Who Is Michael Sam?

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2014

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Michael Sam is a former Missouri Tigers defensive end. He was a first-team All-American in 2013 after recording 11.5 sacks. He was an integral member of a Missouri defense that nearly won an SEC championship and captured a Cotton Bowl victory. He is a solid professional prospect, expected to be a mid-round selection in May's 2014 NFL draft.    

Michael Sam is also an openly gay man, and he's sharing his story with the world.

Sam came out publicly Sunday in ESPN and New York Times interviews, a decision that will unquestionably raise his public profile and perhaps work as a test case for homosexuality in the NFL.

It's widely believed that other gay players are active within the sport, and there have been multiple players who came out after their NFL careers. Former first-round pick Kwame Harris and Dorien Bryant are among the most recent to disclose their sexuality, the latter of whom nearly did so while he was playing. 

There have also been reports of openly gay players being accepted by teammates. Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle (subscription required) highlighted the 1993 Houston Oilers as an example, reporting "at least" two different contributors were openly homosexual and expressed their sexuality without judgment. 

But, assuming Sam is drafted, he will be the first openly gay active player in league history. Last November, Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman shared the story of an NFL player who was expected to come out before the 2013 season, only for the situation to fall apart.

Now that Sam has made the brave decision to publicize his sexuality, many who couldn't pick him out of a lineup will want to know his story. Here it is. 

Michael Sam, the Football Player

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Sam is a bit of a late bloomer—and that's putting it mildly. Through his first three seasons in Columbia, he had 9.5 career sacks and 17 tackles for loss. The NFL didn't seem like much of a possibility. Maybe he would latch on as an undrafted free agent or impress enough in workouts to garner a late-round flier, but it's safe to say he was as far off the radar as you can be as an SEC starting defensive lineman.

Then 2013 happened.

It was an unexpected thrill ride for the Tigers program. Coming off a season in which the team went 2-6 in conference play and seemed destined for a permanent residence at the bottom of the SEC, Missouri caught fire early and never extinguished. The Tigers defeated Georgia in Athens, bested Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M at home and lost just one regular-season game—in double overtime against South Carolina.

Sam, like many of his teammates, had the season of his life. Flashing strength, quickness and aggression not often seen during his first three years, Sam recorded 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in his senior season alone. Paired with fellow standout defensive end Kony Ealy, Sam helped create perhaps the most formidable defensive line in college football. And while Ealy is the more highly touted professional prospect, most experts agreed Sam was the key to the line.

He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, earned a first-team All-SEC selection and became just the second unanimous All-American in Missouri history. The list of plaudits bestowed upon Sam mirrored the meteoric rise of the Tigers, who defeated Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, 41-31, to earn their fifth bowl win of the new century.

Despite his production, questions still remain about his pro potential. At 6'2" and 255 pounds, Sam doesn't possess prototypical size for an NFL defensive lineman. Considering the size obsession prevalent throughout the NFL, simply being 6'2" is alone enough to hurt an otherwise solid draft stock.

CBS Sports grades him as a third-round draft choice, but that seems to be the ceiling of his projection. ESPN Scouts Inc. (subscription required) lists Sam as just the 16th-best defensive end in the class, which makes him a late-round selection at best. That's not atypical for someone like Sam, whose one-year run of dominance combined with his shaky size make some skeptical of his ability to transition to the NFL.

Some, including Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, project his best position long-term as a pass-rushing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. That would mitigate the size issue while taking advantage of Sam's abilities on the outside. 

No matter the trepidation, one thing is clear among all talent scouts: All things equal, Michael Sam is worthy of being drafted and playing in the NFL. 

Michael Sam, the Person

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

Michael Sam Jr. was born Jan. 7, 1990, to Michael Sam and JoAnn Sam in Galveston, Texas.

His formative years were spent in Texas, specifically Hitchcock, where he starred at the local high school. 

Hitchcock, Texas, is not a blossoming metropolis. The 2010 United States Census lists its population at 6,961. It's a place where everybody knows everyone's business, typical small-town Texas stuff you would hear about in the plot of Friday Night Lights. It's a place where, nearly five years later, the high school still takes pride in a Class of 2009 standout who moved on to bigger and better things.  

