Michael Sam is gay. My brother showed me those words on the screen of his phone yesterday afternoon when a message popped up on his ESPN ScoreCenter app announcing that Sam, a defensive end from the University of Missouri and the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year last season, would become the first openly gay player in the NFL should he be drafted in May.
I don't know Michael Sam personally, but I spent four years at Mizzou, including two seasons watching Sam in person. This past November, I saw him wrestle Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to the ground when the Tigers took down Texas A&M. It was one of Sam's 11.5 sacks on the season. The 6-foot-2, 255-pound lineman was an exciting player to watch in person and a leader on a Mizzou team that returned the program to prominence.
Sam reportedly informed his teammates he was gay in a team-building exercise last summer. But according to teammates, the announcement wasn't a surprise.
"We knew,” said Terry Dennis, who played on Missouri’s football team from 2007-2011, overlapping with Sam for two seasons. “But being that he’s a teammate, we really didn’t care."
Dennis described Sam as a friend who was upbeat and outspoken in the locker room.
"He's one of our brothers," Dennis said. "There was no putting his head down, or being off to himself. In the locker room, me and him would be two of the loudest people in there, me and him just yelling back forth, just being obnoxious. There was never a time that I can recall that he was sheepish, shy or upset."
Other Mizzou teammates have echoed Dennis's sentiments. Since Sam's announcement, several current or former Tiger players have posted messages of support on Twitter and elsewhere.
It wasn’t just Sam’s teammates who knew his secret well before his announcement. Many in the local media knew as well.
"It's been one of the worst kept secrets in Columbia," said Austin Kim, a Mizzou graduate and the current sports director at ABC17 Sports in Columbia. "We heard rumors. It just shows you how cool and respectful everyone was [that the story wasn't reported]."
The middle of Missouri might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of forward thinking and acceptance, but the school and community in Columbia so far has expressed almost universal support and respect for Sam since his announcement. Cheers went up at local bars in Columbia when the news broke yesterday.
"No one felt like it was their job to say, 'Oh, we need a story on Michael Sam maybe being gay," Kim said. "I thought it was just really disrespectful if someone brought it up.”
Dennis added that, even though many on the team suspected Sam was homosexual, there was never any pressure from the other Missouri players to get Sam to say so. "That's not our story to tell," he said.
One of the biggest plays of Missouri's season came in the final game, in the waning minutes of the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma State. With 1:10 left in the fourth quarter, Mizzou clung to a 3-point lead. Oklahoma State was driving and reached Missouri's 30-yard line when Sam came barreling down on quarterback Clint Chelf, sacking him from the blind side and jarring the ball loose. Missouri linebacker Shane Ray scooped up the fumble and took it 73 yards for a touchdown. Game over. Sam was mobbed by his teammates in an outpouring of cheers. At that moment, like it had been all season, Sam’s play, not his sexual orientation, was the only thing that mattered to the people around him.
"I texted (Sam) yesterday and said, 'I was proud to be your teammate, I was proud after every fist pump you made after you made a big play or a sack, and I ain’t never been more proud of you than I am today," Dennis said. "I’ve never been more proud to wear that Tiger logo."