Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player, shared his journey as an LGBT professional athlete, from his troubling childhood to a tumultuous football career, at a lecture Monday.
The summer after his senior year at University of Missouri, Sam said he came out as gay to his teammates in a moment of spontaneity that would change his life.
“I stood up in front of my team and I said, ‘My name is Michael Sam, I’m from Hitchcock, Texas, I’m majoring in sports management and I am gay,’” Sam said. “This was the first time I was truly myself and after that, my life changed.”
However, Sam said his journey began with a troubled childhood, long before his football career kicked off.
“[My story] begins with my mom and my dad — they had eight kids together and I fall seventh in that line,” he said. “When my oldest sister Chanelle was a baby, tragedy hit our family with her death.”
Before Sam was born, his oldest sister drowned in an accident. When Sam turned five years old, another tragedy struck his family again when his second oldest brother was fatally shot.
“You know we were a broken family when Chanelle died, but when Russell died, it didn’t seem normal around the house,” Sam said.
Just three years later, Sam’s second oldest brother went missing and was pronounced dead two years afterward. After enduring this series of misfortunes in his family, Sam’s childhood was marked by abuse from his two older brothers who were involved with drugs and gang violence.
“I lived a life of fear, me and my sisters and my mom did,” Sam said. “My brothers were very abusive to me in more ways than you can imagine.”
However, when Sam started junior high school, football changed his life for the better.
“When I got to junior high, the coaches asked me if I wanted to play football,” Sam said. “Sports changed everything. Without football, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
In high school, Sam’s talent made him stand out; he joined the varsity team as a freshman. Before long, he was being recruited by college football teams across the nation.
“I never even dreamed about college until my sophomore year, when I got my first college letter from Oklahoma State,” Sam said. “I had to do a 180 degree turn [with my grades] because now college was a possibility. I could be the first one to go to college in my family.”
According to Sam, it was at this point in his life that he began exploring and discovering his sexuality. When Sam attended the St. Louis pride day as a college football player, he said he “felt like it was the first time [he] belonged here,” and when he gained the courage to come out to his teammates.
“After I came out to my team, my life changed,” Sam said. “We were no longer teammates, we were brothers.”
However, not everything worked out as well as it did with his college football team after he graduated as All-American, SEC player of the year.
“My agency went the extra mile and hired me a gay activist as my publicist,” Sam said. “In hindsight, it was probably the wrong decision because my publicist wanted me to come out publicly. The only reason I agreed to that was because I honestly believed that it would blow over after two weeks. Boy, was a I wrong.”
After his public announcement, Sam said he was flooded with thousands of emails within 24 hours from all over the world, and he made the mistake of reading them right before his NFL Scouting Combine.
“When I started reading some stuff, it affected me mentally. I had a terrible performance,” Sam said. “They always went back to that performance throughout my NFL career.”
Despite his “terrible performance,” Sam was still drafted by the St. Louis Rams, but he said his success was quickly shortchanged by his LGBT status. A year later, Sam was cut from the Rams and recruited by the Dallas Cowboys, where he was cut again after another year.
“[Being gay] may affect your ability of playing,” Sam said. “I was the top prospect and should have probably been in the first round of draft, but now I’m not even in the league. [Football] is a dirty business and there are a lot of backroom deals.”
Following his short-lived career in the Canadian Football League, Sam said he turned away from football as his career path.
“After this summer, I made peace,” Sam said. “I’m actually starting a spiritual journey. I went back to Houston and I went to my mom’s congregation. During that talk, the preacher started talking about forgiveness.”
Since then, Sam has made peace with his father, who had abandoned him in his childhood, and his brothers, who had tormented his childhood.
Finally, Sam said he has forgiven himself and is working as a public activist for LGBT rights and anti-bullying campaigns.
“Being gay does not define me,” Sam said. “What defines me is my characteristics.”