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First-team All-American defensive lineman Michael Sam made sporting history Sunday when he came out as gay.
The NFL draft prospect, who graduated from the University of Missouri in December, sat down with Chris Connelly from ESPN’s Outside the Lines to explain his landmark decision in an interview that aired Monday.
“I am a gay man and I am happy to be one,” he told the sports anchor, revealing that when it came to telling his fellow Missouri Tigers about his sexuality, “It [was] a load off my chest. I told my teammates this past August and they took it great. They rallied around and they supported me. I was kind of scared — even though they already knew, just to see their reaction was awesome. They supported me from day one.”
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Sam encourages younger players who are afraid to make that kind of statement to follow his lead. “They shouldn’t be afraid of who they are. They should be comfortable in their own skin.”
The defensive end outlined when he first began to come to terms with his sexuality. “I knew from a young age that I was attracted to guys. Growing up, I didn’t know if it was a phase. I wanted to find who I was — I wanted to make sure to find who I am. Now that I know I am gay, I am comfortable in my skin.”
Sam went on to explain that one of the landmark moments was his first relationship with another man. “I dated someone in college — I wasn’t hiding it, but I didn’t come out, either,” he said. “It was new, it was different. I had never dated a guy before — it felt right. I know what I want; I know I can have a relationship with a man. We went out in public, had dinners together, movies, holding hands.”
STORY: NFL Draft Prospect Michael Sam Comes Out; Hollywood, Athletes Applaud His Decision
Having survived a troubled upbringing marred with sibling deaths and arrests, Sam said that coming out was far easier than anything else he has endured. “I have seen so much tragedy in my past — seeing my oldest brother killed by a gunshot wound, not knowing that my older sister died when she was a baby, my second-oldest brother went missing in 1998, my other two brothers being in and out of jail since eighth grade… There were some hardships, tragedy and adversity — telling the world I am gay is nothing compared to that.
“I could be dead. I made a choice from a young age that I didn’t want to follow the path of my brothers. I wanted to be a success so my family could be proud of me,” he told OTL.
Sam’s upfront openness about his sexuality may be a first for NFL prospects, but he isn’t focusing on changing national opinions right now. “I don’t look at it like that — I am Michael Sam and I am a football player. I want to be a football player in the NFL. This is a big process and I know that.”
Rather than wait until he was drafted, Sam revealed his sexuality before anyone else did. “I was going to tell whatever team I got drafted by and tell the owner, coach and the GM about my sexuality, but knowing two weeks ago how many people actually knew, we expected that all the scouts knew,” he explained. “I didn’t know how many media actually knew, and I was afraid it would leak out without me actually owning my truth. I wanted to let the world know and tell them, ‘I’m gay, let me actually own my own story.’ “
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Sam, who was named a first-team All-American and Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference, said he isn’t worried about fans heckling him from the stands or yelling offensive comments. What is important is that the NFL “see not just a gay athlete, but they see an athlete who knows how to play the game. It shouldn’t matter — if I work hard, if I make plays, that’s all that should matter. I like to see myself as that: I can help teams win games.
“My teammates accepted me — we showered in the locker rooms together and there was never a problem. It is a business workplace. I have never been attracted to my teammates because I don’t want that problem.”
When asked if he would play for a team like the Minnesota Vikings, who have retained special teams coach Mike Priefer despite accusations of bigotry levied against him, Sam replied. “Whoever wants to pick me up in the draft knowing I am gay is the team I want to play for. I am a football player and that’s all that matters.”
The 2014 NFL draft begins May 8, and Sam is currently projected to be chosen in the middle to late rounds.
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