COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Monday that Michael Sam revealed he was gay at one of the football team’s get-acquainted dinners last summer.
The next day, Sam told the entire team.
Realizing the enormity of the situation, Pinkel left the next move up to the senior who blossomed into one of the best defensive ends in the country — and one surrounded by teammates who didn’t worry one bit about sexual orientation or reveal his secret until he came out on Sunday.
Pinkel, athletic director Mike Alden and other school officials applauded Sam’s courage Monday at Faurot Field. As a backdrop, the first two letters of Sam’s last name were etched in snow to join the giant “M” just beyond the north end zone.
“Pretty cool,” Pinkel said.
Coaches and Sam agreed that making an announcement during the season might be a distraction. It was Sam’s call to skip all of the weekly media days and postgame news conferences, too, the better to avoid the risk of the topic coming up. Sam broke his silence prior to the Cotton Bowl and the conversation stayed on football, just like he wanted.
Sam was prompted to make his decision to come out after the Senior Bowl, where it became apparent the player’s sexual orientation was widely known. This meant a declaration just a matter of days before the NFL combine and shouldering the pressure that will come with perhaps being the first openly gay player in the history of the league.
“It’s very clear that everybody in the NFL knew,” said Howard Bragman, a consultant hired by Sam’s agent to help manage the announcement on ESPN, in The New York Times and Outsports.
The NFL and many others, including the White House, publicly applauded Sam’s decision. President Barack Obama’s spokesman, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden all called him a courageous and inspirational athlete.
But now, after a few high-profile interviews, it’s back to silent Sam. The fifth level of the stadium was jammed with dozens of reporters for Monday’s news gathering but there was no sign of the star attraction. Bragman said Sam was traveling Monday to a camp at an undisclosed location where he’ll prepare for the combine.
Sam arrived without fanfare at Missouri from Hitchcock (Texas) High School — Rivals.com gave him just two stars. He had 10 career starts before his breakout senior season.
The All-America defensive end led the Southeastern Conference in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). He was the SEC defensive player of the year. Still, Sam has been projected as a mid-level NFL draft pick, probably because he’s a bit undersized at 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds. Pinkel doesn’t think this admission will hurt Sam’s draft status.
“Our team was able to move past it and work together,” defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “So why shouldn’t a bunch of professional football players be able to do the same thing?”