From Hitchcock High to the NFL

Michael Sam Shares his Story at Clark

Ethan Giles

 

Michael Sam addresses crowd in Jefferson 320.
Celine Manneville
Michael Sam addresses crowd in Jefferson 320.

“I’m Michael Sam, I’m a senior from Hitchcock, TX, I’m a Sports Management Major, and I’m gay.”

When Michael Sam first spoke those words to his University of Missouri football team in 2013, he became the first openly gay NCAA Division I College Football player. However, he said them with much less pressure in Jefferson 320 on Tuesday, Nov. 29 during his talk “From Hitchcock High to the NFL.”

Sam began his talk with memories from his childhood, describing the broken family he grew up in. He was one of eight children, but his eldest sister drowned before he was born. Then, a few years after Sam’s birth, his brother Russell was shot for trespassing. Three years later, Sam’s brother Julian went missing, being declared officially dead in 2000. These tragedies tore his family apart, and his parents split  between Russell and Julian’s deaths.

Sam’s father was absent for much of his childhood, but helped his son in one key way: him to play football. Football functioned as an escape for Sam, who joined his middle school team in seventh grade. It took him some time to get used to the game, but once he did, he was dominant. He made the varsity team as a freshman in high school, an incredible feat in the football hotbed of Texas.

Sam’s play opened up a door he had never considered: college.

“I got my first college letter in tenth grade from Oklahoma State,” Sam told the crowd, “but when I told my [high school] coach he said I would never go.” His coach had a point: Sam’s grades were nowhere near where they needed to be eligible for college football. Sam tried harder in school than he ever had for the next two years, and ended up accepting a scholarship to the University of Missouri. He became the first male in his family to graduate high school.

After explaining his childhood, Sam paused, looked at the crowd, and wryly said, “Now you’re probably wondering when I’m going to talk about being gay.”

Sam first noticed his attraction to the same sex in high school, and figured it was just a phase that he would grow out of. He first experimented with men in college and quickly realized that it was not a phase, but rather was a part of who he was. A few years into his college career he met a swimmer named Vito Cammisano, and although the two had an awkward beginning, they ended up starting a relationship.

The couple’s relationship was fantastic at the beginning, but Sam’s need for secrecy put a strain on their happiness. They would leave restaurants if spotted together, sit a seat apart in the movie theater, and would never hold hands in public. Cammisano eventually had enough, smacking Sam during an argument and asking him “when you look in the mirror, what do you see?”

Sam took these words to heart, and realized that he was not being true to himself. After taking a trip to the St. Louis pride parade and going to gay bars in Columbia, MO, Sam had enough confidence enough to come out to his teammates in August 2013.

Sam had an incredible senior season, including winning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and then declared for the 2014 NFL Draft. Sam described himself as “naive,” as he thought his sexuality would not come up during the predraft process. He told his agents he was out, and they hired him an openly gay publicist, Howard Bragman. Although this hire was made with good intentions and Bragman was very good at his job, Sam wishes Bragman never got involved. He believes Bragman had an alternate agenda besides Sam’s best interest, as he jumped at the opportunity to be the publicist of the first openly gay NFL player.

Sam first realized this would be a problem in February 2014 at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL. Many reporters approached him, offering to be the journalist to “tell his story.” Bragman then insisted Sam come out to the general public to ensure he was the one who got to tell his story. One day after telling his parents, Sam gave an interview to ESPN, publicly declaring his sexual identity.

Although Sam believed the interest in him would blow over after a few weeks, the media hype never stopped.

“The media did me no favors,” Sam told The Scarlet prior to his talk. He is still upset with the coverage he received. The media talked about his sexuality and off-the-field habits rather than his “actual playing ability.”

One of the most prominent examples of this came on draft day. After waiting three days to hear his name, Sam was finally drafted in the seventh and final round of the draft by the St. Louis Rams. He celebrated by kissing Cammisano, which provided even more media fodder. Talking heads obsessed over the kiss, while ignoring all of the kisses exchanged by straight men and their female significant others.

“People made a big deal over a guy kissing his boyfriend,” Sam told the crowd. “Who the hell else was I supposed to kiss?”

Sam remained on the Rams through training camp and the preseason. Although he played incredibly well, placing near the leader board in preseason sacks, Sam was let go by the Rams after the preseason. This release hurt Sam; he felt like he deserved a spot on the team and had bonded with a number of teammates during his short stay.

He then signed on with the Dallas Cowboys practice squad until midway through the 2014-2015 season, eventually getting released when the Cowboys second round pick, after DeMarcus Lawrence, returned from injury.

Looking back, Sam wishes he went undrafted rather than to the Rams.

“If I went undrafted I could have found the right team that was in need of a pass rusher, which was mostly all of them,” Sam told The Scarlet. “Unfortunately, I went to a team that was already loaded with defensive [linemen] and pass rushers.”

Sam would not return to the NFL again. He attempted to play in the Canadian Football League, where he was drafted by the Montreal Alouettes, but found that Canada. Sam explained to The Scarlet that he was used to playing against NFL talent, but in Montreal he had to play “with the [talent] level of the CFL, and I knew I couldn’t do it.”

After not receiving a training camp invitation or tryout this past summer, Sam has officially retired from professional football.

“I’m still in limbo,” he told The Scarlet. “I kind of want to rest and take a break and try to find myself.”

When asked if he was proud of what he has accomplished, Sam took a long pause. “I’ve helped a lot of people, I’m very proud of myself for doing that,” Sam said, “but I did sacrifice my career The NFL is a great business, and I was talented enough to play. But life is more important than football, and I’ve helped a lot of people and I am proud of that.”

Sam currently lives in Dallas and has been traveling to many colleges sharing his story.