Talent Show The extraordinary sam gravitte brings his UNique abilities to two different stages • by Jerry Price

Sam Gravitte is standing still.

It’s not a common sight. His parents, he jokes, have always told him that he didn’t learn to walk at nine months, he learned to run at nine months.

Sam Gravitte on the lacrosse field can be a blur. He’s fast. He’s the kind of fast that Princeton head men’s lacrosse coach Matt Madalon says can “outrun mistakes.”

Sam Gravitte in life can be a blur. He has so much going on, has always had so much going on, that he doesn’t really know any other way. He is constant motion.

Every now and then, though, he slows down, even if it’s just for a minute. This is one of those times.

His Princeton lacrosse teammates have come here in big numbers, well out of their usual comfort zone, because that’s what teammates do. He’s not moving anywhere now. He’s in the middle of the group, somewhere.

Debbie Gravitte, Sam’s mother, was there in that moment.

“I could just cry now,” she says, thinking about it.

It was in this moment that, once again, Sam Gravitte’s two worlds came together. They don’t often, even if he can toggle back and forth seamlessly, but they have at times.

This was one of those times, back in December, in a theater in Princeton.

The first time – and the most telling time? That was in a fictional place called “Oklahoma.”

If you want to know what makes Sam Gravitte have to be the most unique lacrosse player in the country –and maybe the most unique college athlete period – consider his two “Oklahomas.”

On the one hand, there is the Oklahoma drill, which any old-time football player or coach recognizes as a brutal test of strength and physicality. It’s you on one side and him on the other. Hit the hole and get through or be stopped. It’s not for the squeamish.

On the other hand, there’s “Oklahoma,” the classic American musical. “Oh What A Beautiful Morning.” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.” “People Will Say We’re In Love.” That “Oklahoma,” the one where the wind comes sweeping down the plains.

Sam Gravitte has done both, and he’s done both in exceptional ways.

He’s been in “Oklahoma” twice, the first time in fifth grade, as well as shows like “42nd Street,” “Les Miserables” and, most recently, “Once,” in which he performed the male lead this past fall and to which his Princeton men’s lacrosse teammates flocked to be there for him.

In his other world, he is an exceptional athlete. He’s been a key member of the Princeton defense for his entire four years, and his athleticism has enabled him to excel, at various times, as a starting defenseman, a longstick midfielder and, for the last year, a shortstick defensive midfielder.

Before he came to Princeton, he was a two-time all-state football player at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut. He holds the school record for touchdowns in a career. You don’t do that if you’re slow.

Add to that a nearly perfect grade-point average as an anthropology major, and it’s no wonder that people rave about him.

“I’m his mother and of course I love him more than anything,” Debbie Gravitte says. “If I wasn’t his mother, I’d still say ‘wow, that’s a great human. He’s going to do great things in the world.’ ”

Okay, so maybe she’s a little biased. Listen to Madalon, then.

“You never get to coach kids like Sam,” Madalon says. “We talk about it all the time in our office. He’ll be the one kid I get to coach like this. He’s special.”

Sam Gravitte is not someone who is a good athlete who happened to be in a few school plays. Nope.

His story is one of a boy born into a theater, who found that he loved the theater and at the same time found that he had an equal gift and an equal love of athletics. When he describes his earliest experiences as a football player, he does so in a way that can best be described as “theatrical.” How would you describe it when someone says “I found out I could run by guys while I was holding a football and people would cheer. It was nice.”

From almost Day 1, it was clear he had a little ham in him.

“We were at a party one time,” Debbie Gravitte says. “My husband said to him ‘Sam we have to go,’ and he said ‘I’m talking to people.’ He was eight years old.”

When he talks about his childhood, he measures milestones by saying things like “that was when my father was on Broadway in the “The Light In The Piazza” or “I used to hang out backstage when my mother was on Broadway in ’Chicago.’ ”

His father Beau has been on Broadway and television, and he is also a writer and director. His mother? She made her Broadway debut in “They’re Playing Our Song” in 1980 and later won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” She still sings and performs concerts, even though she stepped back from her Broadway career to be with her three children – Sam, his twin sister Ellie and his older brother Charlie.

Sam was gifted with the theatrical talent that you might expect. He is a completely humble person, and when he talks about being with his parents when they performed, he does so to frame his development, not to brag in any way.

