In this Jan. 1, 2014, file photo, Missouri senior defensive lineman Michael Sam speaks to the media during an NCAA college football news conference in Irving, Texas. Sam says he is gay, and he could become the first openly homosexual player in the NFL. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)
More than 100 million fans watched Super Bowl XXVIII when the Seattle Seahawks beat the Denver Broncos a few weeks ago, but even more watchful eyes will be paying attention when the NFL’s first openly gay player Michael Sam is likely to be drafted in May.
Last week Missouri All-American Michael Sam told the world that he is gay, and the defensive end could become the first openly homosexual player in the NFL.
"I am an openly, proud gay man," he said.
Sam was raised in the small town of Hitchcock, Texas. He said he grew up uncertain about what his sexual orientation was.
"I knew from a young age that I was attracted to guys," he said, "I didn't know if it was a phase ... I didn't want to say, 'Hey, I might be gay. I might be bi.' I just didn't know ... I wanted to find who I was and make sure I knew what was comfortable. So I didn't tell anyone growing up," Sam told ESPN.
He chronicled an upbringing that mirrored most urban Black Americans.
"I endured so much in my past: seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound, not knowing that my oldest sister died when she was a baby and I never got the chance to meet her. My second oldest brother went missing in 1998, and me and my little sister were the last ones to see him ... my other two brothers have been in and out of jail since 8th grade, currently both in jail,” he said.
In subsequent interviews with multiple media outlets, Sam said he came out to all his teammates and coaches at Missouri in August.
While playing in the Senior Bowl he heard rumors that other players were aware of his sexual preference and eventually decided to tell his story publically.
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sam participated in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month after leading the Southeastern Conference in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). He was the SEC defensive player of the year.
His courageous and bold announcement garnered massive public praise, but projected as a mid-round draft pick it could ultimately cost him hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars.
Most NFL analysts and experts predict that Sam will only be evaluated as a football player, one whose talent earned him All American status in college at Missouri where he led the team with 11 sacks and was named Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
He will participate in the NFL combine later this month in Indianapolis, his first audition for the NFL.
"It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL," he said.
There have been a few NFL players who have come out after their playing days, including Kwame Harris and Dave Kopay.
Last year, NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay after the season. Collins, a 35-year-old backup center, was a free agent when he came out and has not signed with a new team this season. MLS star and U.S. national team player Robbie Rogers also came out a year ago.
"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," the NFL said in statement. "Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."
Doug Williams the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl commended Sam.
The NFL doesn’t have any openly gay players, but Williams doesn’t think Sam’s declaration should hurt his chances of being drafted. He also doesn’t believe that Sam will encounter harsh locker room conflict if drafted.
“No. 1, I think we’ve got to take our hats off to the young guy because No. 1, he did something that takes a lot of courage,” Williams said. “I’m sure he thinks it could hurt his draft status. Or it could help it. But at the end of the day, the locker room is what it is. You get a lot of people talking about the locker room, but at the end of the day, if you have not been in a locker room, you would never really understand a locker room. When you look at it, for five years, this young guy has been in a locker room. He’s been in the locker room with his teammates and they put their arms around each other and they went out and played. They had a heck of a season,”
However, many anonymous NFL general managers are already downgrading the draft status of Sam, much to the ire of National Football League Players Association director Maurice Smith.
"When you contrast a group of anonymous GMs against a 24-year-old college player, it seems like only one of them had the guts to put his name behind his message," Smith told CSN Washington. "So my first reaction has nothing to do with Michael Sam. My reaction is to call those GMs for what they are -- they're gutless.
"If a young man has the courage to stand up and put his name and his face to talk about what he thinks is important, I would expect that a grown man can do exactly the same thing. But apparently they can't."
According to most projections the team in the NFL most likely to draft Sam is the Buffalo Bills, among those least likely are the Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys, citing a lack of need at the position.