Clarke Central High School varsity defensive lineman Sam Tardits, a senior, holds up the number one after CCHS’ defeat of the Gainesville High School football team on Sept. 1. Tardits looks back fondly on moments like these. “Practices are pretty hard, but Friday nights are just awesome. They’re worth everything,” Tardits said. “I like when you get a tackle, people start screaming and stuff and you get that good feeling.” Photo by Zoe Peterson.
Clarke Central High School varsity defensive lineman Sam Tardits, a senior who grew up playing rugby in France, immerses himself in the world of football at CCHS and is faced with choosing between the two sports he loves.
Before the summer of 2016, Clarke Central High School varsity defensive lineman Sam Tardits had never played football.
Tardits grew up in Biarritz, France, a little town with old buildings and narrow streets. He spent his time surfing and clubbing with his friends, and playing a wide variety of sports including tennis, judo, chistera, soccer and, most importantly to him, rugby.
“I went to a little school over there. It’s really nice. It’s kind of old, traditional people, so it was great,” Tardits said.
Tardits began attending boarding school at Lycée René Cassin in ninth grade, where he thrived playing rugby and developed a close relationship with his teammates, who he came to regard as family.
“(Rugby is) a nonstop game, so it’s kind of mixed with soccer and football and you have no padding,” Tardits said. “It’s a smaller team, so everybody’s kind of your brothers and I live with them, as well, because I go to boarding school.”
After spending two years in boarding school, Tardits was encouraged by his father, Richard, to give football a shot.
Richard, who played for the University of Georgia from 1985 to 1988, was a walk-on who went on to be UGA’s all-time sack leader until 2004 — earning the nickname “Le Sack” — and eventually play in the NFL.
“(My dad) wanted me to live kind of the same experience with football in America, so he heard about Coach (David) Perno, who was the new (head football coach), and they (got) in contact and so I came here,” Tardits said.
Standing at 6-foot-4 inches, weighing 218 pounds and armed with experience in collision sports, Tardits was well-equipped to join the CCHS football team. However, learning a new sport did present its own challenges.
“(My first football practice) was pretty hard. I had a lot of cramps and the heat was crazy. It was so hot I thought I was gonna pass out and my neck was killing me,” Tardits said. “I wanted to take off the helmet because I wasn’t used to it and everybody was just screaming.”
The adjustment period was difficult for Tardits.
“It was pretty bad,” Tardits said. “It probably took a few weeks, maybe two or three, just to get used to the (helmet) and the shoulder pads.”
CCHS Defensive Coordinator Justin Jones played a major part in helping Tardits acclimate to the new sport.
“It was hard, especially early on, because some of the things he did with rugby didn’t necessarily translate to football, so the terminology he had to get used to, and then just some of the rules he had to get used to.”
However, Jones found Tardits to be highly coachable.
“It’s been a really, really good experience (coaching Tardits). He was kind of like a piece of clay and you could mold him,” Jones said.
Not only did coaches see Tardits’ potential, his teammates were quick to recognize his assets, as well.
“He’s always confident, feeling good. He comes in with a great attitude and he knows his role on the team. He’s good for it being his second year playing football, he’s talented,” senior outside linebacker Elijah Smith said.
As the season progressed, Tardits developed a close relationship with his teammates, though he feels closer to his team in France.
“Sports really helped me (make friends) because just by being on the football team, it (gave) me kind of a group,” Tardits said. “(But) at my boarding school, I just live with those guys, really, so I don’t have that same connection. I have good friends here… but over there it’s really brothers. I live with them, sleep with them, do everything.”
After a rookie season that culminated in a playoff run, Tardits missed his last semester of the 2016-17 school year at CCHS when he received an offer to play for the French national rugby union under-17 team.
“I came back and worked out with (U-17 team). We went to South Africa and it was real good,” Tardits said. “We played against the South African under-17 team and we played against the under-17 English team, so I had a good experience over there.”
While riding high from the U-17 team, Tardits was faced with a decision his senior year: return to CCHS in pursuit of football and an education, or start on the path to a potential professional career in rugby.
“I wasn’t really supposed to come back here because I was doing pretty good and I had a pre-pro offer, and maybe (would be) starting to get money into this year or in two years,” Tardits said. “(But) I wasn’t gonna be able to get any studies, so I came back here.”
Tardits feels that he made the right decision coming back to CCHS, where he can focus on both school and football.
“In France, you can’t have good studies and still play high-level sports, and that’s what’s great with America: you can have great studies and have great level sports,” Tardits said. “I know if I go back over there, I still could restart my rugby career and it’ll still be there, and if I didn’t take this football chance it would probably be over for me, so I kind of felt like I needed to come back.”
Though he is only at CCHS for the fall, after which he will return to France, Tardits is working to make a lasting impact.
“This season I wanna get a lot of sacks and I’d like to get a (state championship) ring as well, that would be awesome,” Tardits said. “I think we can (win state) if we get focused, and like last year, we made progress through the games. We could go far.”
As for his future plans, Tardits is unsure whether they lie in football or rugby.
“I’d like to go to football and go to the Air Force Academy. And that would be pretty good if I could, but it’s kind of hard to get that recruitment. I don’t really know (if I have a future in football),” Tardits said. “I spent all my life, since I’m 10 years old, playing rugby, so I kind of already know people and have contacts. It kind of makes it easier.”
Despite the difficulties of recruiting, teammates feel that he has what it takes to play football at the next level.
“You can’t coach a great attitude and that’s what most coaches want in a team is a good attitude and good effort, and he bring(s) it all. I feel like he can go to the next level and follow in his father’s footsteps,” Smith said.
Jones agrees that Tardits has a bright future ahead of him, no matter the sport he chooses.
“With his intelligence and his character, he’s gonna be successful in whatever he chooses to do,” Jones said. “I’m pretty sure he’s gonna get the opportunity to play college football, and he’ll be an even better college football player than high school football player.”
While he’s waiting to hear back from colleges so he can make his final decision, for now, Tardits is returning to France in December.
“I’ll miss my teammates because I really spend a lot of time with them. And people here, I just really like them,” Tardits said. “I’ll be sad to leave everybody, but at the same time I’ll be happy just to find everybody again over there.”