CASA GRANDE — When Sam Reeves arrived on the Truman State University campus as a freshman walk-on, he had no idea he would eventually become one of the top Division II football players in the country.

Reeves, a 2015 graduate of Vista Grande, went to the college in Kirksville, Missouri, on a wrestling scholarship. He walked on to the football team, and four years later, he’s leaving as one of the best players in school history.

Last week, Reeves was announced as a finalist for the Gene Upshaw Division II Lineman of the Year Award. A list of 35 candidates was narrowed down to eight — four offensive linemen and four defensive linemen.

The national round of voting began Monday and ends Sunday. The winner will be announced Wednesday and receive an invitation to play in front of professional scouts at the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 18 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“The first thing that came to mind was (that) it was a blessing for me,” Reeves told PinalCentral by phone Tuesday. “Just all the hard work I’ve put into the sport.”

With the body of work Reeves has amassed in his four years with the Bulldogs, it’s no surprise he’s a finalist. The defensive end has 40½ career sacks, which ranks No. 1 in the country across all NCAA divisions.

In his senior season, Reeves has 44 tackles and 9½ sacks in 11 games — and he has one game left to play.

Truman State is 9-2, just the seventh time in school history the program has won nine games. That record got the Bulldogs an invite to the inaugural America’s Crossroads Bowl against Ohio Dominican (7-2) on Dec. 7 in Hobart, Indiana.

“It’s fun, exciting,” Reeves said of going to a bowl game. “I’ve never made it to the playoffs.”

It’s the first trip to the postseason for the Bulldogs since they made the Division II playoffs in 1994, and it’s the first bowl game for the program since 1980.

While Reeves is always ready to play, inspiration for him and the football team has come from a particularly powerful place this season.

Tyriek Lewis, a redshirt freshman linebacker, suffered a stroke in July. Lewis couldn’t move anything on his left side. The vision in his right eye was gone.

“That humbled us as a team,” Reeves said. “He needs assistance taking a shower, going to the restroom.”

For Reeves and his teammates, it was a reminder they had no reason to complain about the little things that were making them upset or sad. All they had to do was look at Lewis, who was facing incredible adversity and learning how to walk again.

On Sept. 14, Lewis, with assistance from a walker, made his way to midfield for the coin toss before Truman State’s game against Wayne State (Michigan). The Bulldogs won the game 35-12.

“He’s been an inspiration, most definitely,” Reeves said.

Reeves, from Eloy, ended up at Truman State because the school was willing to allow him to wrestle and play football while other colleges were not.

While he did double duty with football and wrestling his first three years, Reeves decided to hang it up in wrestling to focus on football this year and moving forward.

Despite being undersized at 5-foot-8, the 225-pound Reeves has aspirations of playing professional football. Size has always been an obstacle for him to overcome. Conversely, production has never been an issue, as his 40½ sacks and 59 career tackles for a loss speak for themselves.

Reeves said no scouts or coaches have reached out to him specifically about playing at the next level, but he isn’t letting that discourage him. He cites the journey of former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, listed at 6 feet, as motivation. Harrison was undersized, played at a small school (Kent State) and went undrafted but eventually was a five-time Pro Bowler and Defensive Player of the Year.

If professional football doesn’t work out, Reeves has a good backup plan.

“I want to open up my own gym and be a personal trainer,” he said.

Reeves said his passion for fitness and sports makes it a natural career field for him. He did an internship at Foothills Acceleration & Sports Training in Chandler during the summer.

To stay on the right track with his academics, athletics and other priorities, The most important thing Reeves learned in college was time management and personal accountability.

“(College) taught me a lot about myself,” he said. “Surrounding yourself with the right crowd. It’s easy to get caught up in the wrong crowd and partying.”

Reeves said advice he would give to athletes just entering college is to “stay a student-athlete first” and learn time management. He added good teammates helped keep him focused on the right things.

Visiting home during Thanksgiving, Reeves said it’s nice to spend time with family. Most of his teammates and college friends have fairly short drives to St. Louis or Kansas City and can go home easily. Not the case for Reeves, whose home is 1,400 miles away.

Of course there’s a bonus about being home for Thanksgiving this year. Now that Reeves no longer has to make weight for wrestling immediately after the football season, he’s eating like never before — and enjoying every minute of it.