COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Michael Sam laughed when asked if he was the most famous person from Hitchcock, Texas.
"As of right now, yeah I am, actually," the Missouri defensive end said.
Sam led the Southeastern Conference with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, and The Associated Press put him on its All-America team this week after tabbing him as the SEC defensive player of the year.
"Coach (Gary) Pinkel, at the beginning of the year in January, said we had to do something to earn some respect," Sam said. "And I used that as motivation. I didn't want to not go to a bowl game. And I didn't want to be like, 'Oh, we don't belong in the SEC.'"
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior credits his teammates for his individual awards, and they were the ones talking for him during the season. Sam didn't meet with the media after the opening day of fall camp.
He says he wanted to focus on football and graduating with a degree in sports management, which he completed last week replete with a rendition of his "sack dance" as he received his diploma.
"He's a great, cool guy to be around," defensive end Kony Ealy said. "He's funny off the field. He's serious when it's time to be serious on the field. He has a high motor. He lifts people. He doesn't necessarily have to say it; he goes out there and he shows it on the field."
A lightly regarded recruit, Sam played as a two-way starter at Hitchcock High in a town of about 7,000 people nestled along the Gulf Coast some 40 miles southeast of Houston. His first two years at Missouri, Sam backed up Aldon Smith and Jacquies Smith, both of whom compete in the NFL.
Sam recorded 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss as a junior in 2012 before helping the ninth-ranked Tigers win 11 games this year and advance to the SEC championship game in the team's second season in the league.
"It's been a privilege to see him grow as a player and help me grow as a player," said right tackle Mitch Morse, who lines up opposite Sam in practice. "I'm just glad I was along for the ride."
Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said it's not uncommon for players to reach a new level during their fourth or fifth years with a school, a notion Pinkel agreed with.
"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, how he competes, how he prepares."
Sam will now finish his college career in his home state as Missouri (11-2) faces former Big 12 foe and 13th-ranked Oklahoma State (10-2) in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 3 in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys have won the last three matchups between the schools and score 39.8 points per game.
Oklahoma State averages 172 rushing yards, a statistic that could make the Tigers wary after allowing 545 yards on the ground to Auburn on Dec. 7. Missouri entered the game allowing only 119.1 rushing yards, but Pinkel said his team lost its poise in an unfamiliar environment, and wants his players to learn from the experience.
Sam hopes for a personal rebound, too, before he trains for the NFL draft. He registered 10 of his sacks within a five-game stretch, and only has 0.5 sacks and two tackles for loss in his past five contests combined.
The good news is that he's done traveling for award shows for the time being.
"Well, I tell you what," he 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."