NFL Draft: How Wade Davis and Others Paved the Way for Michael Sam

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NFL Draft: How Wade Davis and Others Paved the Way for Michael Sam
Scott Eisen/AP Images
Former NFL player Wade Davis spoke to reporters at the Chicago Gay Pride Parade of 2013, when he was grand marshal.

This year's NFL draft will be different than ever before because it will feature Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in the history of the league. 

But this story is bigger than Sam and actually begins with people long before him—men who sacrificed their individuality and their ability to love openly all so Sam could reach this point.

They are heroes. They are men like Wade Davis. 

Davis' NFL draft story is dramatically different from Sam's, but it's also extremely familiar. It begins in the weeks before the 2000 draft, after Davis finished his football career at Weber State, where he was an honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference selection. 

Davis says he remembers a scout from the St. Louis Rams coming to work him out. Davis, the scout and one of the Weber State coaches were walking back to the locker room when the scout asked the coach a simple question.

"So, is Wade a ladies' man?" the scout said.

For a moment, Davis panicked. Not because he was a ladies' man, but because he wasn't.

Davis knew he was gay, but in those days, before Sam, you wouldn't dare let anyone know that. In those days, openly gay players simply didn't get drafted.

Davis thought the scout knew he was gay, but he didn't. It was a stupid question, but there was no double-meaning.

"I was hypersensitive to everything," Davis said.

So after the scout departed, thinking he knew his secret, Davis went into macho-frat-boy mode. He began frequenting more strip clubs and being seen with as many women as possible, just in case the scout was onto him.

"It was a different time getting ready for the draft in those days," Davis said. "You had to hide who you were."

Back then, a gay player was a closeted player. Now, everything is different, and not just a gay player's preparation for the draft.

Everything. All of it. And Michael Sam changed that.

***

In many ways, Sam made it here, to the draft, because of a steady progression of acts—some unknown to history—and silent pioneers. He is here because a legion of people no one knows, or remembers, came before him.

Some gave up careers. Some relinquished their sanity. Or, like Davis, their individuality. Others gave their lives. Sam is here because of people like Davis and Akil Patterson.

Courtesy of Akil Patterson
Akil Patterson as a Maryland Terrapin

"When I played football," Patterson said, "the NFL and the draft weren't ready for a story like mine."

Thirteen years before Sam, Patterson was a football player at the University of Maryland. He thought constantly about being in the pros like several of his teammates, including Domonique Foxworth, who went on to play for three NFL teams and become president of the NFLPA.

One day, while Patterson was in college, a man kissed him. It changed everything, altering his life forever. 

Once Patterson accepted he was gay, after years of denying it to himself, he decided to tell his friends. Patterson informed his offensive line. One of the linemen, a friend, started crying.

"I said, 'Dude, I'm not dying,'" Patterson said, laughing now.

"I didn't think about being gay," said Patterson. "The only time I worried about it was when a coach yelled 'f----t' or a teammate said, 'I'm going to whip that gay kid's ass.'

"But staying in the closet eats at you," he said. "It eats you up. You think you're hiding something important about yourself. My way of coping was to say, 'I'm going to go fight someone. Then drink some beer. Then fight again. Then take home as many girls as possible.'"

But he said none of that could keep staying in the closet "from eating at you."

***

There has been a legion of men like Sam throughout sports history, except they stayed closeted. 

Some married women. Some were bullied. Some never told a single person who they really were for the entirety of their lives.

"It really does feel like Michael Sam is the climactic figure in this story largely because of the timing," said Cyd Zeigler, one of the co-founders of OutSports.com, a site dedicated to covering gay athletes. "He's going to answer every question in the book, from the draft and hazing to playing time and teammate acceptance.

"Jason Collins coming out still left a bunch of questions because he was a proven quantity. Same thing with Robbie Rogers and all of the retired players who have come out. Sam's not even in the league and he's declared publicly he's gay. When he's drafted, makes a roster and plays in a game, there won't be any questions left about where the NFL is on our issues."

USA TODAY Sports
Jason Collins as a Brooklyn Net

Collins came out following the 2012-13 NBA season and was the first openly gay athlete in any of the four major North American sports. A free agent when he made his announcement and for most of the 2013-14 season, Collins eventually signed with the Brooklyn Nets in February. Rogers came out in February 2013 and briefly retired before signing with the L.A. Galaxy in May of the same year.

The known history of gay players in the NFL is almost nonexistent.

Dave Kopay, an eight-year veteran who played for five teams, announced he was gay in 1975—three years after his playing career ended. Esera Tuaolo and Roy Simmons were among a handful of other NFL players who announced they were gay after their playing careers.

But none did what Sam is doing now.

***

The groundwork laid by all of these individuals—and many more we do not know—is what will likely allow Sam to become the first openly gay player to be drafted and play in the NFL. He's another link in the chain. 

"Gays don't want people's acceptance," Patterson said. "Accept us. Don't accept us. But we're here. The train is moving. Get on the train or get off."

Said Zeigler: "I don't think it's a matter of accepting gays or not. We can have debates about marriage, adoption and the role of religion, but where Americans aren't in a debate is whether gay people should be able to play the sport they love and do their job. These are virtually open-and-shut cases.

"The few people who say they would have a problem showering with a gay man have never knowingly done so. Once they do, they quickly realize we're not a pack of wolves looking to ravage the bodies of every straight man we see. All of the arguments thrown out there against gay athletes come tumbling down every time an athlete just comes out and shows up in the locker room. Michael Sam's experience at Missouri, along with the experience of virtually every other gay male athlete who's coming out publicly in the last 15 years, is evidence of that."

Patterson believes Sam represents progress, but he also believes it isn't as much progress as some gay rights advocates and others in the media believe.

"There's progress, but here is where real progress will be made," he said. "When a college (football) coach recruits an openly gay top recruit. Or when an NFL coach is kind with a player he knows is gay. When the fans stop yelling 'faggot' from the stands. When the lives of young gay men stop being at stake. That's when we know we've finally made real progress."

Patterson said this is not just about football. "There are young gay kids being bullied. There are real lives at stake," he said. "In terms of sports, we will see more athletes coming out. Just not a lot. We're not going to see 10,000 athletes coming out.

"What we will see is slow change. We'll see guys coming to games with their boyfriends. Or pictures of them on Twitter or Facebook with their boyfriends. 'Oh, there's Bill and Todd on the beach again.' It will happen gradually. No one will care. That's how it will happen."

***

Davis thinks of the draft then and now and knows the difference is huge. He was recently at the NFL  owners' meeting, speaking with owners and league officials. He feels this draft, this time in NFL history, is different. His sincere belief is that a gay player will no longer face discrimination.

"There is still some fear among gay (college) players that being gay will hurt their draft status," he said. "I don't believe that."

Sam changed that. He changed all of it. 

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