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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

First openly gay NFL player shares experiences in sports, life

Michael Sam made history in 2014 when he became the first-ever openly gay football player to be selected in the NFL draft. After a two-year professional career as a defensive end in both American and Canadian football leagues, Sam has dedicated his life to sharing his story with others. Monday evening, he spoke to the Notre Dame community in an event titled “From Hitchcock High to the NFL: I am Michael Sam.” The talk was hosted by the Gender Relations Center (GRC) and PrismND and held in the Dahnke Ballroom.

Sam said he first came out as gay in his fifth year at the University of Missouri. His coach, Gary Pinkel, held an annual tradition where members of the team had to introduce themselves by saying their name, hometown, major and something nobody knew about them.

“‘My name is Michael Sam. I’m from Hitchcock, Texas. I major in sport management, and … I’m gay,’” he said. “After I said these words, my whole life changed. Everything completely changed.”

Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player, uses his experiences to be a voice of encouragement for the LGBTQ+ community.
Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player, uses his experiences to be a voice of encouragement for the LGBTQ+ community.

But Sam said his story of “resilience, overcoming adversity and owning his truth” did not begin there — in many ways, it began in his childhood. Before he was born, an older sister drowned. When he was five, his oldest brother, Russell, was shot while he tried to break into a home. These events, Sam said, led his father to walk out on them.

Grief struck again in 1998 more when his older brother Julian disappeared after leaving from work one day. To this day, he remains missing. Without Julian, the family responsibilities fell on Josh and Chris, two of Sam’s older brothers. However, they were involved in gang life, and brought drugs and weapons into the household, Sam said.

“I saw drugs and drug addicts come in and out of the house,” he said. “I saw loaded weapons in my room. If I was a curious child, I could’ve harmed myself, or my sisters or my mother.”

Despite being raised in a place Sam called “a town without opportunities” — Galveston, Texas — he went on to become the second in his family to graduate from high school, an accomplishment he said he still remembers as the proudest moment of his life.

“That night, as they called my name, I walked across the stage and saw my mom in tears because of a moment so little as seeing one of her kids getting a high school diploma,” Sam said.

Sam was admitted to Arizona State University (ASU), Colorado State University and University of Missouri. Though he said he dreamed of becoming a student at ASU, but changed his mind after visiting Mizzou’s campus.

“I felt like I was supposed to be in this campus,” he said. “I felt like it was my home.”

Even though Sam felt he made the right decision choosing Mizzou, he said transitioning to college was hard because he was still figuring out his sexuality.

“I didn’t know how to handle it, so I decided to experiment,” Sam said. “After I experimented, I knew I was pretty damn gay.”

While in college, he met Vito Cammisano, a former member of the Mizzou swim team, at a party. The pair eventually fell in love and began secretly dating.

“I was living a fairy tale,” Sam said. “He made me so happy and I felt so safe.”

Too ashamed to come out at the time, their romance eventually ended, Sam said.

“I couldn’t tell him I loved him, so we broke up in senior year,” he said.

After the breakup, Sam said he decided to “own his truth,” choosing to attend St. Louis’ pride parade in the summer. Soon after, he came out to his teammates. Sam said his peers supported him completely.

“Mizzou supported me so much,” Sam said. “They made me give the very best of me every weekend. I did everything for my brothers because they always had my back.”

Even though his team and most students at Mizzou knew Sam was gay, he came out to the rest of the world Feb. 9, 2014, thus becoming the first openly gay player in the National Football League (NFL). According to Sam, the NFL was not as supportive as his teammates.

“The NFL was not ready for an openly gay athlete,” Sam said.

Sam said he believes his sexuality caused him to fall down in the 2014 NFL Draft, in which the St. Louis Rams selected him in the 7th round.

Sam was in San Diego the day he was finally drafted. Before receiving the call, he said he was by the beach anxiously contemplating his uncertain future. While he cried, he felt someone touch his shoulder. It was Cammisano.

They received the news together, and shared a kiss that made national headlines.

“The next day I woke up and thought the headlines would be ‘Michael Sam makes history,’” Sam said. “Instead, they were ‘Michael Sam kisses boyfriend.’”

The media attention followed him to St. Louis. The press made it difficult to interact with his new teammates, he said; he felt he needed to earn their trust.

He said this motivated him to work hard during the pre-season, where he led the team in sacks. However, the Rams ultimately released him in their final round of cuts. In September 2014, the Dallas Cowboys’ coach, Jerry Jones, offered Sam a position in their practice squad. A month later he was cut once again, and this was the last time he appeared in the NFL roster, Sam said.

Sam said despite these challenges, he was determined to continue playing football. On May 2015, he signed a two-year contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League (CFL). But there, he was shunned by his former teammates for his sexuality.

“Montreal ruined it for me. It was a totally terrible experience,” Sam said. “Everyone was against me. They chose not to shower because I was there and they wouldn’t have eye-contact with me.”

In August 2015, Sam put an end to his professional football career. Since his retirement, he has dedicated himself to share his experience as a motivational speaker.

Sam said one of the reasons he chose to become an LGBTQ-rights advocate came from talking with a former teammate’s cousin, who was a victim of bullying due to her sexuality. She had tried to commit suicide twice before connecting with Sam.

“She said ‘You know, you saved my life?’ I started to cry,” Sam said. “There are people out there committing suicide because of their sexuality. I decided I was going to be sword and shield for these people.”

By sharing his story, Sam said he hopes to help others struggling with their identity.

“From this, I hope you learn that vulnerability is not weakness,” Sam said. “It is a sign of courage. So overcome the adversity and own your truth.”