Still, it’s clear from talking to him for a few seconds that he has, well, it’s hard to describe.

“The light went on when he did his first show in high school,” Debbie Gravitte says. “It was 42nd Street. He stood in the middle of the stage, and you couldn’t take your eye off him. He just had that thing. It can’t be named. It’s just 'the thing.' Either you have the thing or you don’t have the thing. He can stand on a stage, and he just has that thing.”

Sam’s love of the theater is easy to understand. His mother jokes that they used to call him “Shut Up Sam,” because his room was above the kitchen in their old house and he would sing all the time when he was little.

For as theatrical as his family is, there’s also been an athletic side. His brother was a high school football player. His sister holds the Brown school record for the javelin.

“We are a family of athletes,” his mother says. “I grew up in Los Angeles, and I could beat all the boys in handball. My husband grew up in Texas and played high school football there. His father was drafted by the New York Yankees and by St. Louis in professional football.”

Sam’s introduction to sports began in that same old house, which dated back to 1775 and at one point was a farm.

“There was a barn on the property, but the only thing in it was a weight bench that we put there,” he says. “There was also another one with chickens in it. My chore was to take care of the chickens in the morning and at night. The barn was a few football fields away from the house, and I used to run back and forth, twice a day.”

It was clear from the beginning that he was athletic. It was also clear that he loved both worlds.

"The first show I ever did was 'Oklahoma' in fifth grade,” he says. “By that time I was already playing football, so I think the balancing act was kind of the norm from the beginning. I was lucky enough that I didn't have to choose between sports and theatre until I got to high school. My freshman year I played three sports, football, basketball, and lacrosse, and I was also in the winter musical, which happened to be 'Oklahoma!' again. That winter I was at school for 15 hours a day. I'd get there for school at 7. I'd have basketball from 4-6. I'd have rehearsal from 7-10. The next year I didn't play for the high school basketball team."

He came to lacrosse fairly late, in middle school, when he was also playing baseball. He had the athleticism to be good, but none of the skill. His first year, he would often lose the ball and not realize it while continuing to run down the field.

“After that, we made the very important purchase of a bounceback,” he says. “I cant tell you how many hours I spent throwing the ball against the bounceback. That’s when I quit baseball. We still have that bounceback in our basement. It has too much sentimental value to me to get rid of it.”

With some stick skills to go along with his quickness, Gravitte began to make strides forward as a lacrosse player. He also got a big push from Roy Colsey, who became his high school coach. If Colsey’s name is familiar, it’s because he was an All-America at Syracuse, where he helped the Orange to NCAA titles in 1993 and 1995 (Princeton won in 1992 and 1994, his other two years in college). Colsey was also one of the first stars of Major League Lacrosse.

“He really changed the whole landscape of sports in our town,” Gravitte says. “He asked me if I wanted to play lacrosse in college, and I said yes I did. Two weeks into sophomore season, he had a six-foot pole waiting for me. He said that he didn’t doubt that I could do it with a shortstick but that given the time commitments and other interests I had, being a pole would help. With that, life changed.”

His time at Princeton has showcased his versatility, first with the pole and then ironically back to being a shortstick. He is one of only three Princeton players in the last 25 years to play all three positions. For his career, he has 75 ground balls and 20 caused turnovers, to go along with three goals and an assist.

“Sam doesn’t get enough recognition as a lacrosse player,” Madalon says. “He dominates for us. He’s versatile. He’s fast. He thinks the game well. He takes risks at the right times. And he’s an extraordinary athlete. We know how important he is. It’s hard to get the point across about how impressive he is, as a player and in everything. The way he balances everything is ridiculous.”

He and his teammates are off to a good start this season. The goals are to reach the Ivy League tournament, compete for the league championship and get back to the NCAA tournament.

After that? Graduation, and then the obvious career choice.

“They say if you can picture yourself doing anything else, do it,” he says about pursuing acting and singing. “It’s a really hard life style, and a lot of people don’t appreciate it and understand it until they interact with it on a day to day basis. Since my first musical in fifth grade, there hasn’t been a single fleeting thought about doing anything else. I’d like to think I have a deeper understanding from my parents about what it’s like, and I’m incredibly, thankful for that. At the same time, it is pretty nerve-wracking. I’ m coming from a place where a lot of friends will be going to pretty steady jobs. There’s also something really exciting about the prospect of diving into an unstable career.”

