COLUMBIA, MO. – Michael Sam was the loud country boy who wore a tank top and a cowboy hat. He was the smooth-singing baritone who could irritate his coaches and crack up his teammates with his improvised songs.
He was one of the best players to come out of tiny Hitchcock, Texas, where his family was well known for all the wrong reasons. He was an All-America and defensive terror on the field. He was a regular at the gay club where the bartenders knew him by name.
Sam introduced himself to the world Sunday night as an NFL prospect who just happens to be gay. Now, he is poised to become a trailblazer in a violent and macho world that will scrutinize his every action and turn his private life into a very public debate.
But Sam has never had it easy. He grew up about 40 miles southeast of Houston near Galveston Bay in Texas, the seventh of eight children. Three of his siblings have died and two brothers are in prison. He lived briefly in the back seat of his mother’s car, and his relationship with his family is complicated.
Sam’s life has transformed overnight. His courage has been hailed by teammates, famous athletes, countless football fans and President Obama and the first lady.
But to get a sense of the challenges ahead, look no further than his dad.
“I’m old school,” Michael Sam Sr. said. “I’m a man and a woman type of guy.”
Sam Sr. loves his son, and he said he hoped his son makes it to the NFL.
“As a black man, we have so many hurdles to cross,” he said. “This is just one he has to cross.”
But he expressed discomfort at the very idea of a gay NFL player, even if the player was his son. He grumbled that Deacon Jones, the Hall of Fame defensive end, “is turning over in his grave.”
Michael Sam had anticipated his family’s uneasiness. In an interview he spoke about his tough upbringing, which he said was more challenging than the decision to come out publicly.
“I’m closer to my friends than I am to my family,” Sam conceded.
Indeed, Sam had begun telling small groups of his University of Missouri teammates that he was gay two years earlier. In August he told the whole group, along with the coaching staff. Most of them already knew.
If he was not quite public about his sexuality, he certainly was not hiding it. His self-confidence blossomed, along with his game.
“I think mostly why Mike had such a great season this year is that he could be himself,” said L’Damian Washington, a wide receiver and close friend. “He got that big boulder off his back. Like, finally. I think it was a huge relief. He could be himself and not always be hiding something from everybody.”
The notorious Sams
As a boy growing up in Hitchcock, Michael Sam may not yet have known exactly who he was, but he did know what he needed. He needed to play sports. He needed to be part of a team.
Life had hardly been kind to him or his family. Michael Sr. and his mother, JoAnn Sam, were separated after having eight children. A sister drowned when she was 2, before Michael was born. Another brother, Russell, was 15 when he was shot and killed trying to break into a home. Another brother, Julian, has not been heard from since 1998; his family believes he is dead. Two others are in jail.
“It was very hard growing up in that environment,” Sam said. “My family was very notorious in the town that we lived in. Everyone would say, ‘There goes those damn Sams.’ I didn’t want to paint that ill picture of me. I knew the good in my family. They didn’t know our background and the adversity we had to endure. I wanted to succeed and be a beacon of hope in my family.”
Nobody in Sam’s family had attended college and Sam did not believe he would be the first. But as he coped with a disjointed family and wrestled with his sexuality, one certainty emerged in his life. He needed to get out of Hitchcock. He knew his best chance was through football.
A second home
In junior high school, Craig Smith, the football coach, saw that Sam was athletically blessed and, even better, hungry for guidance and camaraderie. At the start of high school, Smith made him a starter on the varsity.
Smith got a good hint of his potential during Sam’s senior year when the Bulldogs played Chavez High, a much bigger school in Houston. Chavez’s star was an All-America defensive tackle named Michael Brockers. In 2012, the Rams drafted him in the first round.
But that night Sam more than kept up with the feared player.
“We knew right then and there that Michael could really play with anybody,” Smith said.
Sam found a comfortable place off the field as well, thanks in large part to Ethan Purl, a classmate and the son of Ron Purl, the president of the local Prosperity Bank branch. By Sam’s senior year, he had his own bedroom in the Purls’ house, along with chores.
“I look at our house as a kind of safe haven,” said Ron Purl, who keeps a photo of Sam in his Missouri football uniform in his office. “He is just another son. If he did something wrong, he got yelled at just like the others did.”
Sam may have been big for Hitchcock, but he was an undersized freshman on Missouri’s defensive line. But he won the group over with improvised songs that ribbed his teammates or described their grueling practices.
“He’s got a motor that never stops,” defensive lineman Derrion Thomas said. “He is a big personality, and when he started with the songs you just knew that mind never stopped.”
Before his senior year, Sam had begun telling those closest to him who he really was.
Two years ago during Christmas break, Sam brought home a friend from the swimming team, a man. When Sam called Ron Purl later to say that he was gay, Purl assured him that he was perfectly fine with it — and already knew.
His teammates had similar reactions.
“I practiced across from him three years and it was just war,” said Elvis Fisher, an offensive lineman and captain of the 2012 Missouri team. “You don’t set out wanting to know each other’s life, but you spend so much time with each other you can’t help but know them. I knew and I love the guy.”
On Saturday night Sam was joined by an exclusive group: the fraternity of publicly gay athletes and their peers who have made a cause of supporting them. Dave Kopay, Wade Davis and Bill Bean were there, along with Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe, two former NFL players outspoken in their support of gay rights.
Kopay, a 71-year-old former running back, reminded Sam that if they had been freshmen together in 1960, Sam, as a black man, would not have been welcome at Missouri.
“Well, you’re just taking another step forward now,” Kopay said.