His silver lining
● By J. Chambless
Lou Samba and Evie Cunliffe are co-owners of the Anytime Fitness franchise on West Chester Pike.
By Richard L. Gaw
On nearly every work desk in America,
there are trinkets, photographs and gizmos that provide a
glimpse into the person who sits near them. They're like windows and
doors and answers. They are invitations to the curious who want to
Thirty-three-year-old Lou Samba's desk at Anytime Fitness on the West Chester Pike – unlike the immaculately pristine conditions of the 5,600-square-foot facility outside his office – is the happy clutter of a busy person, but he smiles and accepts it as part of his position as a co-owner of the nearly three-year-old business. One would have to look more closely at the contents of his desk in order to unlock a little bit of its occupant, but there it is – a framed quotation in script – that rests behind a computer.
“Most obstacles melt away when we make up our minds to walk boldly through them,” it reads.
Just how Lou Samba met Evie Cunliffe and, even more crucial to the telling of this story, how their friendship blossomed into a West Chester business partnership that will celebrate its third anniversary in late November, is a mash-up of unlikely connectivity. Yet, in order to understand it, and know how the desk quote figures into everything, you start on Willow Street in Norristown.
Lou Samba's beginning in life did not fall from the sky like a blessing or a gift. Rather, it was earned, and then protected, by a pyramid of positive influence that began with his single mother mother, Ashabi, and extended to the neighborhood families, who decided early on that their kids were not going to fall through the cracks of drugs, crime and helplessness.
“Even though that element was on my front doorstep – people being hurt, killed, and always some kind of police activity – my two siblings and I were all kept away from that,” Samba said. “We looked out for each other. People make excuses, like if they're a product of a single-parent home or a low-income environment, but I've always just tried to make the right decisions.”
From the time he was a child, Samba's greatest fear had already been cultivated. He hated disappointing anyone he cared about. Consequently, he didn't. He did well in school. He disappeared into sports. He drempt of someday becoming a professional football player. He wasn't one of those kids who made excuses, and he wasn't afraid to fail. By the time he was a senior at Norristown High School, he was a two-way star – fullback and linebacker – and heavily recruited by some of the top colleges and universities in the nation. Letters began to pour in, which he stored in garbage bags.
Ultimately, he chose to attend the University of Delaware, where he enrolled in 2000, in order to play for legendary coach Tubby Raymond. Although the school was not the football powerhouse of, say, Penn State or Notre Dame, Raymond had brought the Division 1-A prominence, and dozens of his former players later went onto careers in the National Football League.
Samba loved the University, particularly game time: the soft grass field. Coach Raymond and his assistant coaches on the sidelines. The 23,000-seat stadium slowly filling up. At the end of the 2001 season, Raymond retired, opening the door to new head coach K.C. Keeler. In 2003, he was a defensive lineman and a part of a swarming defensive unit known as “The Chain Gang,” on the Division I-A National Champion Blue Hens.
“At Delaware, there was that sense of wanting to be better, the idea that we could be great – together – and the belief that we needed to lift up everyone who was around us,” Samba said. “It was a grounding foundation to say, 'That's your brother. You look out for your brother. You will rise to that top level, together.' “
Several players on that team were drafted and eventually played in the N.F.L. Samba never did.
The first injury was to his right knee in his sophomore year. Towards the end of the game, Samba rushed the quarterback and stripped the ball from him. The quarterback fumbled. Samba got up, grabbed the ball, and was hit from behind. He had torn the meniscus in his right knee. His sophomore season was over.
In his junior year – the championship season – he made a similar play, tackling the opposing quarterback in the backfield for a loss.
Here he was, a star defensive lineman on a national championship football team, at a school that was no stranger to seeing players who would eventually play in the NFL. He was on his way to likely achieving his lifelong dream. What he did not want to admit, however, was that he was also in possession of a body that was in severe pain. “In the process of getting up, another player fell on me,” Samba said. “I felt a pop in my left shoulder. It had completely dislodged and quickly locked itself back into place. I chose to avoid surgery, so I played the remainder of the season with torn ligaments in my left shoulder. I just couldn't leave the team then. It was the best year of my life in football.”
After surgery to repair the torn ligaments in his shoulder, Samba's recovery was long and painful. He returned to training camp, and re-injured himself. The doctors told him that they had to cut the ligaments in his shoulder first, in order to stretch them out. They confronted Samba and told him what every athlete never wants to hear.
“Do you want to hold your kids above your head someday?” they asked him.
The dream was over. Samba left football, sat out his senior year, and graduated with a degree in Health Sciences.
Fast forward this story. Samba put his degree to work, first at Pro Physical Therapy in Wilmington for several years, and then as the manager of the Anytime Fitness in Newark, where Evie Cunliffe first arrived four years ago. She originally dropped by the facility with no further intention than to work off a few inches and do a little toning. There, she met Samba, and noticed that he was doing everything: gym maintenance, administrative duties, as well as motivating the other members at seemingly every corner and crevice. Cunliffe took on Samba as her personal trainer, and slowly, her entire approach to fitness transformed. What used to be considered the necessary evil of maintaining health became a passion. She began to compete in triathlons and bicycle races.
“Lou completely changed my opinion of myself and my abilities,” Cunliffe said. “I knew I could lose weight, but he turned me into an athlete. In the process of working with him, I felt like he had that incredible something. I saw this hugely motivated, incredible person.”
Having grown up in a family of means, Cunliffe had always made it a goal in her life to be able to give someone who did not have the same upbringing she had, an opportunity. She approached her now former husband and told him about Samba. “Steve,” she said, “I think this young man is simply amazing.”
Soon after, Cunliffe approached Samba with a proposition: that she and Steve would raise the necessary capital in order purchase an Anytime Fitness franchise – and give Samba the opportunity to eventually earn co-ownership of the business.
At first, Samba thought Cunliffe was joking. He was concerned that this was a huge financial responsibility on behalf of Evie, Steve and other members of their family, and that they were wresting the future of the business on what amounted to what he was able to instill in others. It would be more than enough, Cunliffe told him. Samba eventually agreed, and a site was found in West Chester.
“I had every benefit in life, and Lou did not, but he is such an amazing man, and he deserves an opportunity to have that same initiative and opportunity that I had,” Cunliffe said. “It's our privilege to see Lou doing so well. He has a genuine love of life and people, and he connects with people on a very real level, and they feel his enthusiasm. For him to be in the same room, is for you to feel better. He inspires other people.”
For up to12 hours a day, nearly every day, Samba arrives and departs Anytime Fitness with all of the positive energy that Cunliffe and her family believed would be the driving force behind their enterprise. He answers e-mails, orders supplies, coordinates trainer's schedules, and buoyantly floats from station to station, encouraging members – the stepping stone for what Samba's new dream has become.
He wants to own several more Anytime Fitness locations. He loves the model of the franchise – to provide fitness opportunities for busy people in a 24-7 world.
“I have come to believe that there is a silver lining in every situation we have in our lives,” he said. “It may be the worst experience you go through in your entire life, and you may be sad and you may grieve, but at some point there is a silver lining. You have to open your eyes, your mind and your heart and your perceptions. You're much better off in life if you can find a way to do that.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.