"Trust me, everybody Googles and reads everything they can about Michael," Hitchcock athletic director Craig Smith told Tod Palmer of The Kansas City Star. "We definitely keep up with him around here. It’s a big thing. Whenever they play, my phone just blows up with texts from ex-players or friends in town.

"People just can’t get enough watching him play. They’re super excited down here."

Much like he is heading into the pros, Sam found himself underrated by national recruiting services. 247Sports ranked him just a 2-star recruit, nowhere to be found in the national rankings and the No. 213 player in the State of Texas. Not much of a publicity hound during his time at Missouri, Sam opened up about the fallacy of recruiting rankings with David Morrison of the Columbia Daily Tribune

"It honestly doesn't matter what star you're ranked," Sam said. "As long as you have a good motor, you can play football and love the game, I think you can be one of the top people in the nation."

On the field, Sam is a no-nonsense leader. His motor never stops, and teammates describe him with nearly every macho adjective possible. He's a monster. He's an animal. As Ealy told Palmer, he's a warrior with a limitless work ethic:

He’s a warrior and he’s going to keep going and going and going. That’s what our coaches preach for us when we’re out there on the field. You get tired out there, but the thing is other players are getting tired too. Whoever keeps going and going the most will reap the reward.

Sam may also be the poster child for the dichotomy between who a player is on the field and who he is off. The warrior, the monster, the animal is also the comedian and the singer. He's the guy who "creates a remix to any song," defensive end Shane Ray said, and will spend an entire practice belting it out. He's also the teammate who recognizes that football is just a game. He interacted with Missouri fans and alumni, consistently kept teammates relaxed and loose during practice and played with an infectious joy.

Sam's Instagram is filled with pictures with friends, teammates and sometimes even food. It's exactly what you would expect to see from a college senior. He's at a bar with friends, handling charity appearances through Missouri and expressing his appreciation for teammates.

Sam is also someone who understands what true hardship is like. As he conveyed in Sunday night's interview with ESPN, he's lost family members and seen those closest to him fall into consistent trouble with the law, mistakes he vowed to never make himself. 

I endured so much in my past: seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound, not knowing that my oldest sister died when she was a baby and I never got the chance to meet her. My second oldest brother went missing in 1998, and me and my little sister were the last ones to see him ... my other two brothers have been in and out of jail since 8th grade, currently both in jail.

Telling the world I'm gay is nothing compared to that.

In a nutshell: Michael Sam seems like a really good, persevering dude and great teammate. 


Michael Sam, the Legacy

Sam's announcement will almost certainly draw instant comparisons to that of Jason Collins, the veteran NBA center who came out in a first-person Sports Illustrated column last April. In some ways, that's understandable. Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran who was as widely praised by teammates as Sam, is a pioneer. Without Collins and the overwhelming acceptance his announcement received, it's possible Sam never would have found the comfort to come out publicly.

But there is an important distinction that must be drawn here. Collins was at the end of his NBA career. Some have criticized the NBA for its lack of proactiveness in finding Collins a job, but he was barely hanging on before coming out and acknowledged his best basketball skill was having six fouls to give.

Michael Sam is a different story. His professional career is (hopefully) just beginning. The decision to come out now, before the NFL draft, before ever setting foot on an NFL field, allows him to take control of his own narrative. There will be no secrets with teams or questions coming from his teammates.

In a way, that will be liberating. And, in another way, there is a terrifying unknowingness that comes with being the first. When an NFL team drafts Sam in May, it will be drafting not only a mid-round prospect but also someone who will have an unquestionably bright spotlight. Yes, the team will be drafting a "distraction," perhaps the most dreaded word in NFL-coaching folklore.

They will also be drafting Michael Sam. The same late-blooming 24-year-old with an insatiable passion for football, the ability to turn any song into his own personal remix and help teammates decompress from the stress-filled mundanity of being a football player. 

That's Michael Sam's story. At least the beginning of it.

Let's hope an NFL team is brave enough to allow him to tell the rest.   


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