Throughout his senior season, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam did his best to duck the spotlight.
He declined interview requests, saying he preferred to focus on graduating — Sam received a degree in sports management Saturday — and let his play do the talking.
Of course, Sam’s play spoke volumes.
How loud was it? When the Associated Press selected Sam as a first-team All-American on Tuesday, he became the 12th Tiger football player — and only the third on defense — to win consensus All-American honors.
“It’s so difficult to be (a consensus All-American),” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “You think of all the great defensive linemen we’ve had around here, too. You’d think we’d have more of them on the wall. But he’s very worthy of it. It’s historic.”
The NCAA officially recognizes five postseason All-American lists. Players who make the first team on three of the lists are considered consensus All-Americans, while players who appear on all five are unanimous.
Sam, who also was a first-team selection by the Walter Camp Foundation and The Sporting News, is Missouri’s first consensus All-American since tight end Michael Egnew in 2010 and the sixth under coach Gary Pinkel.
The American Football Coaches Association and Football Writers Association of American haven’t released their lists, so Sam could become only the second unanimous MU All-American, joining two-way star Danny LaRose in 1960.
Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is Missouri’s only two-time consensus All-American, in 2007-08, giving the program 13 consensus All-American honors overall.
“He made a pretty dramatic leap,” Pinkel said of Sam. “He was a real good player last year, but it wasn’t like he was a second- or third-team all-conference player last year. He went from there to being a consensus All-American.”
It has become increasingly difficult for Sam to stay out of the limelight as the awards continue to pile up, so Tuesday he also broke his silence with reporters, granting the first interview since Oct. 5 after Missouri’s victory at Vanderbilt.
“The things my team and I accomplished have been awesome,” Sam said. “Coach Pinkel in the beginning of the year in January just said we have to change something to earn some respect. I used that as motivation. I didn’t want to not go to a bowl game or hear, ‘Oh, we don’t belong in the SEC.’
Sam, who was chosen Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year by The Associated Press and shared that honor with Alabama’s C.J. Mosley in a vote by the SEC’s coaches, certainly proved he belonged.
He became the 33rd All-American in Missouri history after leading the SEC with 10 1/2 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss. He is one sack shy of Missouri’s single-season record, 11 1/2 by Aldon Smith in 2009.
“Aldon Smith and Jacquies Smith, I was behind those guys freshman and sophomore years, so I learned from those guys,” Sam said. “I was like, ‘If Aldon can do and I can learn from the best, I could be there one day, too.’
Sam spent last week crisscrossing the country on the awards circuit.
He left Atlanta after the SEC championship game for Charlotte, N.C., where he was a finalist Dec. 9 for the Bronko Nagurski Award.
Two days later, Sam headed for Houston, which is roughly 40 miles north of his hometown of Hitchcock, Texas, with the rest of the Lombardi Award finalists.
“I tell you what, those rich people got their money’s worth,” Sam said. “I’ve never signed so many autographs, took so many pictures or talked to so many people in my life.”
Sam had been a productive player in his first three seasons, totaling 9 1/2 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss in 38 appearances, including 10 starts.
Better focus and discipline led to greater things during a breakout senior season.
“Sometimes I get (overexcited) out there playing the game and just get out of my zone, so I just kind of calmed down and started focusing on my opponent (this year),” Sam said.
Pinkel isn’t surprised such a switch helped Sam elevate his game.
“Generally, it’s more mental than anything,” Pinkel said. “He’s physically about the same player he was a year ago, but mentally he’s at a different level in how he competes and how he prepares and all those other things.”
Sam also was chosen first-team All-America on Tuesday by CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated. CBS Sports also listed junior defensive end Kony Ealy on the second team and senior cornerback E.J. Gaines on the third team, while Gaines received honorable mention from Sports Illustrated.
Neither of those lists are official for consensus All-American purposes.
Associated Press All-America team
Quarterback – Jameis Winston, redshirt freshman, 6-foot-4, 229 pounds, Florida State.
Running backs – Andre Williams, senior, 6-0, 227, Boston College; Ka'Deem Carey, junior, 5-10, 196, Arizona.
Tackles – Jake Matthews, senior, 6-5, 305, Texas A Cyrus Kouandjio, junior, 6-6, 310, Alabama.
Guards – Cyril Richardson, senior, 6-5, 340, Baylor; David Yankey, senior, 6-5, 313, Stanford.
