On Michael Sam

October 19, 2013 — The University of Missouri football team is set to play new conference rivals, the perennial champion Florida Gators. After a cloudy and chilly morning, the sun emerges as the game kicks off. Missouri’s Tigers come into today’s game undefeated, having stunned the Georgia Bulldogs the week before. It’s Missouri’s second year in the SEC; these teams are foreign. At the time of kickoff, Florida is favored by three points.

Gators’ ball. 3rd and 7. 12:54 left to play in the 2nd quarter. The Florida quarterback takes the snap and is immediately pursued by Missouri’s left end, a senior named Michael Sam. His speed is uncanny as Sam completely runs around the right tackle. Sam completes the sack, his seventh of the year, and forces Florida to punt. By this time, Sam’s pass rushing skills are to be expected. Against Arkansas State and Vanderbilt earlier in the year, he had three sacks in each. He is beloved by the entire Missouri fanbase as a defensive leader and unmatched competitor. Michael Sam is college football.

Sam would finish the day with three sacks, bringing his season total to nine in only seven games. If one pro rates that to 16 games, they would get 20.5 sacks, which is only two off the NFL record. Michael Sam is inserting himself into the conversation for SEC defensive player of the year; no small feat in a conference with annual defensive powerhouses including Alabama, Florida, and LSU. Missouri is having one of the half dozen best seasons ever for their football program.

January 3, 2014 — In a twist of fate, the 11-2 Missouri Tigers, fresh off a loss in the SEC Championship game, play the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Formerly rivals in the Big 12 conference, both teams have conference strength and pride at stake. In December, Michael Sam had been named co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year. With Oklahoma State’s torrid passing attack, his pressure will be needed.

Cowboys’ ball. 1:01 left to play in the 4th quarter. Missouri holds a 34-31 lead. The Tigers had gained an early lead, but whenever they looked to pull away, the Cowboys answered with a score of their own. It’s 3rd and 7. The Oklahoma State quarterback drops back to pass, and suddenly, every Missouri fan experiences deja vu. Michael Sam blows by the Cowboys’ right tackle, and strips the quarterback. A fellow Tiger defensive lineman returns the fumble for a touchdown, and clinches the game for Missouri. In the most important moment of Michael Sam’s career, he steps up to the plate and makes the best possible play of his career. Michael Sam is college football.

February 10, 2014 — As I watch SportsCenter, a breaking news alert comes in. In an interview with Outside The Lines, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam comes out as gay. I’m thrilled. After hearing stories from people such as Brendon Ayanbadejo that say that there are closeted NFL players that are afraid to come out, it’s very refreshing and heartening to hear that, finally, a player is confident and courageous enough to be themselves. There are reactions and takes from Adam Schefter, Chris Mortensen, Stephen A. Smith, and a legion of other ESPN personalities. The majority, if not all, give appropriate and insightful reactions. We hear from Missouri’s coach and teammates, all of whom are extremely supportive. Finally, we hear from Mel Kiper, ESPN’s NFL Draft expert. Michael Sam has been given a third round grade.

After reading articles that night, I’m exposed to the nastier side of homosexuality in sports: those who are stuck in an irrelevant past. “And this is news why?”: 448 Facebook likes. “These people needs [sic] to read the bible. Being Gay is a sin!!”: 391 likes. Those who would diminish the bravery of Michael Sam are the simple reason why it’s brave to be Michael Sam. Sam has to experience death threats and bigotry from those who cannot accept what is innately true about himself. I take solace in the fact that he is an SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and that he will likely be drafted fairly high. I cheer for him to prove the doubters wrong.

May 8, 2014 — “Welcome to the 2014 NFL Draft.” The draft is abuzz with speculation about Jadaveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel, and Teddy Bridgewater. Every NFL team is optimistic about their chances to improve. Nobody expects Michael Sam to be drafted on the first day, but on the second day (where the second and third rounds occur), there may be an outside chance. Sam waits in a living room with his boyfriend, a competitive swimmer at Missouri. They are both extremely anxious, as the point where a player gets drafted plays a big role in determining whether or not he makes the team. Day 2 moves by without Sam’s name being called.

On Day 3, where we see the fourth through seventh rounds, many believe that it won’t be long before the first openly gay player is drafted. Sam appears in Kiper’s “10 Best Available Players” list halfway through the fifth round. Every pick, it seems more likely. But it’s not that simple. Michael Sam has the longest draft day fall of anyone. It’s not until pick 249, seven picks from the end, that the St. Louis Rams draft in-state product Michael Sam. For those who see Michael Sam the player and not Michael Sam the distraction, it’s very frustrating. Prior to that draft, only one SEC Defensive Player of the Year had been drafted outside the first two rounds. Sam had three games in which he had three sacks each, two of which were against SEC opponents. It’s clear that he can play. Opponents of his draft position point to his limited combine performance and slow 40-yard dash. Those who care about the football aspect know that there is no substitute for game film.

At the moment he is drafted, and after receiving the call from the Rams, Michael Sam breaks down into tears. His lifelong dream is coming true. Sam, like any other person in that situation, embraces the one he loves. He and his boyfriend share a kiss on national television. It’s beautiful. Unfortunately, to some, that is more vulgar than intense gore or heterosexual sex. Miami Dolphins defensive back Don Jones tweets “OMG” and “Horrible” in reference to Sam’s kiss. Hundreds of people throughout social media beg to “think about the children” and “keep it private.” It’s saddening.

August 30, 2014 — NFL insider Adam Schefter tweets, “No history yet…Rams released DE Michael Sam. Prime practice-squad candidate.” I’m disappointed, but not surprised. The Rams have perhaps the deepest defensive line in the league. The player he was competing with, Ethan Westbrooks, was perhaps the best defensive end during the entire preseason. Sam should be able to stick with another team. I know he can play.

But if, during the season, Sam doesn’t even make it onto the practice squad for a team, there will be no excuse. Michael Sam dished out three sacks during the preseason. He sacked Johnny Manziel. He was disruptive in both the running and passing games. Unfortunately, those in the world who hate Michael Sam for something he can’t control (in the same vein of hating someone for their race or gender) have prevented this fantastic athlete and football player from making the impact we know he can. People in the NFL know he can play.

“Why is this a story?” That’s a good question. It’s not every day that people fight both for and against a seventh round draft pick to stay on an NFL roster. You could mention how three of his older siblings are deceased. You could say how Michael Sam watched his older brother die from being shot. One could even mention the fact that Michael Sam is the first member of his entire family to attend college. But we know the reason why he’s a story: he’s gay.

Being gay doesn’t inherently make someone notable. Being gay in a hyper-masculine environment where the mention of homosexuality is usually synonymous with being soft or a weak player is notable. Being the first player to openly come out and be themselves in a world that would rather they didn’t is notable. Michael Sam is notable in the same way that Jackie Robinson was notable.

Sports are my passion. Sports journalism is my dream job. And as someone who invests so much time and effort into watching, following, and analyzing sports, I’m embarrassed by those who are stuck in outdated ideals. Michael Sam is a story, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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