He’s a granite slab of a man – 6-feet, 245 pounds – who has spent a lot of time in a gym. One of the tattoos on his bulging right biceps is a band of four letters: “STBH.”
They’re initials for “Strive to be happy.”
That’s the last line of Desiderata, the wonderful, reflective prose poem penned by American scholar and writer Max Erhmann in 1927.
“It’s a very simple poem, but it says a lot,” said the 48-year-old Hemingway, who uses it as something of a touchstone for his life.
And there have been times he’s needed to draw on that.
He spent several years in R.A.N.G.E. as an undercover officer, immersed in the world of drugs and guns and bad guys doing our community harm.
He’s reluctant to tell stories, but when pressed he shared one.
“There was a gun deal where I knew the bad guy was bringing a gun to sell me,” he said quietly. “I was still kind of new to undercover and he gets in the backseat. He’s sitting behind me and he pulls out the gun and he’s fingering it and waving it around.
“I knew he was bringing a gun to the party – I’d asked him to – but it was very unnerving having him right behind me. Ideally, you want him in the front seat, but I couldn’t act like a police officer. Right then, I was just another bad guy buying a gun, so even though I was scared and my mind was racing, I was like, ‘Oh that’s cool. What do you want for it?’”
Detective Sam Hemingway, who is part of the Five Rivers MetroParks police department, has spent the past dozen years as a member of the Montgomery County Regional Agencies Narcotics and Gun Enforcement (R.A.N.G.E.) Task Force. CONTRIBUTED
When that’s your everyday world, you need an escape.
For him, it’s a place where he protects the bad guys ... and the good guys, too. It’s the world of pro wrestling – the over-the-top soap opera populated by heels (the rule breakers, the villains) and babyfaces (the heroes and fan favorites.)
He is head of security for All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the second most popular wrestling promotion in the world. It’s based in Florida, but as the COVID-19 sanctions are lifting, it’s back to business as it once was, meaning there’ll be shows across the nation.
Hemingway is always right near the ring, making sure the wrestlers are protected from over-amped fans and, sometimes, the other wrestlers themselves.
If you were watching TNT on Wednesday night – the weekly AEW Dynamite show – you saw him bolt into the ring in Jacksonville to pull wrestler Darby Allin off a screaming Ethan Page to prevent him from further gouging his long, black-painted fingernails into the eyes of guy he plans to meet in a future “coffin match.”
Next Wednesday’s show is in Miami and the next two weeks after that they’ll be in Texas. From there AEW goes to Charlotte and Pittsburgh and then to places like Chicago, Queens, Newark, Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis and New Orleans.
Hemingway uses vacation time, time owed and he’s even taken a leave from police work to do the wrestling gig. He works at least two shows a month and often is assisted by Shane Sullins, a retired local police officer and actor, who is his right hand man.
AEW has a partnership with Mexico’s Luche Libre AAA, so in years past Hemingway has worked matches there, as well as in Canada and he’s even provided security on a wrestling cruise – Miami to the Bahamas -- featuring AEW legend Chris Jericho and other wrestlers.
While the venues change, the age-old set up remains the same.
The heels get the fans going with their posturing, their antics and their bombastic verbiage.
“I’m in charge of their safety and because of it they know they’re able to do things and say things and we’ll keep them safe,” Hemingway said.
Over the years – his career began back at the long-ago wrestling shows at Hara Arena, where he went from an 18-year-old security guard to head of security – he’s had fans take a swing at him, throws things and curse him unmercifully.
In the end it’s still an escape when your other job has someone waving a loaded gun behind your head as he’s about to commit a crime.
Hemingway no longer does undercover work.
“I got out of it,” he said. “Dayton and Montgomery County aren’t that big. Basically, the bad guys knew who I was, so it wasn’t safe.”
As a plain clothes detective his main areas of concern still are weapons and especially drugs.
“A lot of cases we investigate are mid-level cartel cases,” he said. “Back in 2015 and 2016, the biggest issue was opioids and accidental overdoses. At one point Montgomery County was at the epicenter of overdoses. We led the country.
“A lot national news people – Good Moring America, Chris Hansen -- came in here to report. Hansen rode with me and my partner. He interviewed me, but they just used my voice and didn’t show my face.
“Even though those numbers have gone down, meth has taken its place. It’s as much, if not more of a problem.”
And with the drug scourge comes its byproducts – everything from human trafficking to surging medical costs.
Yet against all those negatives, Hemingway see positives from his efforts:
“The last two to three years I’ve sometimes questioned if I was making difference, but I think I am helping some people.
“And when I question it, I think of that Starfish Poem. I’ve got something similar to it on my desk and I make a point to read it often. It grounds me a little bit.
“Basically, it tells about an old guy and a little kid walking along the seashore. A bunch of starfish have washed up and the old man picks one up and throws it back in the water.
“They walk farther and the man suddenly bends down, picks up another and throws it back.
