COLUMBIA, Mo. — Thousands of University of Missouri students stood arm in arm Monday, chanting in victory in the quadrangle on campus. That's where the protests had started, where Jonathan Butler had conducted his hunger strike in response to university system president Tim Wolfe's inaction after racist incidents on campus. And that's where they had ended in celebration after Wolfe announced his resignation Monday morning.
Standing off to the side of the crowd on his own was Michael Sam.
"Progress, man," he said. "It's all about progress."
Sam was the symbol of progress in 2014, when, as a Missouri player and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, he came out as gay and became the first openly homosexual player to be selected in the NFL draft. He said he came to the quad last week to speak with Butler, who was sitting quietly in protest. It was the third day of Butler's hunger strike, Sam said, and he was too weak to speak.
"He just hugged me," Sam said. "There was no one around. People didn't even know what was going on there. They were like, 'What? There's a hunger strike?'"
While Butler's actions lit the fire, the Missouri football team—many of them Sam's former teammates—gave the movement a voice. On Saturday, more than 30 members of the team said they would not practice or play until Wolfe was fired or had resigned.
On Sunday, head football coach Gary Pinkel joined his players in their fight:
Wolfe responded Monday morning, saying in a statement, "My motivation in making this decision comes from love. I love MU and the state of Missouri, where I grew up." (Read more about the resignation here.)
"I respect Tim Wolfe," Sam said, "but there had been issues on this campus in my time and before me. People on this campus, especially African-Americans, believe they've been ignored and do not have a voice. And President Wolfe would just pretty much wave it off—until the football team said something. That's when the wheels got turned. Wolfe said one person couldn't make a difference, but boom.
"It always starts with sports. Not just the football team, but sports in general. Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe. Nothing came to be without the football team's help. Black or white, gay or straight, we are a family. And family sticks together."
Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.