful. Basketball is the lifeline that kept me going. Without basketball and the Lord, I don’t know where I would be. I never gave up. You should never give up. That’s how I became a better person, doing the right thing.”
Toney has been doing the right thing by reconciling with his biological parents, who come to NJCU games to see their son play. His sister currently lives in North Carolina.
Brown was asked what Toney’s tale means.
“It shows how resilient the kid is,” Brown said. “He’s already won in life. His step-parents have been supportive. The school has supported him. It’s a great story. I’m proud of him and what he’s done. He’s such an inspiration to all of us. Sam is not only a good player. He’s very humble. He’s accepting the pressure both on the court and off the court. He’s doing well. He doesn’t take days off. He’s one of the more special guys we’ve had. He wants to be great.”
Looks like Sam Toney is already there.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.