It took a great deal of bravery for Michael Sam to come out as gay right before the NFL draft that would determine his future. But, in a talk September 27, part of Worcester State University’s Diversity Lecture Series, he explained that courage was something he had to develop to survive a childhood filled with almost unbelievable trouble and tragedy.
Nevertheless, he triumphed and now dedicates his life to helping others do so as well.
A childhood marked by tragedy
Sam, a consensus All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year in his final season at the University of Missouri, was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. He made history when he came out as gay ahead of the draft, making him the first openly LGBTQ player to be drafted in any major American sport. A barrage of press coverage, positive and negative, ensued, and that’s where most of us pick up on the Michael Sam story. But it’s not where it begins.
It starts with his family’s often unsuccessful struggle to overcome a seemingly endless string of adversity. His parents had had eight children together. They lost his sister, Chanel, under tragic circumstances before he was born, and, later, his older brother, Russell, was shot and killed for trespassing on private land. Sam still calls them by their names in a gentle, reverent tone.
After Russell’s death when Sam was five, his father “left us, like a coward does,” he said. Sam speaks fondly of the years his older brother, Julian, had childcare responsibilities, while his mom worked, describing them as “the best three years of my childhood.” But tragedy struck again when, in 1998, Julian simply disappeared after walking Sam and his sister to the school bus stop. “As the bus was leaving my brother walked back into the house and I never saw him again,” Sam said. He remains missing.
Sam experienced abuse from two older brothers, who were involved with gangs and drugs, after they took over childcare duties. He had two saving graces: school and football, which he started playing after a coach recognized potential in him that Sam had been completely unaware of. While his mother objected to him playing any organized sports, his estranged father stepped in.
Football a savior
“My Mom told my coach ‘No,’ and the only good thing my dad has ever done for me was to convince her to allow me to play football, and without that I wouldn’t be here today,” Sam said. (Much later, Sam’s father was widely quoted in national news media saying he was a “man-and-a-woman type of guy” after his son came out as gay.)
Sam’s natural talent led him to make varsity as a freshman—a rare achievement in high-school-football-crazed Texas. Yet he never dreamed he would to go to college, expecting instead to work in the oil refineries of nearby Texas City after high school.
Then the recruitment letters started coming in and suddenly college was an option. The drive to play Division 1, which requires good grades, kept him focused on schoolwork. He passed the math SAT score threshold just days before the recruiting deadlines, on his fourth try.
Scholarship offers ensued. After scoping out a few schools, Sam accepted an offer to attend the University of Missouri because “I didn’t understand what it was then, but I felt the universe was telling me that I should go there,” he said.
It would be a life-defining choice.
Life in the closet
During high school Sam had started to realize that he was attracted to males. “In the summer of 2009, I had experimentation and sure enough afterwards I knew I was pretty damn gay,” he said, with a laugh. “That’s when I knew. So, I became a freshman at University of Missouri knowing that I am gay, but I still tried to deny it. I said to myself, ‘Well what do I do? Do I come out? Is this just a phase? What is this?’ ”
What he decided to do was bury his feelings deep inside, thinking maybe they would go away. That approach worked pretty well until he met Vito Cammisano, a swimmer at University of Missouri. “He pretty much changed my life forever,” Sam said. “We hit it off fast. We started dating secretly. It was like a fairy tale. I was so happy. I’d never been so happy in my life.”
Unfortunately, the fairy tale ended when rumors started to circulate on campus that Sam was probably dating the swimmer. “I didn’t take that well because I’m a football player and I’m a big guy and I’m not supposed to be gay and this isn’t supposed to be happening,” he said. “So, I started distancing myself from Vito and I was not in a good place.”
“We were very secretive,” Sam said. “And after so many fights Vito had kind of had enough. He was tired of this lifestyle because he was out and I was in the closet.” After one fight, Cammisano very pointedly asked Sam, “When you look in the mirror who do you see?”
Who do you see?
The question affected Sam deeply because he didn’t know the answer. “I was a pretender trying to be someone I’m not,” he said. To find out, he decided to get involved in the LGBTQ community to see how he might feel to be a part of it. First, he participated in St. Louis Pride. “Shockingly no one cared or even gave me a second look,” he said. “Everyone there was just full of love and good spirit, and I just felt like I was supposed to belong in this community.”
Then, he went back to Columbia, Missouri, home of the university, thinking, “OK, that was St. Louis. Maybe it’s different in Columbia.” But he got the same warm welcome in the LGBTQ community there. “They knew that I was a football player, too, and they couldn’t care less,” he said.
The next step was coming out to his team.
At the start of camp in August of 2013, just before Sam’s senior year, the coach, as always, had each player come up, say his name, where he’s from, and tell the team something they don’t already know about him.
“So when it was my turn, I said, ‘My name is Michael Sam. My major is sports management.’ Then I paused. I paused because it was the first time I ever said these words, and then I said, ‘and I’m gay.’ And the look on my teammates faces was, like, ‘Oh, crap. Michael just came out.’ ”
To his relief, the players and coaches accepted him, and he went on to lead the nation is sacks and helped turn the 5 and 7 team of the previous season into a 12 and 2 contender for the SEC championship. “I was just happy at being alive,” he said. “I was happy at being myself and it showed in my performance in the field.”
“It was the turning point of my life because that was who I was,” Sam said. “At that moment, I was truly Michael Sam and I had no regrets, and the rest is history.”
That history, known through news accounts, includes an expectation that the All-SEC defensive end would have been drafted in an early round; he was not. He made it through training camp with the St. Louis Rams, was cut just before the season began, and was soon thereafter picked up by the Dallas Cowboys—only to be cut again just before the team entered the playoffs that season. He spent some time in the Canadian Football League, then left football.
Meanwhile, Sam said, he had begun to read messages from those who have been inspired by his story. He told of one lesbian woman who said he had saved her life, keeping her from committing suicide. Sam is not sure what he will do next, but for now, he’s on a college tour, speaking out to students, many of whom are struggling with coming out to family, friends, and teammates, and with how to be themselves. His message to them is clear: If I can do it, you can too.
Upcoming Diversity Series Talks
The Diversity Lecture Series continues November 14 with a talk by Rev. Sharon Washington Risher, who was catapulted into the limelight after the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting at the Mother Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. Her mother, Ethel Lee Lance, the church’s sexton, was among eight people killed. Victims also included two cousins and a childhood friend.
The series concludes March 15 with a lecture by J. Danée Sergeant who will speak about her mental health journey and the odds she overcame starting in fourth grade. Since seeking and receiving the help needed to manage her own mental health issues, she now empowers others to speak up and seek out help so they can succeed in their academic careers.
All lectures are at 11:30 a.m. in the May Street Auditorium. The Diversity Lecture Series is sponsored by Active Minds, the Student Involvement and Leadership Development Office, Athletics, and the Health Promotion Office.
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