Former Missouri Tigers defensive end and 2014 NFL draft entrant Michael Sam announced Sunday in interviews with ESPN and The New York Times that he is gay. Outside the Lines' Chris Connelly and The New York Times' John Branch were first to report the news of this landmark development:
"I understand how big this is," Sam said, per Connelly. "It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL."
Sam says that his experiences at the Senior Bowl shaped his decision to make the announcement:
"I didn't realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me," he said. "I want to own my truth. ... No one else should tell my story but me."
He had already confided in a few close friends, Sam recalled, and had dated a fellow athlete who was not a football player -- so while coming out to his Mizzou teammates last year was a key moment, it came almost as an afterthought, during preseason training camp.
"Coaches just wanted to know a little about ourselves, our majors, where we're from, and something that no one knows about you," Sam said. "And I used that opportunity just to tell them that I was gay. And their reaction was like, 'Michael Sam finally told us.' "
Asked what that moment felt like, Sam said, "I was kind of scared, even though they already knew. Just to see their reaction was awesome. They supported me from Day One. I couldn't have better teammates. ... I'm telling you what: I wouldn't have the strength to do this today if I didn't know how much support they'd given me this past semester."
Sam is an impressive, versatile athlete at 6'2" and 255 pounds and his skills figure to translate well to the pros. The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year has the potential to be an impact pass-rusher at either defensive end or outside linebacker.
With his ability to get after the quarterback (11.5 sacks in 2013), and sheer size and speed, Sam could be a decent contributor as a rookie in 2014. OptimumScouting.com's Mark Dulgerian provided his take from what he saw at the Senior Bowl, noting that Sam is best suited at the 4-3 defensive end position he played in college, per The Kansas City Star's Terez A. Paylor:
That seems to be where he’s more comfortable, getting into his rush moves and using his initial power instead of setting up defenders off the edge from a two-point stance. I didn’t see him much in pass coverage, but from what I know about him and what I saw (Monday) … that’s really not his strong suit, overall.
As steep as the learning curve can be in making the leap to the NFL, the adjustment on the field might be easier than what Sam faces in assimilating to whichever locker room and organization he walks into. Sexual orientation and homosexuality specifically has been a taboo issue in the NFL, as no active players have come out publicly in the history of the league.
Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who is an advocate for gay rights, had said this past offseason that as many as four players were considering coming out at the same time.
In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper just days later in April, Ayanbadejo discussed the matter further, as reported by Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio:
[T]hese players, some of them are anonymous, some of them we know who they are, but their identity is super secret and nobody wants to reveal who they are, and some of them don’t want to reveal who they are, rightfully so because it’s entirely up to them what they are going to do. What we want to facilitate is getting them all together so they can lean on each other, so they can have a support group. And potentially it’s possible, it’s fathomable, that they could possibly do something together, break a story together.
The four players never came forward, but the group mentality that could make such a decision to go public a little easier is a sound tactic given the PR implications of making such an announcement.
That's something Sam seems undaunted by.
Although NBA center Jason Collins came out to the public as the first North American major sports athlete to do so, he was already an established presence in his sport and was at a late juncture in his career.
For a young player to do this ahead of the NFL draft is a bold move by Sam, but it's also a refreshing, transparent approach that suggests he is prepared to be honest and take control of his own situation. That's something NFL teams will undoubtedly appreciate.
Sam spoke about the draft process and how he hopes he'll be received in the locker room:
"I just want to go to the team who drafts me," he said, "because that team knows about me, knows that I'm gay, and also knows that I work hard. That's the team I want to go to."
Sam said that despite some comments from current players, he doesn't anticipate difficulty gaining acceptance in an NFL locker room.
"Hopefully it will be the same like my locker room," he said. "It's a workplace. if you've ever been in a Division I or pro locker room, it's a business place. You want to act professional."
Plus, all indications are that Sam has been a positive influence in the Tigers program as an upbeat player who helped make the day-to-day rigor of practices fun with his strong personality. Fellow defensive end Shane Ray elaborated on some of Sam's funny antics in an Oct. 10 report byTod Palmer of The Kansas City Star:
Mike Sam is a singer. He creates a remix to any song and he sings it at practice repeatedly...Mike is our comedian and he gets us through practice...Practice is essentially a job. Every day, you go out there and you’re working, but you don’t want to go out there and just be going through the motions.
It's interesting to note that Sam did not speak with the media in a mass interview between preseason practice in August until he was preparing for his final game at Missouri, which was an AT&T Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma State.
Sam discussed his passion for football after being just the 13th consensus All-American in Tigers program history and why he averted interviews for so long, per the Columbia Daily Tribune's David Morrison:
It honestly doesn't matter what star you're ranked. As long as you have a good motor, you can play football and love the game, I think you can be one of the top people in the nation. [...]
If you think I'm a shy person, you've got another thing coming. I was focusing on playing football and focusing on graduating. I think [talking to the media] was an outside distraction.
All indications are that Sam has made a significant impact on and off the field in his time in Columbia and has made strides as a player and as a person. Even though he will likely encounter scrutiny from various parties for this announcement, Sam appears to be eager to get to the next level and see where his potential and sensational athleticism can take him.
That should be enough to sway front offices that might be on the fence after Sam's public stance on his sexual orientation. It shows courage and is an indication that Sam is comfortable with who he is and isn't afraid to share it no matter what others think.