“There are still hundreds and hundreds lying on the shore and finally the kid asks, ‘Why are you doing it? It’s not gonna make a difference.’
“And the guy says, ‘To that one it just did.’”
Detective Sam Hemingway, a granite slab of a man thanks to his time in the gym, works for both the Montgomery County Regional Agencies Narcotics and Gun Enforcement (R.A.N.G.E.) Task Force and is head of security for Florida-based All Elite Wrestling . CONTRIBUTED
Captivated by pro wrestling
Hemingway grew up in the Westwood area of West Dayton. His mom was a nurse at the VA and his stepdad – who died when Sam was young – worked in janitorial services a Wright Patterson AFB.
“As a little kid, I didn’t like the police,” he admitted. “The crowd I ran with, we felt the police were picking on us.”
What he did like was pro wrestling.
“At the time my best friend, Myron, lived behind me,” he said. “I remember being over there once, I was just a little boy, and we were playing.
“His granddad was a mountain of a man – probably about 6-foot-5 – and he was watching studio wrestling. I’d never seen it before, but I was fascinated because of the way his granddad reacted.”
Hemingway said his aunt and a brother-in-law – he’s the youngest of seven kids – took him to wresting shows at Hara and he was captivated. The place was dark and smoky. The bright lights were focused on the ring.
“My era of wrestling was Tully Blanchard, Dusty Rhodes, Arn Anderson, Tommy ‘Wildfire’ Rich, Jim Crockett Promotions,” he said.
Eventually he and a buddy began to focus on the yellow-shirted security guys who got to be ringside and after the shows walked the wresters to their cars.
“We thought those were the coolest jobs,” he said.
He went to Patterson Co-op, where he played football and threw the shot and discus. Later he had a short stint with the Dayton Cowboys semipro football team.
We he turned 18, he got a security job at Hara. His buddy often wrestled around here as The Wrecker, and another pal, the late “Big Daddy” Rog Cox, became a local wresting fixture in Dayton.
“My mom passed away when I was 19 and for a while I felt lost and had no direction,” he said. “I knew I had to make some decisions and set some goals.
“At Hara we were working with police officers from Madison Township and I got to know some of them and see what they did and how you could help people. And I began thinking about going into law enforcement, too.”
Sam Hemingway, then about 3, gets a hug from his mother, Joyce Camp. She died when he was 19 years old. CONTRIBUTED
He went through the police academy and then spent three years with the Germantown Police Department and five with Clay Township. Next came Five Rivers MetroParks Police where he was asked to join the R.A.N.G.E. Task Force.
But he admitted his undercover work got off to a rocky start.
“The very first undercover deal I did went to (crap) real quick,” he said with a laugh. “It was a gun deal – car to car – and me and my partner were buying a gun from some other guys.
“All of a sudden the driver looks over at me and says: ‘I know you from somewhere.’
“I said, ‘No you don’t. I’ve never seen you in my life.’
“He said, ‘Yeah, where you from?’
“We’re taught to say things that come natural to us, so I said, ‘Westwood.’
He looks and says, ‘Naah, you’re a cop!!!’
“He drives away. There’s a big pursuit and they ended up getting him and the gun. But my confidence level was way down. I thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this, Never. The guy figured me out right away.’
“But I learned you just got to get back up on the horse and try again and that’s what I did.”
While he was working an Extreme Championship Wrestling show at Hara, Hemingway was spotted by Ronnie Lang, head of Atlas Security, which protected the ECW wrestlers.
Lang offered a job and soon Hemingway was working shows along the East Coast and in the Midwest.
“If it wasn’t for Ronnie, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said. “He gave me an opportunity.”
He eventually gravitated to the AEW, which was formed in 2019 by Tony Khan and his father Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Many of the wrestlers simply call him Security Sam.
He said most know he is a cop and he believes they find comfort in that because they figure his professional training will help him handle the situations that arise.
While there’s still plenty to watch for, he said it may not be as crazy as it was back in the day.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts – the 66-year-old WWE Hall of Famer whose ring accessories included a Burmese python that added slithering menace his ring persona – now works as a manager in the AEW.
“He told me a story how a guy once took out a gun and shot rounds at him,” Hemingway said.
Sam Hemingway working security at a big AEW show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. CONTRIBUTED
And he said Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard – also Hall of Famers now with the AEW – told him stories about old ladies in the crowd who had hat pins and would jab them as they walked by.
“I can’t imagine dealing with all that,” Hemingway laughed. “But I also know the other world and dealing with some of the real bad guys on the street. “I love being a police officer and I love pro wrestling, too. I like the emotions wrestling evokes and the drama aspect, the story it takes people on. And it’s provided a good escape from (the pressures of) law enforcement.
“The day I retire as a police officer I know what I’m going to do. I’m already doing it. Working in wrestling, I’m living my dream.”
It’s a world where he doesn’t have to arrest the bad guys.
He just has to protect them.