Malden's Samano making a difference

Malden star Aaron Samano (center) spends about 30 hours a week volunteering at the Congregation of Judah, where he helps members of the congregation along with his father, Gilberto (far right), who is a pastor. Brendan Hall

MALDEN, Mass. -- When he is sitting in the locker room before the first football contest of the year for his Malden High Golden Tornadoes, star lineman Aaron Samano will revive the pregame ritual he's had the past three seasons.

The mix of hip-hop artists from his native California -- 2Pac, N.W.A., Ice Cube, Too $hort and E-40 are among his favorites -- will be pumping through his headphones as he straps on his pads. He will sit on his own bench, isolated from the rest of the team because, he said, "Some guys scream and yell; I like to just keep to myself, get in my own zone."

Then, shortly before coach Joe Pappagallo enters the room for his pregame pep talk, the deeply religious Samano, who plays offensive guard and defensive tackle, will close his eyes and bow his head. No sign of the cross, but the request to God rarely changes: Protect me on the field; make sure I do my job; make sure I don't get injured; help us secure a win.

Those first-hit, first-play jitters still get to Samano, even at 6-foot-1 and 305 pounds, but they quickly subside. After all, the 17-year-old senior captain and legitimate Division I prospect who is affectionately known by his teammates as "Big A," is carrying support from all over.

This is not from just his school, where he is a model citizen with an upstanding academic track record. This is from the folks who share in his Mexican-American pride all over Southern California, from the friends in his native Escondido to his relatives still living in East Los Angeles.

This is from more than Malden, a workingman's city with an increasingly vast cornucopia of culture. This is from the many friends made overseas on missionary trips with his family, as far away as Ecuador and Argentina, to ventures across the pond in England, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Spain, and south of the border to Mexico, always a moving experience. Even a rugby team in Italy -- Benevento Italia -- keeps close tabs on Samano.

This is from the disabled children he's coached in the Special Olympics and all the youths he's helped out in Malden's Pop Warner program.

This is from the many patrons of the Congregation Lion of Judah, a bilingual, nondenominational Christian church on South Boston's Northampton Street. His father, Gilberto, serves as a pastor and is a mentor to many of the goers. On weekends is when the Samanos do arguably some of their most inspiring work, counseling members who have overcome deep trouble or are making the long crawl back after nearly throwing it all away.

Gilberto, 49, is one of the church's leading pastors and very vocal in his guidance of the misguided ones. His son, conversely, does very little talking.

Whichever field he's on, Aaron Samano is always the one leading with few words but many actions.

"The best part about it is that it's not wasted when he speaks. He has credibility," Pappagallo said. "There is no better verbal leader and leader by example than someone who doesn't overdo it. He's pretty special."

Aaron was born May 28, 1993, in Ariano Irpino, roughly an hour outside Naples in the Avellino province of Italy, where his parents were stationed for missionary work. In 1996, when Aaron was 3 years old, the family moved to Escondido, Calif., a San Diego suburb in Southern California.

In 2006, Aaron's sister, Adriana, was considering walking away from her full academic scholarship at Boston University to transfer to a school in California due to homesickness. Gilberto thought she had too much of a good thing to give up. So he held a family meeting with Aaron's mother, Carmen; older brother, Gilbert; and Aaron, then 14 years old, to discuss a potential move to the Boston area to support Adriana.

The meeting didn't last long.

"I explained as best I could to them the factors involved and what they'd lose, and they were 100 percent affirmative, no question about it -- 'Let's go,'" Gilberto said. "It was a short decision."

That summer, the Samanos sold all their belongings, stuffed their clothes into bags and hopped in a GMC Yukon Denali to drive to a city some 3,340 miles away to an apartment they had seen only once online.

"They took it more as an adventure," Gilberto said, laughing about the weeklong trip.

It wasn't until after he arrived in Malden that Aaron became attracted to football, browsing through articles on NFL.com about fellow Mexican-American and Southern California legend Anthony Munoz. Aaron was keenly taught about the history of his culture, so the background connection intertwined with his motivation for football.

