Michael Sam’s historic decision to come out prior to the NFL draft is only the the most recent in a long line of challenges the All-American defensive end has overcome.
A lengthy profile in the New York Times examines Sam’s upbringing in a tiny Texas town, where he says his family “was very notorious.”
“Everyone would say, ‘There goes those damn Sams,’” he told the Times. “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.”
Three of Sam’s siblings died while he was young, two more are currently incarcerated. When he visits his hometown, he says he usually stays with friends.
Sam also has a complicated relationship with his father, Michael Sr., the Times reveals.
Michael Sr. told ESPN that he was proud of his son for coming out, but the Times profile suggests that — while he may be very proud — he is still struggling with his son’s sexuality:
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 N.F.L. “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 N.F.L. 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.”
Despite a complicated home life, Sam’s hometown community served as an anchor for the young athlete. A network of classmates, friends’ parents and coaches provided the love and support he was searching for, according to Sam. He seems to be finding that same support through a developing network of friends and allies in the NFL.
More from the Times:
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 and Wade Davis, who came out as gay after retiring from professional football, and Bill Bean, who did so after retiring from professional baseball, were there, along with Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe, two former N.F.L. 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 entirely welcome. (Norris Stevenson broke the color barrier for Missouri in 1957.)
“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.