Football player Michael Sam speaks at UTA Pride Week event
Mathew Shaw | Contributing Writer
Michael Sam, who made history in 2014 as the first openly-gay man drafted into the NFL, used personal stories of his life before and after major league football to stress the importance of being true to one’s self during an appearance this week at the University of Texas at Arlington.
UT-Arlington’s LGBTQA Program invited Sam to speak at the school on Wednesday, Oct. 4, as part of the organization’s annual Pride Week celebration. Sam’s address was the first keynote address in several years, said Leticia Martinez, program director for UTA’s LGBTQA Program and Multicultural Affairs.
“This year, we really wanted to bring a new revived focus to Pride Week and try to bring someone special,” Martinez said.
Before he began his speech, Sam spent 10 minutes just sitting at the edge of the stage, chatting with audience members in the front row. Then he asked that his audience of about 50 people move in closer before he started talking about coming out to his teammates during his last year at the University of Missouri.
The football players were introducing themselves, he recalled, with each one giving their name and major.
“I said, ‘I’m Michael Sam. I’m from Texas,’ and I paused,” Sam said. “I never said these words before in my life. I said, ‘I’m gay.’ The looks on my teammates’ faces — ‘Holy shit, Michael Sam just came out.’”
Sam described his childhood in Hitchcock, Texas as tragic. He was the seventh of eight kids between his mother and father. His older sister drowned as a baby before he was born.
In 1995, his older brother was shot and killed, and his father walked out of the family afterward. Then in 1998, he and his little sister stood at a bus stop, waving to their other brother as he boarded a bus then disappeared from their lives forever.
Left without a father and with a mother that had to work nonstop to support the family, Sam’s two remaining older brothers got involved with gangs and drug dealing. Then they became abusive toward Michael and his sisters.
“When you have a brother — your own flesh and blood — threaten your own life if you ever tell, it can be frightening,” he said. “My brothers did unspeakable things to me and my sisters. They were supposed to protect me. They were supposed to love me. And they betrayed our trust. They betrayed our love.”
When he was in the seventh grade, coaches at Sam’s school wanted him to play football. But he came from a Jehovah’s Witness family, so his mother said no, at first. She had to be persuaded, he said.
Sam started out playing defense. All he had to do, he said, was tackle whoever had the ball.
“My very first play as a football player, I tackled my teammate,” he said. “I layed his ass out like it was nothing. My teammates start hitting me and cussing me.”
Sam made the varsity team his freshman year in high school. But when he realized during his sophomore year that his grades were not good enough for college, he began to apply himself in his schoolwork. He took the SATs four times. It was, he said, the hardest test he has ever taken.
Sam said he initially wanted to go to Arizona State University. But he changed his mind after visiting University of Missouri. Something, he said, made him feel that Missouri was where he belonged.
On June 6, 2009, Sam became the first of his parents’ sons to graduate from high school. He remembers that day well.
“I was walking across that stage, and when they called my name, I saw my mom drenched in tears,” he said. “To this day that is the proudest moment of my life.”
The next day, he was off to University of Missouri to begin a new chapter in his life.
Sam said he started realizing that he was attracted to other guys in high school. But he couldn’t be sure, he said, until he experimented. The summer that he left for University of Missouri, he finally experimented — and knew right away that he was “pretty damn gay.”
He said it was Vito Cammisano, his former boyfriend and fiancé, that made him realize how afraid he was to be his true self. And feeling welcome at St. Louis Pride and in local gay bars gave him the courage to finally come out to his teammates.
“In August of 2013, I stood in front of my teammates,” he said. “It was the first time in my life I was truly Michael Sam.”
After coming out, Sam began preparing for the draft. When he came out nationally in February 2014, he thought it would only be a big story for a few weeks. He was wrong.
While training for the draft, Sam said a teammate pulled him aside and asked him to call his cousin. Sam called, and the conversation quickly got serious. The young woman told him he had saved her life. Before the call, she had tried twice to kill herself because she was bullied.
“I couldn’t really speak. I couldn’t think,” Sam said of how her revelation affected him. “It was just like the whole world just stopped. This was going on in our country? I’m just living my life, and here you’re struggling and you try to kill yourself because of others?”
Even years later, Sam choked up as he told the story of that phone call. “I detest bullies with all my heart,” he delcared. “I detest bullies, because I was bullied by those who were supposed to protect me and love me. My brothers were the biggest bullies. I know how it feels.”
Right then, Sam said, he resolved to go forward doing what he was doing for everyone else rather than for himself. He told his teammate’s cousin: “If you need me to be there for you, I’ll be whatever you need me to be. If you need a brother, I’ll be a brother. If you need a cousin, I’ll be a cousin. If you need a feminist, I’ll be a feminist.”
Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams but released after one season. Later, he got a call from Jerry Jones asking if he wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy.
Sam played for the Cowboys’ practice team, but then was once again released. He has not played on an NFL team since, but he said he has made peace with no longer playing football.
Right now Sam speaks at events across the country. But he said he still hasn’t figured out what he wants to do with his life.
“I’m not a religious person, but I am very spiritual,” he said. “And I believe with all my heart that God is testing me. He is testing me to see how strong I am. I have been through adversity and adversity and adversity, and I am only 27 years old. Every time I have triumphed.”
Angela Brown, a native of Columbia, Mo., came with her girlfriend to hear Sam speak this week at UTA. She said she could relate to his stories and how he’s surprised he hasn’t gone insane because of everything the LGBT community has to go through.
“Even though he’s not in football, he encouraged the gay community,” she said.
Before leaving for the evening, Sam encouraged the audience to go home and show their families, friends and pets love. Then he ended with his his favorite quote, by Horace Mann:
“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 6, 2017.