Michael Sam lightens mood for Missouri football, one song at a time

Friday, August 24, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
The Missouri football team Thursday had its last preseason scrimmage of the year. The team is gearing up to play Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 1.

COLUMBIA — The sound of football filled the air Thursday afternoon inside Memorial Stadium.

Players collided, smashing pads loudly. Defensive linemen yelled as they thrust their hands against a tackling sled in preparation for the scrimmage to come. Coaches scolded bad technique and applauded the opposite, clapping loudly during drills.

Scrimmage Notes

Missouri played its final preseason scrimmage Thursday at Faurot Field, with the offense repeatedly making plays and driving down the field. A few highlights include:

  • Starting guard Jack Meiners going down with a left knee injury, further adding to a black-and-blue fall for Missouri offensive linemen. After the scrimmage, coach Gary Pinkel called the injury a sprained knee, and an MRI is still to come. After Meiners was helped off the field and carted into the tunnel, Max Copeland and Evan Boehm took over the guard duties with the first-team offense.
  • Dorial Green-Beckham breaking away from the pack for a 65-yard touchdown catch. The highly-touted receiver caught a quick slant from Maty Mauk, shed an initial tackle and scampered through the middle of the field toward the end zone. Several defensive backs tried to run him down, but their efforts were in vain. The play served as an exclamation point at the end of an increasingly-impressive camp for Green-Beckham.
  • Trey Barrow and Andrew Baggett both turning in underwhelming kicking performances. Pinkel said going into the scrimmage that Barrow held a slight lead in the race to become the team's top place kicker, but that Baggett could win the job back with a strong performance. Both kickers finished 3-7 on field goals Thursday, leaving the team once again without a clear winner.

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But above all the noise, Michael Sam’s crooning stood alone.

“It’s hot in here! Getting a little thirsty! Getting pretty dehydrated!” Sam sung, translating his thoughts at the given moment into an improvised solo ballad.

His voice, loud and rarely in the intended key, is a staple of Missouri practices.

Sam, a junior defensive end from Hitchcock, Texas, is a man of two mindsets. On the field, he’s focused. The songs give way to explosiveness and quiet determination, traits that have allowed him to win a starting job this fall. But when he crosses onto the sideline, his inner child seems to break free, releasing whatever tune, catchphrase or movie quote escapes his subconscious.

For his teammates, each shaky note further demonstrates an obvious truth: Most of Sam’s talent lies on the football field.

“His singing, on a scale of 1 to 10 … I’d probably give him like a six,” senior offensive lineman Elvis Fisher said. “It’s pretty good, but he’d still be kicked off American Idol on the first day. But for here, it’s pretty good.”

Even when the music fades away, Sam can’t help but make his voice heard. During a physical morning practice earlier in camp, junior linebacker Andrew Wilson snagged an interception and began to run with the ball.

Most of his teammates shouted encouragement or stood quietly on the sideline. Sam, allowing his pop culture instincts to kick in, seized the opportunity.

“Wilson! Wilson! Wilsoooonnnnn!” Sam screamed hysterically, mimicking Tom Hanks’ frantic cries after losing his beloved volleyball in the 2000 film “Cast Away.”

With Sam – regardless of the situation – you never quite know what you’re going to hear.

“He’s freaking hilarious. Mike…” Fisher began before laughing loudly. “He just says the dumbest stuff.”

But a personality without focus isn’t much use to the Missouri Tigers. In Sam’s case, the player and the crooner rarely meet. When he crouches at the far end of the defensive line, his eyes rest firmly on the quarterback. He’ll speak up, yelling encouragement or play calls to his teammates, but his thoughts never stray far from the task at hand.

A player like Sam – a joker or a warrior, depending on the moment – is rare.

“There aren’t many Michael Sams walking around,” sophomore linebacker Darvin Ruise said. “He’s one of those guys that just has a passion for the game. And when I say that, I mean that he’s a very vocal leader and a physical leader. He’s just a vocal guy. He loves the game, and it shows in his play and in his voice.”

Fisher, a sixth-year senior and two-time team captain, sees a lot of himself in Sam. He describes the ability to sing, laugh and then focus as a skill, just like protecting the quarterback or rushing the passer.

“It’s a learned skill. For some guys, you have to come out here and be serious. When I was a freshman, I had to do that just to be able to focus,” Fisher said. “But now, guys like us – we can joke around, but when they snap that ball it’s serious. It’s a switch that you can turn on and off.”

When the switch is on — as it was during Sam’s ballad about the sweltering heat on Thursday — the mood on the Missouri sideline lightens almost instantly. Sam says, when the grind gets you down, sometimes all you need is a tune and a smile.

“You know, sometimes practice can get a little rough,” he said, pausing between statements to suck on a red, white and blue Popsicle. “This is our 24th practice. Everybody’s beat up, so singing is one thing that can help lighten the load a little bit.”

Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.

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