Does he have what it takes? Let’s ask the expert.

“I think he has a lot of potential,” his mother says. “The thing about the business is that there are so many factors that go into it. There are many, many talented kids. You need a little sprinkling of magic dust. But he has great presence. And he has a great voice. He’ll do whatever he has to do.”

And that’s who Sam is. But what about his two worlds?

There are not a lot who cross over between Division I sports and potential Broadway star. Sam isn’t just playing a sport. He’s played two of the most physical sports there are.

“I think when you play a sport at a high level, and I got to play decent football and good lacrosse in high school, there’s something you smell about that sport that is addictive,” he says. “There’s something rewarding about the way exhaustion feels. The physicality and going out with a bunch of brothers to win a game is a unique experience. I’ve always been competitive. Sports have been important to me whole life.”

Are there similarities between the two?

“I absolutely think there is a connection,” Debbie Gravitte says. “The discipline of sports is very much like the discipline of theater. When I was doing one of my first Broadway shows and a friend I grew up with came by to visit, she said what do you all day? You spend all day getting ready for those two to three hours. It’s the same with lacrosse. You’re not taking voice lessons. You’re lifting. You’re not taking dance classes. You’re running sprints. It’s a lot of preparation for those hours spent performing, or competing.”

If you went to high school, you probably remember the dynamics that existed. There were theater kids. There were jocks. They didn’t overlap much. They did for Sam.

“There is inherently not that much interface between the two social groups,” Gravitte says. “The interesting thing for me is that it’s evolved for the better since I’ve been at Princeton. In high school, I did find myself more two different people, an athlete and in theater. Here, I’ve found that this place has afforded me the opportunity to be more consistent in my interactions with my friends. That’s a testament to the guys on the team more than anything. They’ve allowed me to be me. I don’t have to be Theater Sam and then put him aside to walk onto the lacrosse field., and that wasn’t necessarily the case in high school.”

And that brings the story back to the beginning. Back to this past fall. Back to “Once.”

Set in Dublin, it’s the story of an unhappy vacuum repairman and an optimistic house cleaner who come together on the streets, drawn by their love of music. It’s a very taxing role, requiring someone who can sing, dance and play the guitar. More than any of that, it requires someone who has, in the words of Debbie Gravitte, “that thing.”

The show packed the Berlind Theater at McCarter. Included in the house each of the six nights it ran was a healthy turnout of Princeton lacrosse players.

“They came up on stage and were with me,” he says. “I have a photo of them with me, and I keep it taped up in my locker, just to have that marriage of the two things I love. That’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. I know some of them may never see another show on campus or maybe even anywhere, so for them to show their support of me like that was pretty special. It was a weekend I'll never forget.”

What those in the audience didn’t realize is that Gravitte actually was at lacrosse practice in the afternoon, before heading over to be in the show.

“He was out there, going as fiercely and competitively as he always does, as anyone out there,” Madalon says. “Then he jumps in the shower and heads over to the theater to keep producing. I’ve seen a few shows on Broadway. I was amazed. He was very impressive.”

After the show, Sam came out of the dressing room into a crowded theater lobby. He was greeted by his fellow cast members and their friends. On the other side of the room stood the lacrosse players, and Sam went about halfway across to them before they sprinted to him, hugging him, mobbing him.

His mother stood off to one side, watching it all.

“For the rest of his life,” she says, “he’ll always be part of that team. The guys on the team. I mean, that meant so much to me to see that.”

The show “Once” begins with about 15 minutes of informal Irish singing and dancing with the cast. The house lights are on the whole time. Then the stage clears, the lights go down, and the focus becomes just the leading man.

He stands there, center stage, with his guitar. He plays a few notes, he starts to sing and off the show goes.

In that moment, Sam Gravitte, again, would be standing still, “that thing” so obvious to anyone in the audience.

It tells you half of everything you need to know about Sam Gravitte. The other half of the story requires you to see him at full speed.

Put them together, and you’re left with someone who doesn’t come along very often, someone who leaves you to marvel, the way his coach does.

“How can one person be that good at two things?” Madalon says. “How can one person be that talented?”

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