As running back Emmitt Smith churned out yards for the Dallas Cowboys in the late 1990s, a little boy in Woodbridge stared intently at his television screen, convinced if he studied Smith hard enough he could one day be just like him.
There wasn't much about the linebacker position that intrigued the young Clint Sintim. His dreams of becoming the next Emmitt Smith quickly faded away when he settled in at defensive end at Gar-Field High. Sintim didn't realize his potential at linebacker until he got to the University of Virginia (5-6 overall, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference).
Now, he's set to play his last regular-season game Saturday at archrival Virginia Tech (7-4, 4-3), which will earn the ACC's Coastal Division title with a win. Sintim laughs when he thinks about how he used to cozy up to the TV and worship the soft blue-and-silver glow of Smith's image. It's a self-assured chuckle, a nod to past memories for a man completely comfortable with the immense impact he made from an outside linebacker spot at U.Va.
"I thought I was going to be a great running back," said Sintim, who is tied for second with former Heritage High student Darryl Blackstock on U.Va.'s career sacks list with 27. "That didn't work out."
Truth be told, Sintim has achieved more at linebacker than he probably could've ever done at running back. He leads all linebackers in the nation this season with 11 sacks, following up a junior season in which he also led all linebackers with nine sacks. He had nine sacks in the middle of this season during a five-game span.
At 6-foot-3 and 254 pounds, Sintim has a body that could be considered prototypical rush linebacker material in the National Football League. Sintim is projected by nfldraftscout.com to be a first- or second-round selection.
"He's kind of what every team that runs a 3-4 defense looks for in a defensive player because he's so versatile," said an NFL scout from an American Football Conference team who asked not to be identified. "He puts (offensive) linemen in negative situations with his speed … Watch how he adjusts to the ways teams try to neutralize him and you'll see what I mean."
It was that aptitude that impressed U.Va. coach Al Groh. Groh knew early on in Sintim's career he was dealing with a player who was able to make adjustments on the fly, a characteristic that separates quick-thinking and quick-playing athletes from the rest of the pack.
"It was the last part of his sophomore season," Groh said. "In the beginning, he was just dealing with trying to get the assignments down from the outset. There wasn't too much room for spontaneity. It was just learn what his job was. Then, as he began to learn how to do his job more and he (could) more quickly recognize what the offense was doing, he started to flow a little bit more quickly. Right now, we have a great deal of confidence in the on-field decisions he makes and we give him the latitude to do that."
Sintim has started every game since the start of his redshirt freshman season, a team-high stretch of 48 consecutive games. To this day, he still is stunned he played at all in 2005 as a redshirt freshman. He didn't think he was ready. After making the transition from defensive end to linebacker, his learning curve was steep as he got used to playing in a 3-4 for the first time.
"I can actually watch NFL games now with teams that play 3-4 defenses and see how somebody is out of position, or see the mismatches because I've been coached so well," Sintim said.
Sintim said he was drawn to U.Va. because he wanted the chance to play for Groh, who had coached former NFL linebackers such as Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks. Sintim turned down scholarship offers from Virginia Tech and Maryland. He admits not being much of a U.Va. fan growing up. Though he insists he wasn't a Tech fan, he refuses to identify what school he followed most as a child.
"I'd rather not say," Sintim said. "I had a lot of teams that I liked. Virginia wasn't one of them."
There doesn't seem to be any sign of arrogance in Sintim's attitude, and no lack of appreciation for what it took to get to this point. He still remembers being a self-described "clumsy" defensive end in high school. He can recall the exact day he broke his leg in a basketball game in his senior year at Gar-Field: Jan. 13, 2004.
Even when he thinks about what kind of legacy he'll leave behind at U.Va., he downplays his role. He refers to players such as tight end John Phillips and running back Cedric Peerman as better ambassadors for the team.
"That means a lot for people to look at me and say I represent Virginia football in the right way," Sintim said. "I kind of always felt like I belonged here. Even though I waited it out (to announce the college decision late in his senior year), I might've just wanted some attention. In the back of my mind, I always knew I was going to end up here when it all came down to it. I couldn't have made a better choice."