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.