Center – Bryan Stork, senior, 6-4, 300, Florida State.
Wide receivers – Brandin Cooks, junior, 5-10, 186, Oregon State; Mike Evans, sophomore, 6-5, 225, Texas A
Tight end – Jace Amaro, junior, 6-5, 260, Texas Tech.
All-purpose player – Jordan Lynch, senior, 6-0, 216, Northern Illinois.
Kicker – Roberto Aguayo, redshirt freshman, 6-1, 203, Florida State.
Ends – Michael Sam, senior, 6-2, 255, Missouri; Jackson Jeffcoat, senior, 6-5, 250, Texas.
Tackles – Aaron Donald, senior, 6-0, 285, Pittsburgh; Will Sutton, senior, 6-1, 288, Arizona State.
Linebackers – Anthony Barr, senior, 6-4, 248, UCLA; C.J. Mosley, senior, 6-2, 238, Alabama; Ryan Shazier, junior, 6-2, 230, Ohio State.
Cornerbacks – Darqueze Dennard, senior, 5-11, 197, Michigan State; Lamarcus Joyner, senior, 5-8, 190, Florida State.
Safeties – Cody Prewitt, junior, 6-2, 220, Mississippi; Deone Bucannon, senior, 6-1, 198, Washington State.
Punter – Tom Hornsey, senior, 6-3, 210, Memphis.
Quarterback – Johnny Manziel, sophomore, Texas A
Running backs – Tre' Mason, junior, Auburn; Bishop Sankey, junior, Washington.
Tackles – Cameron Erving, junior, Florida State; Taylor Lewan, senior, Michigan.
Guards – Gabe Jackson, senior, Mississippi State; Xavier Su'a-Filo, junior, UCLA.
Center – Gabe Ikard, senior, Oklahoma.
Wide receivers – Sammy Watkins, junior, Clemson; Davante Adams, sophomore, Fresno State.
Tight end – Eric Ebron, junior, North Carolina.
All-purpose player – Ty Montgomery, junior, Stanford.
Kicker – Anthony Fera, senior, Texas.
Ends – Vic Beasley, junior, Clemson; Shilique Calhoun, sophomore, Michigan State.
Tackles – Timmy Jernigan, junior, Florida State; Kelcy Quarles, junior, South Carolina.
Linebackers – Trent Murphy, senior, Stanford; Khalil Mack, senior, Buffalo; Chris Borland, senior, Wisconsin.
Cornerbacks – Justin Gilbert, senior, Oklahoma State; Jason Verrett, senior, TCU.
Safeties – Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, junior, Alabama; Ahmad Dixon, senior, Baylor.
Punter – Drew Kaser, sophomore, Texas A
Quarterback – A.J. McCarron, senior, Alabama.
Running backs – Carlos Hyde, senior, Ohio State; Ameer Abdullah, junior, Nebraska.
Tackles – Jack Mewhort, senior, Ohio State; Gregory Robinson, sophomore, Auburn.
Guards – John Urschel, senior, Penn State; Ryan Groy, senior, Wisconsin.
Center – Reese Dismukes, junior, Auburn.
Wide receivers – Allen Robinson, junior, Penn State; Jordan Matthews, senior, Vanderbilt.
Tight end – Austin Seferian-Jenkins, junior, Washington.
All-purpose player – Odell Beckham Jr., junior, LSU.
Kicker – Jeff Budzien, senior, Northwestern.
Ends – Marcus Smith, senior, Louisville; Jeremiah Attaochu, senior, Georgia Tech.
Tackles – Ra'Shede Hageman, senior, Minnesota; Leonard Williams, sophomore, Southern California.
Linebackers –Shayne Skov, senior, Stanford; Max Bullough, senior, Michigan State; Denicos Allen, senior, Michigan State.
Cornerbacks – Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, junior, Oregon; Vernon Hargreaves III, freshman, Florida.
Safeties – Jimmie Ward, senior, Northern Illinois; Ty Zimmerman, senior, Kansas State.
Punter – Austin Rehkow, freshman, Idaho.
Consensus MU All-Americans
Darold Jenkins, C
Danny LaRose*, E
Johnny Roland, DB
Roger Wehrli, DB
Kellen Winslow, TE
John Clay, OL
Rob Riti, C
Jeremy Maclin, all-purpose; Martin Rucker, TE
Chase Coffman, TE; Jeremy Maclin, KR/all-purpose
Michael Egnew, TE
Michael Sam, DE