The BRSN team selects one Cornell athlete each week whose performance stood...
Everything Happens for a Reason
Photo credit to the New York Daily News.
When Michael Sam took the stage at Statler Hall on Monday, November 14th, he opened by telling the audience, “My name is Michael Sam. I’m from Hitchcock, Texas. I’m a sports management major. And I’m gay.”
Of course, Sam is no longer a sports management major, having graduated from the University of Missouri in 2013. Yet, he chose those words to recite in front of the football team at Mizzou at the start of his sophomore year. When asked to introduce himself to the squad and share one unique thing, Sam simply said he was gay. Little did he know that this one fact would ultimately affect his football career.
Sam experienced an extraordinarily painful upbringing in his small hometown near Galveston, Texas. He had seven siblings, except one sister died in childbirth, one brother was shot, another brother has been missing since 1998 — Sam still doesn’t know whether he is alive, although the family has assumed his death for years — and still two more brothers in prison.
Sam’s father abandoned the family when he was just a small child. Growing up, Sam was constantly surrounded by both drug and alcohol abuse, inconsistent guardianship, and frequent violent bullying from his brothers. One time, his older brother even burned Sam’s hand on an iron just to get a reaction from him.
As for football, Sam credits this sport with saving his life. He also admits that allowing him to play football was the one good thing his father ever did for him. Up against a seriously reluctant mother, Sam doubts he would ever have been allowed to play without the insistence of his father.
Initially, football brought him out of the house and into a disciplined, athletic group of kids. His football coaches were always the father figures in his life, and he loved them more than anyone. Without a present father of his own, Sam always looked to them for support and guidance.
Sam laughed as he recalled the first football play he ever made while suiting up for his high school team, the Hitchcock Bulldogs. Trained as a defensive lineman, Sam’s coaches put him in for a play as an offensive tackle. As soon as the ball was hiked, Sam, taught to “get the guy with the ball,” took out his own quarterback. From there, it was all an upward climb.
A natural athlete, Sam experimented with other sports and always found his work ethic to take him far. As a freshman in high school, Sam tried basketball. He claims he was a terrible player, but won most improved player by the end of the season. It was the same with football — a rocky start, but he was rewarded with most valuable player in his first year. The one thing that Sam immediately excelled at was track because he was simply fast.
Sam says his first great honor in life was making the varsity football team as a freshman. This accomplishment encouraged him to devote even more to the sport, especially as he avoided his home life. By this point, Sam was not openly gay and feared revealing it.
When Sam received recruitment mail from colleges, it was the first time he ever considered the possibility of continuing academics beyond high school. No one in his family had ever gone to college, and most of them never even graduated from high school. Sam was confronted with reality when he excitedly brought his recruiting letter to his high school coach, who responded, “Michael, you’re not going to college because you don’t have the grades.” Rather than defeating him, this encouraged Sam, and he set to work fully focused on academics. He had two years to turn his grades around.
Sam experienced many troubles with the SAT. In fact, he took the ACT first but said, “It was the hardest damn test I ever took and should be banned.”
He took the SAT three times and never scored high enough, especially in math. Discouraged and with a target score in mind, Sam took the test for a fourth and final time. When his guidance counselor brought him into her office to tell him he had finally passed the threshold he needed for college, Sam cried. It was the first time he knew he would be going to college.
Sam continually emphasizes that he is a firm believer in the saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” When choosing a college football team, he was initially set on going to Arizona State University. Then, when offered a free recruitment trip to the University of Missouri, something changed his mind, and Sam decided on Mizzou as his home.
That June, before starting in Columbia, Missouri, Sam became the first child in his family to graduate high school. Eventually, another one of his siblings also accomplished the feat, marking only two of the seven total kids in the family to do so.
In the summer of 2009, Sam was increasingly aware of his sexual orientation. This idea terrified him because he had no one with whom to talk. Everything changed when he started at Mizzou and began dating a male swimmer. Sam claims he had never felt so happy during those first few months in a relationship. By that time, everyone on the football team and in the athletic department knew he was gay, although it was not discussed. Sam was very self-conscious — not even his family knew.
That spring, Sam attended a St. Louis pride parade and realized that no one seemed to mind that he was gay. For the first time, he was in a place where he felt accepted and comfortable. He found confidence to publicly come out to his team.
Sam claims that when he finally officially came out to the Mizzou program, everyone came closer together. That year, Mizzou turned its season around and started winning. His coaches were supportive of his sexuality, but Sam emphasized that football was not about him being gay, it was about him being an important contributor to the team. Sam found his years at Mizzou to be a sort of golden time — he was playing well and felt comfortable in his skin. However, difficulties laid ahead.
When Sam graduated college, his parents were still unaware that he was gay. When he came out to his parents, his father immediately disowned him. Instead, Sam moved on, as he focused on NFL training camp.
From his career at Mizzou, he was a first team All-American, a semifinalist for the Lomardi Award (best lineman), the Bednarik Award (best defensive college player), and the Hendricks Award (top defensive end). During the NFL draft, Sam, who should’ve been a first or second round pick, was drafted as the 249th player of 256 taken.
During training camp, Sam proved his skill, leading the St. Louis Rams in sacks and becoming a dominant player on the team. However, he was ultimately cut with no explanation. Sam was the only high-profile SEC player not on an NFL roster.
Sam blames the league’s discomfort with his sexuality as the primary reason for his inability to find a career playing professionally in the United States. He claims his skills were on-par with other players, but he was unfairly released. After failing to consistently make a roster in the NFL, Sam was drafted to the Canadian Football League, playing for the Montreal Allouettes. After a short stint with the team, Sam recently left to pursue a life beyond football.
Since then, Sam began a spiritual journey. Although he always wanted to have a career in the NFL, his frustration and ultimate forgiveness caused him to decide that he would not accept a roster spot on any team at this point.
Sam ultimately realized that “life is more important than football,” and he is currently in a “transitional phase,” as he considers his options. He currently works as an advocate for LGBTQ rights and bullying prevention, citing his negative experiences with his older brothers as a source of motivation to give back. Sam also claims that sharing his story has helped him to heal, while also inspiring others.
Certainly, Michael Sam inspired everyone in Statler Hall that evening, as both an outstanding athlete on the field and an inspiring human off it.