Becoming a professional football player is the American dream for many college players. But no gay man has ever breached the line from college athletics and into the NFL. That could change if Michael Sam, 24, University of Missouri defensive lineman, is drafted into nation’s premiere football league.
The Hitchcock, Tex.-native who became the Associated Press SEC Defensive Player of the Year—the SEC is considered by football analysts as one of the nation’s superior college football leagues—is eligible for the NFL draft in May. And he’s doing so as “an openly, proud gay man,” Sam said.
Sam made the public disclosure with ESPN and in an interview with The New York Times on Sunday, Feb. 9. And he noted the significance of what this could mean for professional sports in the U.S.
“It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be,” Sam shared with ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “I want to be a football player in the NFL.”
Why come out now? Sam told The New York Times that he wanted to get ahead of the rumors already swirling before the draft.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam said. “I just want to own my truth.”
The 6 ft. 2 in. and 260 pound Cotton Bowl champion recalled the course of his coming out experience. Sam noted being attracted to other guys at an early age but kept quiet about it until he could figure out what those feelings were about.
Finally coming out—ahead of a possible professional career in football—is nothing compared to other experiences in his family, Sam said. He shared about the death of an older sister he never met (who died as a baby), the shooting death of an older brother, the disappearance of another older brother.
“My other two brothers have been in and out of jail since 8th grade [and are] currently both in jail,” Sam said.
The NFL issued a statement after the interviews.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014,” the NFL wrote.
Sam’s announcement comes just over a week since Willamette kicker Conner Mertens became the first openly gay active college football player. Professional athletes who made headlines after coming out publicly as gay include MLS midfielder Robbie Rogers and NBA player Jason Collins.