First openly gay man drafted by the NFL has survived a year of ups and downs, but has lived his story ‘with honesty and integrity’

Tammye Nash  |  Managing Editor

Last January, if you weren’t a college football fan, you’d probably never heard of Michael Sam. Today, just 12 short months later, everybody knows who he is: the first openly gay man drafted into the National Football League.

Sam, born Jan. 7, 1990, in Galveston, grew up in nearby Hitchcock, Texas, first taking to the football field at Hitchcock High School. Sam has said in previous interviews that at first, football was just a way to escape what he has described as an unhappy childhood. But by the time he graduated from high school, football had become his pathway to a much brighter future.

Sam accepted a scholarship from the University of Missouri and quickly became a standout player for the Mizzou Tigers. At the end of his senior season, Sam was named the Southeastern Conference’s co-Defensive Player of the Year and a member of the All-SEC First Team. He was also named a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Hendricks Award, and the Lombardi Award.

Early projections had Sam going in the third or fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft. Then Sam came out as a gay man.

Sam’s Mizzou teammates already knew he was gay. He told them during a team-building exercise  in August 2013 as part of the preseason training. They hadn’t cared, and it certainly hadn’t affected his performance on the field.

“I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, ‘finally, he came out,’” Sam told the New York Times in an interview last February.

But when draft day came, it seemed as if perhaps the NFL wasn’t as accepting as the Tigers. The SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year, a man expected to be grabbed up by a pro team no later than the fourth round, wasn’t drafted until the seventh round. He was the 249th player taken out of 256 drafted.

Some have said that Sam was seen as being just too small to play defensive end and too slow to be an outside linebacker in the NFL. Others suggested that his disappointing performance in the NFL Scouting Combine in February caused him to drop in the draft.

But for LGBT sports fans, it was a sign that the NFL might not really be ready for its first openly gay player. And then Sam reacted to news that he had been drafted by the Rams by kissing his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, and playfully smearing cake in his face — a moment broadcast by ESPN.

It didn’t go over well with some folks, including some past and current players.  Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones tweeted “horrible” and “OMG.” Derrick Ward, a former Super Bowl champion who had played for the New York Giants and the Houston Texans, tweeted: “I’m sorry but Michael Sam is no bueno for doing that on national TV,” and “Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can’t believe ESPN even allowed that to happen.”

Sam made his professional football debut in a preseason game on Aug. 8 against the New Orleans Saints. He made one tackle in that game, and in his second game, he tallied his first professional QB sack. In four NFL preseason games with the Rams, Sam made 11 tackles and three sacks, including a game-leading six tackles in the final game.

And yet, on Aug. 30, the Rams cut Michael Sam. NBC News’ Pro Football Talk website noted, “Unfortunately for Sam, he was simply caught up in a numbers game, and the Rams decided that he wasn’t one of the top 53 players on their roster.” Rams Coach Jeff Fisher, who had vowed Sam would be treated like any other player, said cutting him was “a football decision.”

But again, others felt his sexual orientation was a factor. Buffalo Bills lineman Eric Wood blamed ESPN, saying that the sports station’s breathless reporting on the presence of an openly gay player in an NFL locker room turned Sam’s efforts to make the team into a “distraction,” something no NFL team would be willing to risk.

Within days, the Dallas Cowboys had added Sam to their practice squad. And Sam came home to Texas, bringing Cammisano with him. But on Oct. 21, Sam was cut again.

Cyd Zeigler with said in a Nov. 4 post that NFL league officials told him there are several teams that “have their eye on” Michael Sam. And, he said, former Arizona Cardinal and former St. Louis Rams player Aeneas Williams, an NFL Hall of Fame defensive back, told Zeigler that he believes Sam has the ability to play ball at the pro level, and that he expects to see Sam playing on some team soon.

Zeigler, though, wasn’t so confident. He wrote, “For now, there is no other explanation for the collective snub of Sam: NFL team front offices are not treating Michael Sam equally simply because he’s openly gay.”

Regardless of what happens now, though, Michael Sam has already made history. And he has already taken the LGBT community several steps forward with him on the road to equality.

Cece Cox, CEO of Resource Center, said this week that Sam’s story is a big deal, for him and for the community as a whole.

“We’ve made so much progress in the last few years, and we hear so many success stories every day about LGBT people. But what’s so interesting about Michael Sam’s story is that is has been such a big deal,” Cox said.
“That is a reminder to us that it really is a big deal still. His story inspires so many people, and we still need that. As LGBT people we need to see that, and LGBT allies and even those who are against us need to see that.”
Cox said she has met Sam at LGBT community events in Dallas, “but I don’t really know him.” Still, she said, from what she has seen, Sam has handled this tumultuous year with grace.

“His story has been so powerful, and he has lived it with such integrity. It’s easy for somebody who suddenly becomes a celebrity, with so much attention on them, to let it go to their heads. But he has stayed humble,” Cox said. “When the hateful, mean and hurtful comments started, he stayed on the high road. He didn’t stoop to their level.”

She added, “Michael Sam’s story matters, and he has told that story in such an amazing way. Playing in the NFL is not an easy job, and he’s had a tough year. But he has remained positive through it all. He has lived his life with honesty and integrity. What he is doing has inspired people, and I hope he keeps on doing it.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 12, 2014