COLUMBIA, Mo. – Michael Sam was the loud country guy who wore a tank top and a cowboy hat. He was the smooth-singing baritone who could irritate coaches and crack up 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 for Missouri. He was a regular at a gay club where the bartenders knew him by name.
Sam, 24, introduced himself to the world Sunday as an NFL prospect who happens to be gay. 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 public debate.
But Sam has never had it easy.
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He grew up about 40 miles southeast of Houston near Galveston Bay, the seventh of eight children. Three of his siblings have died and two brothers are in prison.
Sam lived briefly in the back seat of his mother’s car, and his relationship with his family remains complicated.
Sam’s life has transformed this week. His courage has been hailed by teammates, famous athletes, countless football fans, President Barack Obama and the first lady.
But to get a sense of the challenges awaiting Sam, look no further than his father.
On Feb. 4, Michael Sam Sr. was at a Denny’s restaurant 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. I’m a man-and-a-woman type of guy.”
As evidence, he pointed out he had taken an older son to Mexico to lose his virginity.
On Sunday night, just after 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 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 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.
Sam started telling small groups of Missouri teammates he was gay two years earlier. In August, he told the whole group, along with the coaching staff. Most of them already knew.
If Sam 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.”
Growing up in Hitchcock, Sam needed to play sports and 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.”
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.
Sam might have been big for Hitchcock, but he was an undersized freshman on Missouri’s defensive line. He won the group over with improvised songs that ribbed teammates or described their grueling practices.
When he wasn’t singing, he was talking.
“He drove me crazy,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, a former Washington Huskies offensive coordinator. “He never shut up.”
By last August, Sam’s sexuality was an open secret. He had told a professor he was gay and had become a presence at the SoCo Club in Columbia, a club and cabaret that hosts regular drag shows, among other events.
In Sam’s senior season, Missouri went 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He was a first-team All-American.
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,” Pinkel said.
On Saturday night at the home of his publicist, Howard Bragman, Sam was joined by an exclusive group: publicly gay athletes and their peers who have made a cause of supporting them.
David 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.
Kopay, a 71-year-old former running back who played college football at Washington, reminded Sam if they had been freshmen together in 1960, Sam, as a black man, might not have been entirely welcome at Missouri. Norris Stevenson broke the color barrier at the school in 1957.
“Well, you’re just taking another step forward now,” Kopay told Sam.