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Missouri football's Sam takes one last dance

Tuesday, December 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:46 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 6, 2014
Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, center, is congratulated by teammates after he returned a forced fumble for a touchdown in the first half of Missouri's game against the University of Georgia. Sam's performance this year has surprised many, but he is now a possible first pick in the NFL draft.

COLUMBIA — After forcing the quarterback to the ground, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound defensive end releases his consuming grip, barrel rolls on the turf and springs up.

The defensive end, a redshirt senior, crouches into an exaggerated athletic position, knees bent and shoulders square.

He raises his massive right hand and curls it into a fist. He pumps once, twice — each time raising the hand as if it can propel him out of his crouch. It is frightening and organic, mechanical and brutish.

Then, all of a sudden, a burst of energy erupts from the force that is Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. He thrusts his fist forward, slicing through the air just like he slices through opposing offensive lines.

Another sack, another sack dance.

Missouri fans have seen Sam's sack celebration 11 times this season. But what they don't see are the contributions Sam's predecessors made to the dance.

They don't see Aldon Smith, a Missouri defensive end now starting for the San Francisco 49ers, fist pumping after forcing a fumble in 2010.

They don't see Jacquies Smith, a defensive lineman at Missouri who is now on the Buffalo Bills practice squad, raising his flexed right arm and hammering it down after tackling a Kansas State quarterback for a loss in 2011.

Teammates will tell you Sam is a character, a true original. But his sack dance, like his evolution into a sack machine, was born from Missouri's long tradition of star defensive ends.

Jacquies Smith and Aldon Smith are both in the NFL now. A year ago, you'd be hard pressed to find many people believing Sam could follow suit. Even his coach had some doubts.

"He made a pretty dramatic leap," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of Sam's play. "He was a real good player last year, (but) it wasn’t like he was a second or third team all-conference player."

Now, Sam is projected in some mock drafts as being a first-round pick. He'll tell you it's all because of those who came before him.

"I was behind those guys my freshman and sophomore years," Sam said. "I learned from those guys. If Aldon could do it, I can learn from the best. I can do it, too."

Evolution of "Big Marv"

Sam has another dance, only this one you won't see on a television screen or at Faurot Field.

We'll call this one the "Big Marv." It's goofy like the "Bernie Lean." But unlike the "Bernie" or Sam's sack dance, the "Big Marv" only appears in the locker room.

"They would all start doing this really funky dance in the middle of the locker room," Ben Walton, MU athletics photographer, said. 

The Big Marv started as a way to honor Missouri senior defensive tackle Marvin Foster. Foster, who has had an injury-plagued career for the Tigers, suffered a season-ending injury in a November game against Tennessee.

"Big Marv! Big Marv!" they chant while dancing.

Sam and the rest of the team don't begin their postgame celebrations until Foster has returned to the locker room. They'll go around the locker room looking for Foster, shouting his teammate's name for everyone to hear. Then, they dance.

"It's the entire team, 50 guys, all doing this goofy dance," Walton said.

Sam is a dancer, both on the field and in the locker room. But he is also a singer.

Teammates say Sam sings daily. During practice, one can hear Sam belting out some Motown classics.

"He’s not bad," cornerback E.J. Gaines said, before realizing he might be encouraging Sam. "Don’t tell him I said (that)."

"Definitive" career play

With 5:56 left in the second quarter, the eccentric, Motown-loving defensive lineman rises out of his crouch on the left the side of the offensive line, his massive hands unable to push their way past Georgia tackle John Theus.

His eyes grow wide as he sees teammate Shane Ray come around from the other side. Ray beats his blocker, obliterates Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray after a fake end-around play and forces the football out of Murray's grip. Sam scoops up the ball, cradles it in his right hand and pumps ferociously with his left as he returns it 21 yards for a touchdown.

Many consider this the definitive play of Sam's career. The No. 25 ranked Tigers were at No. 7 Georgia. It was their second Southeastern Conference game of the season. After a disappointing 5-7 season in which Missouri won only two games in its new conference, Sam was motivated to show this Tigers team was legitimate.

