Seven years before Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay on Monday, an All-American from the University of Missouri risked a promising career with a public declaration.
“I am an openly proud gay man,” Michael Sam, a 24-year-old defensive end, told ESPN and The New York Times in February 2014.
The announcement followed a surprising 12-2 season for Missouri, which won the SEC East and then the Cotton Bowl as Sam was named the SEC defensive player of the year. He was expected to fare well in the May NFL draft — but that all changed after his announcement.
Sam ultimately retired from the sport in 2015, citing the toll on his mental health in the year after he came out. On Tuesday, Sam thanked Nassib for joining the ranks of LGBTQ football players, paying special tribute to the donation Nassib made to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention.
“LBGTQ people are more likely to commit suicide than heterosexuals,” Sam said on Twitter. “I hope and pray people will take note to this. Thank you again Carl and look forward to seeing you play on the field.”
LGBTQ rights were still being fiercely debated in February 2014, more than a year before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a right to be married. The NFL in particular had faced criticism for allegedly asking prospects about their sexual orientation and had been accused of hampering players who spoke out in favor of gay rights.
Though many professional athletes around the world, including several retired NFL players, had come out by 2014, no one who was still playing football had dared to make that move before Sam.
His story resurfaced on Monday when the 28-year-old Nassib, who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2016 and now plays for the Raiders, announced that he is gay in a video on Instagram. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a supportive statement crediting Nassib for “courageously sharing his truth.”
Nassib’s announcement left many — from former NFL players to sports journalists, fans and coaches — citing Sam’s story, suggesting that his decision to come out in 2014 paved the way for the latest trailblazer.
“Here’s the truth: Everyone owes Michael Sam such a bit of gratitude,” Wade Davis, a former NFL cornerback who came out as gay in 2012, told The Washington Post on Monday. “Michael Sam did something that very few people do. They gave up something, which is potentially his entire career in the NFL, for something greater.”
When Sam was up for the draft in 2014, many expected he would be selected as early as the third round, The Post reported at the time — although some scouts said his pre-draft workouts had left teams concerned about his readiness for the NFL. On draft day, the third round passed and Sam’s name wasn’t called. Three more rounds followed with no mention of the Missouri defensive end.
When his name was finally called in the final round on the last day of the draft, Sam turned and kissed his boyfriend on national television.
Sam joined training camp with the St. Louis Rams, but was ultimately cut. The Dallas Cowboys added him to a practice squad, but Sam’s position there only lasted seven weeks. He went on to play briefly for the Montreal Alouettes in Canada. But he never played in a regular season game for the NFL, and in 2015, Sam retired from football, citing mental health reasons.
“The last 12 months have been very difficult for me, to the point where I became concerned with my mental health,” Sam said in an announcement on Twitter. “Because of this I am going to step away from the game at this time.”
Sam never returned to play professional football. And he wasn’t the only gay man who struggled to find a place in the NFL after coming out.
Many retired NFL players have publicly identified as gay, beginning with Dave Kopay who came out in 1975, three years after leaving the sport. Kopay tried to coach later in his career, but couldn’t find a team that would accept him.
Sam told Out magazine in 2019 that he ultimately sacrificed his professional career to live his life openly.
“That being said, it also helped a lot of people in the process,” he said. “I have to believe that it helped people. Football gave me so much. It was my dream. If I could save some lives by sacrificing my career, that’s what I have, and I am grateful for it.”