Michael Sam's rise from unheralded recruit to unstoppable SEC force
South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney was supposed to lead the SEC in sacks, tackles for loss and pretty much any other pass-rushing statistic anyone wanted to add up in 2013. But Clowney, who likely will be the first defensive end selected in this year's NFL draft, didn't lead America's top pro-producing conference in any of those categories. Missouri's Michael Sam did.
Sam, who arrived in Columbia as a two-star recruit from the Gulf coast town of Hitchcock, Texas, piled up 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a senior and was voted by his teammates as the MVP of a team that won the SEC East and finished 12-2. That's what makes this next part so interesting. Sam revealed on Sunday to The New York Times that he is gay. No openly gay athlete has appeared on the roster of a team in one of America's three major professional sports. Judging by his success at the college level, Sam is about to change that.
Twelve-year NBA veteran Jason Collins, who came out in a Sports Illustrated story in 2013, remains unsigned since revealing his sexual preference. Because he played for so long, Collins would command a higher salary relative to the statistics he can reasonably be expected to post. Using the NBA salary scale, Collins would cost about $1 million more than a similar rookie. Given the potential ancillary issues, the economics of the situation do not bode well for Collins. That isn't the case for Sam. He is just leaving college, the NFL's most recent collective bargaining agreement keeps rookie salaries relatively low and, perhaps most importantly, the list of the most important positions in football in 2014 looks like this:
2. Left offensive tackle
2A. Pass rusher (either 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 hybrid linebacker/end)
3. Gap-clogging defensive tackle
In other words, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sam plays a critical position better than most of his peers, and the collective bargaining agreement dictates that he must work (relatively) cheaply. Sunday's revelation aside, Sam still may have to adjust to the fact that he projects as a 3-4 hybrid linebacker rather than a 4-3 end, which is what he played in college. Still, given his proven ability to rush the passer against quality collegiate competition, it seems unlikely that every NFL team would allow him to go through all seven rounds undrafted. Some team is going to choose Sam.
"Obviously he's a very good athlete," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in December. "He can run. He's strong. He's physical. But when you do the disruptions he's done in the backfield, when you do it to the level he's done it, it's because you play competitively at a different level than the people you're playing against play-in and play-out. That's what Michael Sam has done."
Putting aside Sam's revelation Sunday, the idea that Sam would be discussed as a potentially high NFL draft pick would have seemed shocking when he graduated from Hitchcock High in 2009. Sam weighed 220 pounds as a senior, and while a few coaches saw a future at the major college level, most ignored him. In the summer before his senior season, he hit the camp circuit. He had early offers from Colorado State, Arizona State and Houston, but he told Rivals.com in July 2008 that what he really wanted was an offer from Texas A&M. That one never came, but another Big 12-but-soon-to-be-SEC school had Sam on its radar.
Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski had successfully recruited receiver Jared Perry and linebacker Will Ebner from nearby, so he knew about Sam. He also knew that with the exception of Iowa State, which hosted Sam on an official visit, the other Big 12 schools weren't interested. So as National Signing Day approached in 2009, Kuligowski pleaded Sam's case to Pinkel. Pinkel liked what he saw on video, but he had one condition. "Mike, for whatever reason, got slightly overlooked," Kuligowski told the Missouri team website late last year. "But I knew about him. I liked him. We had a spot that had opened. Coach wanted to meet him in person before he made an offer. Obviously, I thought he was going to be a good player for us or I wouldn't have recruited him." Sam took an official visit to Missouri on the weekend before National Signing Day. Pinkel made the scholarship offer on the Saturday of Sam's visit, and Sam accepted.
Sam redshirted in 2009. When he finally hit the field at Missouri in 2010, he showed glimpses of what he would eventually be. Seven of his 24 tackles went for a loss, and he forced two fumbles, intercepted a pass and blocked a kick. Sam's numbers didn't improve much as a sophomore, but during his junior season, he was one of a few bright spots during an injury-marred debut season in the SEC for the Tigers. Still, Sam saved the biggest jump for his final college season.
During a 51-28 win at Vanderbilt that suggested the 2013 SEC season would look nothing like the 2012 season for Mizzou, Sam made three tackles for loss. In a 36-17 rout of Florida on Oct. 19, Sam had three sacks. The Tigers closed the regular season against Texas A&M, the school Sam wanted to attend as a high schooler. He sacked Johnny Manziel once, and the Tigers scored late to clinch a 28-21 win and the SEC East title.
"He was a good player a year ago," Pinkel said the following week. "He went from a good to a great player. He did that through remarkable determination and effort, relentless competitiveness play after play after play. I'm so proud of him."
Sam's teammates were equally impressed with the player who cracked them up with his constant singing at practice and wowed them with his ability to shed offensive tackles and reach the quarterback. "He's just a beast on the field," linebacker Donovan Bonner said a few days before Missouri faced Auburn in the SEC title game. "I've watched him mature on and off the field. ... He helps the defense out a lot. He's become a leader. He was in the shadow of some great defensive ends over the years. ... It's his time to shine. He stepped into that role, and he's really excelled at a level that no one expected."
Despite those gaudy statistics and a leadership role with the Tigers, Sam said very little publicly during the 2013 season. He spoke to reporters after the Vanderbilt game on Oct. 5, and then he didn't give an interview again until he hit the postseason awards circuit. Considering rumors about his sexuality were being posted on some message boards as early as August 2012, the media blackout by the typically outgoing Sam makes far more sense now. The question could have come at any time, and Sam might not have been prepared to answer. Now, Sam made his announcement before everyone's least favorite talent evaluator, Anonymous NFL Scout, could leak Sam's business to the wider world.
What happens next will be fascinating. Not only because Sam is gay, but because as we learned last season at Missouri, he's also very, very good at football.