"Coach Pinkel came at the beginning of the year and just said we have to do something to earn some respect," Sam said. "I use that as motivation. I didn’t want to not go to a bowl game. I didn’t want to feel like we don’t belong in the SEC."

The touchdown put Missouri up 28-10, helping the Tigers upset the Bulldogs and putting them at the top of the SEC East division.

For Sam, it was the beginning of an impressive streak of disrupting opposing offenses. Sam had three games this season with three sacks. He totaled 10 1/2 on the year, the most in the SEC. He had 18 tackles for loss, also leading the conference. He was selected co-defensive player of the year by SEC coaches and was selected to all five All-American teams, making him only the second unanimous selection in school history.

Sam's success on the field immensely propelled his draft stock. It also took him on a college football award circuit with Pinkel, including the Lombardi Award ceremony in Houston. For Sam, it was all a bit overwhelming.

"Well, I tell you what," Sam said, "those rich people got their money's worth because I've never signed so many autographs and taken so many pictures and talked to so many people in my life."

Despite Sam being only a two-star recruit coming out of high school, he has risen to the top of the college football world.

"It doesn't matter what star you are coming out of high school, as long as you have a good motor and work hard," Sam said.

While people began to take notice of Sam this season, most don't know a lot about the defensive lineman. Sam didn't speak to the media from Oct. 5 until Dec. 10. Sam said he imposed this media blackout on himself to focus on football and graduating.

"I’m outgoing and never shy," Sam said. "If you think I’m a shy person then you’ve got another think coming."

Dancing at graduation, too

It's Saturday, Dec. 14. The graduating defensive lineman is about to receive his diploma at an MU commencement ceremony. He rises from his seat and walks toward the stage.

Then, while he's walking, one of the commencement speakers adds this before calling his name:

"All-American."

Almost on cue, Michael Sam raises his massive right hand and curls it into a fist. He pumps once, twice — each time raising the hand as if it can propel him from a two-star nobody to the latest in a long line of Missouri defensive ends in the NFL. He thrusts his fist forward. Yes, Michael Sam just did his sack dance at his college graduation.

"I didn’t know she was going to announce being the 33rd All-American," Sam said.

"I was like, ‘I’m just going to do it (the sack dance).'"

Sam is finished with college. He is almost finished with the Tigers, with the Cotton Bowl in his home state of Texas being his last game for Missouri. But because of his massive season, he likely won't be finished with football for a long time.

Emotional Senior Day

There is a picture floating around the Internet that perfectly encapsulates Sam's season.

It is of Sam and Pinkel embracing under the Faurot Field tunnel after Missouri defeated Texas A&M on Senior Day. The Missouri athletics department recently used it to promote Sam's unanimous All-American selection.

For photographer Walton, it is the type of photo he always strives to get.

"For me, that was a really cool moment," Walton said. "As a photographer it’s what you kind of strive for. That key emotion where people connect."

Before Sam and Pinkel met in the locker room tunnel, Sam is picked up by players and students. Missouri's student section rushed the field in celebration of the Tigers clinching the SEC East. Sam jubilantly chanted with the Missouri faithful, his helmet raised in the air.

After he is put down, Sam heads over to the hill on the stadium's north end to take a rock from the Rock "M" — a Senior Day tradition.

He continues to walk around the field, absorbing everything he can in that moment.

His eyes are big. He shouts something but realizes words cannot express what he is feeling. He takes his rock and walks toward the opposite end zone, heading to the locker room to start the "Big Marv" dance.

He walks to the tunnel and toward the locker room door. He passes fans who are still chanting his name. Then, five yards away, Sam sees Pinkel waiting for him under the doorway.

Sam, holding the rock in his left hand and his helmet in his right, doesn’t know how to react. His face contorts in overjoyed confusion. Pinkel begins to smile and Sam tries to do the same. The coach reaches out and wraps his arm around Sam's shoulders.

A proud Pinkel whispers something into Sam's ear. Sam gives a huge grin in return. 

After playing in his last game at Faurot Field, the All-American defensive lineman releases his coach from his consuming grip, wipes away some tears and heads into the locker room.

Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.


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