"He's huge back home," Aaron said of Munoz. "I was fired up. I wanted to be just like him: the next great Mexican-American offensive lineman. Roberto Garza, too -- even a guy like Luis Castillo, who's not Mexican but a Latino, it just speaks to me. I see that they made it, and I'm like, 'All right, it's my turn to make it.'"

Explained Gilberto: "As a Hispanic Mexican, he does want to leave something for others to follow. He believes there is drive and that element from his cultural background -- the drive to excel, the drive to do more in his sport. He has really been influenced by his Mexican pride."

While Aaron has used that drive to excel on the field, he has been making quite a mark off it.

Along with being active in the Special Olympics and Pop Warner football, Aaron assists in various youth camps around the area, including the one former Tornadoes great and Green Bay Packer Breno Giacomini put on last month.

Aaron's immediate family members all work as registrars at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (about 40 hours a week each) -- Carmen and Adriana in outpatient services, Gilbert in the emergency room and Gilberto in surgery.

"They have to come through us any way," Gilberto cracked.

But the real work comes when the clock is off. Another 30 or so hours are piled on with their work at the Congregation of Judah, on weekday nights and in strides on the weekends, some days starting at 5 a.m. and ending late at night.

People from all walks of life go to the church. But on those Saturday sessions, Aaron will sit in and occasionally speak as the Samano family counsels those who have fallen upon hard times. Some have become involved with drugs; others are just looking for guidance.

Aaron isn't quite as vocal as his father; in turn, the patrons feel his economy of words bear that much greater power.

"He has a really positive attitude anyways," churchgoer Miguel Ortiz said. "But at the same time, he's serious business."

Aaron Samano seems to apply both those attitudes to football. But it's his talent that's hard to overlook.

For his size, Samano demonstrates a surprisingly good speed rush. Coupled with his first-step explosion, he's shown to be tough to hold back in one-on-one situations.

"You just don't see that every day," Pappagallo said. "I can show you game film from Medford [last Thanksgiving] where he's making plays in the backfield … he grabs the quarterback with one hand and slams him to the ground, and the kid gets up and goes, 'Who the hell was that?'

"For a kid that big to move like that, to not only handle the point of attack but do it with that kind of quickness, it's such a rare combination. We're so blessed to have him."

Duke is among the higher-profile schools to express interest in Samano. Many of the Football Championship Subdivision schools have reached out to him, including the Ivy Leagues -- "Columbia has reached out a lot to me lately," Samano said.

Time will tell whether interest turns into scholarship offers or the standard, informal letters from North Carolina, Kentucky and Alabama will blossom into anything deeper. But right now, Samano is getting pumped about the season. And with good reason.

The Tornadoes figure to have about a two-year window on Super Bowl contention with this current group, which will be among the state's biggest in the trenches. Chris Avery (6-1, 235) would have been entering his fourth year starting at center and linebacker for the Tornadoes, but Avery's recent move to Pennsylvania to be with his mother has Samano sliding into his spot. The Tornadoes also have senior Vernon Sainvil (6-4, 295) and junior Chris Miller (6-5, 275).

Malden, of course, is in the same boat as many past Greater Boston League teams that have tried in vain to unseat Everett as champion. Somerville and Peabody put together some nice teams at the turn of the millennium; Cambridge made a decent run with handful of guys earlier this decade who went on to earn Division I scholarships, to no avail. Waltham found itself playing second banana for many years before departing for the Dual County League in 2008.

But with the resurgence of Somerville and Medford, along with the bulk on Malden's line, the league figures to be more even this year.

"It's my job as captain to get the guys fired up, let them know that this year is going to be the year," Samano said. "This is it -- my senior year. I want to go out on top and be remembered as somebody who did something special for Malden football."

It seems like he's already done that, and more.

Brendan Hall covers high school sports for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.