Michael Sam has survived a lifetime of challenges

  • Article by: JOE DRAPE, STEVE EDER and BILLY WITZ , New York Times
  • Updated: February 12, 2014 - 10:07 AM

The soon-to-be first openly gay NFL player grew up poor and sometimes homeless; three siblings are likely dead, and two are in jail.

hide

A yearbook page shows Michael Sam, a University of Missouri defensive end, during his high school days in Hitchcock, Texas.

Photo: Scott Dalton • The New York Times,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

 

– 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.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Who will win the Super Bowl?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Minnesota 94 FINAL
Philadelphia 103
Houston 93 FINAL
Boston 87
Portland 99 FINAL
Atlanta 105
Sacramento 90 FINAL
Cleveland 101
Toronto 127 FINAL
Brooklyn 122
Dallas 93 FINAL
Miami 72
LA Clippers 103 FINAL
New Orleans 108
Golden State 100 FINAL
Utah 110
Chicago 93 FINAL
Phoenix 99
Pittsburgh 2 FINAL(OT)
New Jersey 1
St. Louis 3 FINAL(SO)
Carolina 2
Nashville 0 FINAL
Colorado 3
Buffalo 2 FINAL
Vancouver 5
Chicago 4 FINAL
Anaheim 1
Harvard 75 FINAL
Princeton 72
Quinnipiac 57 FINAL
Canisius 63
Brown 49 FINAL
Cornell 57
Siena 79 FINAL
Manhattan 87
Marist 65 FINAL
Niagara 61
Dartmouth 51 FINAL
Penn 58
Oregon 68 FINAL
Arizona State 67
Yale 63 FINAL
Columbia 59
Monmouth 60 FINAL
Fairfield 59
IUPUI 59 FINAL
Western Ill 63
Oregon State 34 FINAL
Arizona 57
Kent State 55 FINAL
Buffalo 80
Canisius 75 FINAL
Monmouth 58
Butler 67 FINAL
Providence 59
Cornell 65 FINAL
Brown 52
Columbia 47 FINAL
Yale 55
Coll of Charleston 47 FINAL
Drexel 64
Penn 55 FINAL
Dartmouth 39
Elon 60 FINAL
James Madison 89
(19) Princeton 96 FINAL
Harvard 46
(9) Florida State 82 FINAL
Georgia Tech 62
Quinnipiac 87 FINAL
Siena 62
Richmond 54 FINAL
Rhode Island 50
Loyola-Chicago 58 FINAL
Southern Ill 64
Georgetown 52 FINAL
DePaul 93
Villanova 75 FINAL
Marquette 59
Wichita State 70 FINAL
Northern Iowa 51
Xavier 65 FINAL
Creighton 74
Bradley 58 FINAL
Illinois State 55
Missouri State 89 FINAL
Drake 94
Arizona 48 FINAL
Utah 62
(11) Arizona State 68 FINAL
Colorado 60
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters
Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
Aug 16 - vs. Arizona 7:30 pmX30-28
Aug 23 - at Kansas City 7 pmX30-12
Aug 28 - at Tennessee 7 pmX19-3
2014 regular season     
Sep 7 - at St. Louis NoonX34-6
Sep 14 - vs. New England NoonX30-7
Sep 21 - at New Orleans NoonX20-9
Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta 3:25 pmX41-28
Oct 2 - at Green Bay 7:25 pmX42-10
Oct 12 - vs. Detroit NoonX17-3
Oct 19 - at. Buffalo NoonX17-16
Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay NoonX19-13 ot
Nov 2 - vs. Washington NoonX29-26
Nov 9 - Bye
Nov 16 - at Chicago NoonX21-13
Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay NoonX24-21
Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina NoonX31-13
Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets NoonX30-24 ot
Dec 14 - at Detroit 3:25 pmX16-14
Dec 21 - at Miami NoonX37-35
Dec 28 - vs. Chicago NoonX13-9
 
Close