Hitchcock, Texas, seems like an odd place to find a pocket of rabid Missouri football fans.
It’s a town of 8,000 people roughly 40 miles south of Houston near Galveston Bay, more than 850 miles from Columbia. The typical graduating class at the town’s high school is around 75 students.
But Tigers senior defensive end Michael Sam is a former two-way player for Class 2A Hitchcock High School’s beloved Bulldogs. And with Sam emerging as a national star by destroying Southeastern Conference quarterbacks, the attention makes perfect sense.
Sam, who is tied for first in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 10 sacks and ranks second in tackles for loss with 16, graduated from Hitchcock in 2009 and is a folk hero in his hometown.
“Trust me, everybody Googles and reads everything they can about Michael,” Hitchcock athletic director and football coach Craig Smith said by phone. “We definitely keep up with him around here. It’s a big thing. Whenever they play, my phone just blows up with texts from ex-players or friends in town.
“People just can’t get enough watching him play. They’re super excited down here.”
Nationally, Sam has risen from obscurity to stardom over the last two months, earning midseason All-American honors from numerous publications and rocketing up NFL Draft prospect rankings.
In his redshirt freshman season in 2010, Sam made seven tackles for loss, including 3 1/2 sacks. But he has become a consistently disruptive force as a senior. He scored on a 21-yard fumble return in the Tigers’ upset win Oct. 12 at Georgia and needs two more sacks to set an MU single-season record.
“It’s the difference between knowing the defense and living and breathing the defense when you’ve been doing the same thing for five years,” said defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who recruited Sam to Missouri. “He’s being able to be reactive and not thinking about it too much.”
Tennessee coach Butch Jones called Sam, who drew constant double teams in last Saturday’s win against the Volunteers, “as good of a player as we’ve faced” — and that was a week after getting pummeled by Alabama.
“I love the way he plays,” said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, whose Wildcats play host to Missouri on Saturday. “He’s very explosive and plays with a great motor. We’ll have our hands full.”
Back in Hitchcock, Sam’s fans didn’t need him to rack up 19 1/2 career sacks at Missouri to know he was a star.
Fans still talk about the time Hitchcock played Class 5A Chavez from Houston, and Sam dominated a matchup against Michael Brockers, who now plays for the St. Louis Rams.
“He rocked this ol’ boy all night long,” Smith said. “We knew (Brockers) was already committed to LSU and he got to rest on offense, while Michael had to play both ways for us.”
In 2010, Hitchcock fans went to Reliant Stadium in Houston to see MU play Navy in the Texas Bowl.
“We were just excited that he was getting to dress out. … It’s a small-town pride thing,” Smith said.
Each week, Smith shows his current Hitchcock team highlights of Sam’s play from GaryPinkel.com as inspiration.
“The kids get real excited when they put on the highlights and it says, ‘Michael Sam, Hitchcock, Texas’ there on the screen,” Smith said.
Out of high school, Sam was a two-star recruit, according to Rivals.com. Last week, he was announced as a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award, given to college football’s best defensive player. He’s also a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award, given to the best lineman or linebacker.
“Michael Sam has raised the bar for expectations and excellence,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “(Our defensive ends) are all competitive and they want their tackles for loss. They want their sacks, and it’s a real healthy competition. But Michael, with the level he’s been playing, everything’s kind of changed a little bit.”
Sam has not spoken to reporters since Oct. 5. But the Tigers’ coaches laud his maturity and the ferocity he displays every down. Other Missouri players say they follow Sam’s lead.
“Before we go out there for a series, he’ll grab me by my facemask, look into my eyes and say, ‘I need you this series. I need you to be with me,’” junior defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said. “And that just gets me all fired up and ready to go.”
Hitchcock’s coaches know that intense passion well.
“There’s hundreds of little stories,” Smith said. “On days we’d be inside because of bad rain, we’d have to work out in the gym. To get our conditioning, we had a StairMaster. I can remember, when his time would come, he would have it on an unbelievable fast-paced level for 20 minutes that nobody else could do.”
Sam, who started traveling with Hitchcock’s varsity team as an eighth-grade water boy, played virtually every down during his last three high school seasons, which Smith thinks helped fuel his high-motor style even more.
“He wasn’t at a big school, where he was specialized as just a D-end,” Smith said. “He had to turn around and play left tackle, so that might have helped him. Whether it’s punt, kickoff, kickoff return, you’ve got to have your best athletes out on the field and he was one of them. …
“Everything Michael Sam’s got, Michael Sam earned. He had a lot of support from a lot of friends and coaches and other people around the school, but he’s worked hard and everything he’s got he’s deserved. It’s been great to see.”