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.

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.”

Casual disclosures

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.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Do you agree with the NFL decision to deny Adrian Peterson's appeal?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

Buffalo 17 FINAL
New England 9
Cleveland 10 FINAL
Baltimore 20
Dallas 44 FINAL
Washington 17
Indianapolis 27 FINAL
Tennessee 10
Jacksonville 17 FINAL
Houston 23
San Diego 7 FINAL
Kansas City 19
NY Jets 37 FINAL
Miami 24
Chicago 9 FINAL
Minnesota 13
Philadelphia 34 FINAL
NY Giants 26
New Orleans 23 FINAL
Tampa Bay 20
Carolina 34 FINAL
Atlanta 3
Detroit 20 FINAL
Green Bay 30
Oakland 14 FINAL
Denver 47
Arizona 17 FINAL
San Francisco 20
St. Louis 6 FINAL
Seattle 20
Cincinnati 17 FINAL
Pittsburgh 27
Arizona 1/3/15 3:35 PM
Carolina
Baltimore 1/3/15 7:15 PM
Pittsburgh
Detroit 103 FINAL
Cleveland 80
Houston 106 FINAL
San Antonio 110
Oklahoma City 107 FINAL
Dallas 112
New York 79 FINAL
Portland 101
Toronto 116 FINAL
Denver 102
Phoenix 116 FINAL
LA Lakers 107
Toronto 4 FINAL
Florida 6
Vancouver 1 FINAL(OT)
Anaheim 2
Tulane 57 FINAL
St Johns 82
Central Conn St 48 FINAL
Connecticut 81
Iona 81 FINAL
Drexel 62
Concordia (MI) 42 FINAL
Eastern Mich 100
Harvard 46 FINAL
Arizona State 56
Longwood 64 FINAL
Ball State 69
Sacred Heart 76 FINAL
Brown 79
Colgate 64 FINAL
Columbia 69
MD-Eastern Shore 78 FINAL
Duquesne 69
UNC Greensboro 50 FINAL
East Carolina 71
Marist 64 FINAL
Elon 69
NJIT 71 FINAL
Lafayette 76
Cincinnati Christian 58 FINAL
Liberty 78
Morgan State 53 FINAL
Marquette 81
Campbell 56 FINAL
Samford 65
Bucknell 71 FINAL
Siena 73
Long Beach State 67 FINAL
Syracuse 85
Coppin State 80 FINAL
Evansville 85
UMKC 73 FINAL
Indiana State 70
Hofstra 88 FINAL
Long Island 62
Coast Guard 48 FINAL
Army 93
Thomas (GA) 48 FINAL
High Point 85
Texas Southern 58 FINAL
Kansas State 56
Rutgers 59 FINAL
Monmouth 58
NC Wesleyan 54 FINAL
NC A&T 58
South Dakota St 63 FINAL
Northern Iowa 74
Central Penn College 69 FINAL
Radford 119
Bowling Green 79 FINAL
South Florida 70
Harris-Stowe 66 FINAL
SE Missouri St 94
Robert Morris-IL 56 FINAL
SIU Edwardsville 104
Northland College 59 FINAL
North Dakota St 83
Milwaukee 60 FINAL
South Dakota 84
Northwestern St 92 FINAL
Arkansas 100
Saint Peters 59 FINAL
Cornell 52
St Katherine 62 FINAL
Fresno State 93
Haskell 42 FINAL
Oral Roberts 94
Wake Forest 65 FINAL
Richmond 63
Fla Gulf Coast 57 FINAL
Xavier 71
SD Christian 45 FINAL
Northern Ariz 71
Judson 46 FINAL
IUPU-Ft Wayne 80
Ill-Chicago 60 FINAL
Bradley 68
Loyola-Maryland 61 FINAL
Fairfield 59
Miss Valley St 53 FINAL
Houston 80
Lehigh 58 FINAL
UMBC 55
Delaware State 56 FINAL
Temple 66
Belmont 56 FINAL
Butler 67
Howard 59 FINAL
Fordham 74
NW Christian 67 FINAL
Nevada 81
UC Davis 83 FINAL
Washington St 90
Abilene Christian 81 FINAL
Grand Canyon 83
UCLA 50 FINAL
Alabama 56
Stony Brook 62 FINAL
Washington 57
Buffalo 56 FINAL
Wisconsin 68
CS-Bakersfield 55 FINAL
California 52
Cincinnati 17 FINAL
Virginia Tech 33
(15) Arizona State 36 FINAL
