Scott Cooper was at his Minneapolis home Sunday scrolling through Facebook on his phone when someone shared a link that former Missouri defensive end and NFL draft prospect Michael Sam had announced he is gay.
Cooper, who recently ended his college career at Augsburg College, was excited by the news. The 24-year-old made the same announcement last week.
“I figured it would be just a matter of time before a Division I and, or, an NFL player or prospect, would come out,” Cooper said. “I was just happy. It’s a great story.”
Sam could become the first openly gay player in the NFL as he made his announcement a week before the NFL combine and three months before the NFL draft. Cooper and Sam both hope someday a person’s sexuality won’t cast a cloud, good or bad, over their athletic ability.
Sam’s teammates knew he was gay during his senior season after a preseason team-building exercise at which players were asked to tell something others might not know about them. He finished the year earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-America honors at defensive end.
The rest of the nation found out Sunday night when an interview with him was aired on ESPN and stories were published online from the New York Times and Outsports.com, where Cooper also wrote a story announcing he was an openly gay football player embraced by his teammates at Augsburg last week.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told the New York Times on Sunday. “I just want to own my truth.”
In September, a Harris Poll found that Americans are most likely to identify the NFL as among the sports, leagues or organizations in which it would be hardest for a current athlete to come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Cooper disagreed, based on his two-year experience at Augsburg. He said his teammates welcomed him as they gradually found out during a weekly student-athlete discussion group when the topic was about homosexuality.
“I think there was a great maturation by our team hopefully for the rest of their lives,” Augsburg coach Frank Haege said. “It was really a nonfactor from my vantage point.”
Sam has been projected as a third- to fifth-round choice by most NFL analysts. At 6-2 and 255 pounds, he is considered a bit too small for defensive end and not quick enough for linebacker. NFL scouts have raved about Sam’s pass-rushing ability, which has been a lacking trait in this year’s class.
NFL executives have voiced their support for Sam, and Vikings owner Zygi Wilf issued this statement: “We commend Michael Sam for being very courageous with his openness on something of such a personal nature. His comments will have no impact on how the Vikings view Michael as a football player or as a person. If a player can help us win, we will warmly welcome him as part of the team and provide an accepting, respectful and supportive environment to help him succeed in the NFL.”
The Vikings coaching staff spent most of Tuesday in draft meetings. One of the team’s coaches, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, is the center of an independent review after being accused by former punter Chris Kluwe of anti-gay remarks. Kluwe had dinner with Sam on Saturday, the day before his announcement went public.
At the NFL combine next week, the Vikings and 31 other teams will get another look at Sam, who also participated in the Senior Bowl last month.
“I’m not naive,” Sam told the New York Times on Sunday. “I know this is a huge deal, and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the NFL”
Sam’s publicist, Howard Bragman, made it clear to Outsports.com that Sam would concentrate on football from this point.
Cooper applauded Sam’s ability to bring awareness that gay athletes shouldn’t be treated differently. He hopes Sam’s story, like his own, will give confidence to other athletes struggling with the issue.
“We’re football players; we can compete,” Cooper said. “It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is. If you’re doing your job as an athlete or as a player, it doesn’t matter how you look, who you love or who you are dating.
“Eventually when there’s enough stories like ours have been told, it won’t be a big deal anymore. And that’s what I hope comes of that, too.”