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Michael Sam received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs on Wednesday night, following his groundbreaking decision to come out in February and become the NFL’s first openly gay player.
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After a comprehensive and emotional video reel, Sam took the Nokia Theatre stage to accept the award from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and was greeted by a standing ovation.
“This year I had a lot of experience being part of something bigger than myself. At times, I felt like I’d been living in a massive storm, … but the lessons learned — love, respect and being true to yourself — will never leave me,” he said, fighting back tears.
Sam then quoted Arthur Ashe — “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can,” — and noted, “Those were the words to live by, whether you’re black or white, young or old, straight or gay. … Football raised me, football taught me about hard work.”
He said of his groundbreaking standing, “The way I see it, my responsibility at this moment in history is to stand up for everyone out there who wants nothing to be themselves openly,” revealing that he was asked to speak with someone who was considering committing suicide, but was moved not to because of his public announcement. “It’s amazing to think that by doing what we can, we can all touch, change and even save lives.”
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Sam then thanked his Mizzou family, Rams coaches and teammates, family and boyfriend Vito Cammisano, telling him, “You are my inspiration.” He called the award “one of the thrills of my life, and I promise to spend the rest of my life trying to live up to this honor and trying to become the best football player I can.”
He closed by speaking directly to those out there, especially young people “who are feeling like they don’t fit in and will never be accepted, please know this: great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself.” Upon ending his speech, Sam received a second standing ovation from the audience.
The former University of Missouri defensive lineman first updated fans on his time since the draft, during which he was picked up by the St. Louis Rams. “It’s been very positive,” he said during ESPN’s ESPYs preshow on the red carpet outside the Nokia Theatre at L.A. LIVE, noting that he loves being a pro player in his home state. Sam also praised head coach Jeff Fisher in his promise to provide a safe space for his new recruit: “We talked all about football, because that’s what matters. I was not trying to make history, I’m just trying to make an NFL roster,” Sam said of his early chats with Fisher, and added of his teammates, “They have had my back since day one.”
Looking back at his historic moment, Sam said he didn’t think he was being particularly courageous enough to be awarded at the ESPYs. “When I came out, I thought I had told all my truth and that’s all that matters. I didn’t know at the time that I was trying to be an inspiration to anyone…. I have no regrets.”
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Sam noted that the most difficult part of the experience was “probably sitting down and just texting my friends, saying, ‘Hey, I’m about to come out, watch ESPN,’ ” but the most rewarding aspect was a particular piece of feedback he received. “The day I got drafted, a Missouri native, a marine, his son started bawling just like me, He told his father he was gay, and his father thanked me.”
Watch the speech below:
Debbie Emery contributed to this story.
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