Duke 31
Miami-Florida 21 FINAL
So Carolina 24
Boston College 30 FINAL
Penn State 31
(25) Nebraska 42 FINAL
(24) USC 45
Texas A&M 1:00 PM
West Virginia
Oklahoma 4:30 PM
(18) Clemson
Arkansas 8:00 PM
Texas
Notre Dame 12/30/14 2:00 PM
(22) LSU
(13) Georgia 12/30/14 5:45 PM
(20) Louisville
Maryland 12/30/14 9:00 PM
Stanford
(9) Ole Miss 12/31/14 11:30 AM
(6) TCU
(21) Boise State 12/31/14 3:00 PM
(12) Arizona
(8) Miss State 12/31/14 7:00 PM
(10) Georgia Tech
(19) Auburn 1/1/15 11:00 AM
(17) Wisconsin
(7) Michigan State 1/1/15 11:30 AM
(4) Baylor
(16) Missouri 1/1/15 12:00 PM
Minnesota
(2) Florida State 1/1/15 4:00 PM
(3) Oregon
(5) Ohio State 1/1/15 7:30 PM
(1) Alabama
Houston 1/2/15 11:00 AM
Pittsburgh
Iowa 1/2/15 2:20 PM
Tennessee
(11) Kansas State 1/2/15 5:45 PM
(14) UCLA
Washington 1/2/15 9:15 PM
Oklahoma State
East Carolina 1/3/15 11:00 AM
Florida
Toledo 1/4/15 8:00 PM
Arkansas State
Drexel 71 FINAL
Miami-Ohio 54
Holy Cross 63 FINAL
Norfolk State 62
East Carolina 62 FINAL
South Florida 69
(10) Oregon State 63 FINAL
(8) Tennessee 74
Providence 51 FINAL
Boston College 79
Florida A&M 47 FINAL
Miami-Florida 83
Oakland 69 FINAL
Central Michigan 74
Chattanooga 59 FINAL
SIU-Edwardsville 49
Fairfield 59 FINAL
La Salle 73
St Francis-PA 59 FINAL
Pittsburgh 97
Milwaukee 72 FINAL
IUPU-Ft Wayne 78
Gardner-Webb 59 FINAL
Longwood 63
New Hampshire 58 FINAL
Manhattan 54
Bucknell 68 FINAL
Binghamton 57
Northeastern 70 FINAL
Albany 67
George Mason 70 FINAL
Towson 72
Richmond 59 FINAL
William & Mary 56
Tulane 60 FINAL
Cincinnati 50
North Florida 51 FINAL
Florida 63
(14) Georgia 51 FINAL
Seton Hall 70
Tennessee St 75 FINAL
(12) Kentucky 87
American Univ 64 FINAL
Wake Forest 77
Massachusetts 78 FINAL
Boston U 57
Quinnipiac 69 FINAL
Saint Josephs 67
Lafayette 49 FINAL
Saint Peters 34
Northwestern 61 FINAL
(20) Michigan State 57
Duquesne 82 FINAL
Lehigh 75
George Washington 72 FINAL
Loyola-Maryland 49
(17) Rutgers 66 FINAL
Indiana 51
(24) Green Bay 66 FINAL
Dayton 72
Western Mich 55 FINAL
Stony Brook 59
Davidson 67 FINAL
Virginia 57
UNC Greensboro 61 FINAL
LSU 82
Denver 63 FINAL
North Texas 55
VA Commonwealth 63 FINAL
Coppin State 52
Huston-Tillotson 36 FINAL
Houston Baptist 86
Lamar 63 FINAL
Rice 97
Miss Valley St 40 FINAL
Alabama 71
Saint Louis 63 FINAL
Eastern Illinois 49
Middle Tennessee 98 FINAL
Tenn Tech 76
Penn State 52 FINAL
(23) Iowa 77
Purdue 62 FINAL
Illinois 55
DePaul 99 FINAL
Illinois State 62
Sam Houston St 46 FINAL
Wichita State 70
South Dakota 76 FINAL
TX-San Antonio 69
(4) Notre Dame 82 FINAL
UCLA 67
Coll of Charleston 51 FINAL
SC State 60
Alcorn State 53 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 63
Dartmouth 76 FINAL
Niagara 70
Colgate 68 FINAL
Siena 80
Michigan 53 FINAL
Wisconsin 63
Fla Gulf Coast 73 FINAL
CS-Northridge 64
Yale 51 FINAL
(25) Arizona State 69
UC Santa Barbara 34 FINAL
(16) Stanford 90
Long Island 63 FINAL
Long Beach St 71
Jackson State 56 FINAL
Louisiana 65
Eureka 50 FINAL
Western Ill 91
Cornell 59 FINAL
(22) Syracuse 76
Temple 58 FINAL
Memphis 57
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