POSTED: 03:02 a.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014
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-American and defensive terror on the football 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 remains complicated: When he visits home, he usually stays with friends.
Sam's life has transformed overnight. His announcement this week prompted a state senator in Missouri to seek legislation to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. His courage has been hailed by teammates, famous athletes, countless football fans and President Barack Obama and the first lady.
But to get a sense of the challenges awaiting Sam, look no further than his father.
Last Tuesday, Michael Sam Sr. was at a Denny's near his home outside Dallas to celebrate his birthday when his son sent him a text message.
Dad, I'm gay, he wrote.
The party stopped cold. "I couldn't eat no more, so I went to Applebee's to have drinks," Sam Sr. said. "I don't want my grandkids raised in that kind of environment.
"I'm old-school," he added. "I'm a man and a woman type of guy." As evidence, he pointed out that he had taken an older son to Mexico to lose his virginity.
On Sunday night, just after Michael Sam announced his intention to make sports history, his father was still struggling with the news.
Sam Sr. loves his son, and he said he hoped his son made 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 renowned for his toughness, "is turning over in his grave."
Michael Sam had anticipated his family's uneasiness. In an interview Sunday in North Hollywood, Calif., 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.
He declined to speak beyond the initial interview Sunday.
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. He went to North Texas to work as a trucker. She tried to keep what was left of her family together.
A sister drowned when she was 2, before Michael was born, when another child accidentally knocked her off a fishing pier. Another brother, Russell, was 15 when he was shot and killed trying to break into a home, an incident his father said was part of a gang initiation. Another brother, Julian, has not been heard from since he left for work one day in 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."
If trouble runs deep in the Sam family, so does religion. And it, too, was a source of conflict. JoAnn is a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who do not celebrate holidays or believe in birth control and generally shun participation in organized sports. Michael Sr. comes from a large Baptist family, and his father was a long-serving deacon at a church in nearby Texas City, Texas.
But it was Sam's desire to play football that caused a rift with his mother -- she believed that sports distracted from the mission of service. Sam simply saw football as salvation.
"There were confrontations," Michael said. "I love my mother dearly. But I needed sports. I needed sports to make sure I can't get in trouble, to make sure I didn't do anything bad."
JoAnn Sam did not respond to multiple messages.
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
Hitchcock High School sits on a long, quiet road, between a general store and the First Baptist Church. Freight trains rumble nearby. On fall nights, many of the town's 7,000 residents gather at the stadium to watch their Bulldogs play beneath the bright lights.
It was there that Sam developed a controlled fury that helped him sack quarterbacks and collar running backs. It was there that he found an extended family that includes a prominent banker, an old football coach and a 3-year-old goddaughter named Peighton, who sees him adoringly as a giant.
Sam began his football career as a water boy. In junior high school, Craig Smith, the football coach, saw that Sam was athletically blessed and, even better, hungry for guidance and camaraderie. The coaches drafted him to carry equipment and hang around the squad.
At the start of high school, Smith put him in the starting lineup on the varsity team. Sam was already so much bigger than his teammates that he stood in the back row of the team's yearbook photo.
Sam was a natural peacemaker, but he was not afraid to use his size when needed. When he saw Robert Dohman, a friend since elementary school, with a busted lip outside a local mall, he waded into a crowd of two dozen and lifted the offender into the air.
"What do you know about jumping the white boy in the parking lot?" Sam shouted, according to Dohman.
The crowd scattered.
"He was trying to protect me," Dohman said.
By his sophomore year, Sam played on the offensive and defensive lines. How good was he? Smith did not know: Hitchcock, with only 300 students, was hardly a football powerhouse.
But Smith got a good a hint of his potential during Sam's senior year when the Bulldogs played Chavez High School, a much bigger school in Houston. It was the team's first game after Hurricane Ike devastated the region and closed the school for several weeks.
Chavez's star was All-American defensive tackle named Michael Brockers, who was bound for Louisiana State University. In 2012, the St. Louis 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.
Ron's wife, Candy, made sure their house was part recreation center and part counseling hub for their children and their friends. By Sam's senior year, he had his own bedroom in the Purls' house, along with chores like cleaning the pool and carrying the grocery bags.
"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."
It was the Purls who drove Sam from Texas to middle Missouri. It seemed like an improbable trip at the time.
"I didn't even dream of going to college," Sam said. "College was not in my definition. If somebody told me I was going to play for the Missouri Tigers in 2009, I would laugh at them."
Sam may have been big for Hitchcock, but he was small on Missouri's defensive line. The coaches did not know what to make of their undersized freshman.
"He was a two-star recruit," said Pat Ivey, an associate athletic director who oversees the strength department. "I didn't really see him being an All-American."
At first, Sam's teammates intimidated him. His affinity for Harry Potter books made him stand out. He was noisy and could not sit still. 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."
The same went for his mouth.
"He drove me crazy," Gary Pinkel, the head coach, said. "He never shut up. I knew when he was in my office talking to the secretary. I'd get up and shut the door."
Before his senior year, Sam had begun telling those closest to him who he really was. He skipped the dramatic pronouncements in favor of casual disclosures.
In a phone call to a high school friend, Tyler Sander, Sam confided that he was having romantic troubles. If Sander had been around more during the Christmas break, Sam said, "You would have met him."
"There was a pause and I was like, 'Him?'" Sander said.
"He was like, 'Yeah, I'm gay.'"
Sander and Sam had a long conversation that night that made them even closer. "Now there's nothing to hide," Sander said. "We can literally talk to each other about anything."
Two years ago during Christmas break, Sam brought home a friend from the swimming team, a man. His second family, the Purls, did not ask any questions. 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."
A Singular Season
By last August, Sam's sexuality was an open secret here. He had told a professor he was gay and had become a genial presence at the SoCo Club in Columbia, a nightclub and cabaret that hosts regular drag shows, among other events.
Marty Newman, SoCo's owner and general manager, said Sam was entirely open about who he was: a gay man and a football star. He was happy to talk sports with the bartenders and anyone else.
"No one felt the need to out him," Newman said. "He was respected here and was allowed to be himself."
In Sam's senior season, Missouri finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He made first-team All-American and was voted by his teammates as Missouri's most valuable player.
On Monday, Pinkel tried to put in words a singular season that began with his noisiest player's startling announcement, and ended with dozens of men standing by their teammate in the national spotlight.
"Pretty cool," was the best he could do.
On Saturday night, over Chinese food at the home of his publicist, Howard Bragman, 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 who have been outspoken in their support of gay rights.
It was a chance to celebrate Sam on his last night of relative anonymity, but it was also a way to tell him about the world he was diving into.
Kopay, a 71-year-old former running back, playfully punched Sam a couple of times to emphasize just how intensely he would have to work. He also 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.
Kluwe told him he would not have many problems with players. "They're there to play football," he said.
The men in charge will pose problems, Kluwe said. "It's the general managers and coaches who are going to say it's a distraction."
Then, there's the public at large, the millions of sports fans who will soon see a publicly gay player standing tall on an NFL team's defensive line. It is too early to know how they will react, but perhaps the evolution within Sam's own family offers a clue.
"I believe in a person's destiny," his aunt Geraldine Sam said. "If that's the way he is, I'm not trying to put my religious beliefs on anyone. I respect people for who they are, not who we want them to be."