(B. 01/07/1990) Born in Hitchcock, Texas. Michael Sam was the seventh out of eight children. His parents had divorced when he was young he lived in a broken home. He watched one of his older brothers die from a gunshot wound, another gone missing, two of his brothers ended up in prison and a sister who had passed away before he was born. His father walked out on their family when he was 5 and at one point, Sam and his mother were living in the backseat of her car. In the town he grew up, Sam had to contend with bullying from his own family, particularly his brothers, as well as the dangers of the town he grew up in for which his family had a bad reputation thanks in large part to his older brothers that ended up either in jail or dead. Two of his older brothers were routinely in and out of jail and routinely beat up and abused Michael. In an interview with GQ, he shared about his life growing up and his relationship with his family…
“I still got beat up a lot. We called the cops on my brothers so many times I can’t even count. Not only for hurting me. They’d abuse my sisters. Verbally abuse my mom. Call me that word [“faggot”], although they meant “scared,” “sissy,” not “gay.” Our house was…strangers showing up, coming in. When I was a kid, I had no idea what they were doing. Now I know. My brothers were evil people. I don’t have a relationship with them now. They’ve both written me letters from prison. People tell me I need to forgive. I will learn to forgive them. I will love them from a distance, just like I love my dad from a distance. But I will never have a special relationship with them. What I went through was scary. For them to dare to call themselves my brothers—I can’t live with that.“
Sam strove to set himself apart from his family, an attitude he brought to how he interacted with neighbors, coaches, classmates and was determined to separate himself from his family and their notorious reputation. When Sam was in 8th grade, he began traveling with Hitchcock High School’s Varsity Team as a water boy, he was recruited by the Hitchcock High School coach who helped Sam learn and train for football. By his freshman year, he joined the team as a defensive end and offensive tackle. Sam and his mother often argued and fought over Sam playing football. His mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, did not approve of the sport and insisted Sam shun organized sports. This alienated Sam from his mother as Sam saw sports as his salvation and path to get out of the crime-ridden town and away from his abusive family.
Throughout High School, Sam tried to stay away from his family’s house as much as possible. At one point he moved in with a teammate at their parent’s house who offered a more stable household and guidance for Sam to finish high school. During his junior year, a coach suggested that he was talented enough to play on a Division I team. Sam had not even considered college at the time, he responded to the coach with “What does Division I mean?” His athletic capabilities drew the attention of several college recruiters and he received scholarship offers from Arizona State, Colorado State, University of Houston, and University of Missouri (Mizzou).
Sam accepted the scholarship to Mizzou to play and study. Throughout high school, Sam considered himself as bisexual and dated a few girls but remained in the closet. By the time he arrived at Mizzou, Sam came to accept that he was gay and while he did not go out of his way to hid it, he did not choose to come out until his senior year. At a team “introduce yourself” bonding session, everybody had to share something that nobody else knew and Sam used it as an opportunity to come out. Sam was universally accepted and embraced by his Mizzou teammates who went on to join him on various adventures to local gay clubs and pride events. Sam was also dating a member of Mizzou’s swim team, which he never tried to hide the relationship from his teammates.
At Mizzou, Sam proved himself to be a strong and capable athlete. He was named a first team All-American and he helped the team achieve various Bowl Championships, including the 2014 Cotton Bowl. Sam took part in the NFL Scouting Combine where he was initially predicted to be a 3rd or 4th round draft pick. Unfortunately, his performance at the combine didn’t quite achieve expectations. Despite having played defensive end in college, he was considered as physically too small for the position in the NFL. So, he switched to play as an outside linebacker but was too slow in the position.
Before and during the combine, a lot of speculation and discussion surrounded Sam as an openly gay athlete and whether or not it would impact his being drafted. In an interview with ESPN, Sam shared his coming out story and experience with his Mizzou teammates to help quell the swirling rumors regarding his sexual orientation and answer the questions that often plague gay athletes. Choosing to come out then so that he could keep the focus on his athletic pursuits rather than his sexual orientation.
After winning the 2014 Cotton Bowl, Mizzou held a ceremony to celebrate the championship during half time at a Mizzou Basketball Game. This prompted members of a hate group to protest Sam’s participation. The protest was wet with counter protestors by thethousands of Mizzou students who formed a “human wall” to block the hate group’s message from being seen or heard.
A month after the combine, participating in training, he began to show considerable improvement and was eventually drafted in the 7th round by the St. Louis Rams. Sam became the first ever openly gay athlete to be drafted in the NFL. A moment that was streamed live all over social media when he his boyfriend celebrated the achievement with a big kiss. The previous spring, despite never had an openly gay player in the NFL. The NFL sent a memo to the 32 teams that outlined a code of conduct in regard to sexual orientation and included prohibited behaviors such as trying to find out if a player is gay or engaging in any kind of homophobic or demeaning language. After Sam was recruited, the NFL released a statement…
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
In addition, President Barack Obama also congratulated Sam…
“The President congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward today in our Nation’s journey” and that from the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT Americans prove every day that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are.”
Sam made his professional debut on August 8th, 2014 when he stepped onto the field for a preseason game with the New Orleans Saints. He stood out for recording 11 tackles and three sacks in four preseason games, including a team-leading six tackles in the final game. Despite his early success with the Rams, he was cut from the final roster at the end of the preseason. The final decision came down between him and rookie Ethan Westbrooks. Both players had similar statistics, but Westbrooks had the versatility to play all four defensive line positions, whereas Sam could only play left defensive end. However, four days after he was cut from the Rams, Sam was added to the practice squad for the Dallas Cowboys. He was let go from the Cowboys in October. He later shared about his experience in the NFL…
“I had to prove myself, to show that I was one of the guys,” said Sam, who spoke at the University at Albany. “I was cut from the Rams, even though I was in the top five in sacks. Then I went to the Cowboys and had to do it all over again. And then I was cut there. I always felt like an outsider looking in.”
Sam reflects his experience with the media and its impact on his NFL prospects…
“When I was drafted I thought the headline would be ‘NFL has first openly gay player,’ but instead it was ‘Sam kisses boyfriend.’ Should I have kissed a girl? The media made it a distraction.”
Sam was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2014 ESPY Awards and was named one of GQ’s Men of the Year.
The following spring, Sam signed a two-year contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, he became the first openly gay player in the CFL. He was briefly placed on suspension upon returning home to Texas during the preseason and made his official CFL debut in August against the Ottawa Redblacks. He then left Montreal again citing mental health reasons and in an interview with radio host Dan Patrick, he stated he never wanted to play in the CFL. On August 14th, 2015 Sam announced his retirement from professional football due to mental health reasons dealing with the trials and tribulations from his year in professional football as well as his breakup with his boyfriend.
Since his retirement from professional football, Sam has made a career as a motivational speaker and LGBTQ activist. He is also working on a healing process in acceptance and forgiveness as part of his mental health recovery.
By Dirk Smith