Michael Sam was born on January 7, 1990. He is a former American football defensive end who made history when he declared he was gay in a 2014 interview. He retired from football in August of 2015, but not before becoming the first publicly LGBTQ player to be drafted into the National Football League (NFL), and the first openly gay player in the Canadian Football League (CFL).
Michael Alan Sam, Jr. is the seventh of eight children born to JoAnn (Turner) and Michael Alan Sam, Sr., who separated when he was young. He grew up in Hitchcock, Texas, about 40 miles southeast of Houston, near Galveston Bay. As a child, Sam watched one of his older brothers die from a gunshot wound. Another older brother has been missing since 1998, and his other two brothers were imprisoned. A sister who was born before him died in infancy. At one point in his childhood, Sam lived in his mother’s car. He was once accidentally sprayed with mace by police who were arresting one of his brothers.
Sam spoke about frequent beatings from his brothers, and his relationship with his family has been complicated. He argued with his mother, a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, over playing football, as she did not agree with those pursuits. Sam often stayed with friends while in high school; the parents of a classmate gave him a bedroom in their house, and had him complete household chores.
Michael Sam attended Hitchcock High School, and began traveling as a water boy with the school’s varsity football team in the eighth grade. He later became a member of the team, playing both defensive end and offensive tackle. He earned first-team All-District honors as a defensive lineman in all four years of high school, and as an offensive lineman in his junior and senior years.
Out of high school, Sam received scholarship offers from Arizona State University, Colorado State University, and the University of Houston, but he wanted to attend Texas A&M University, and waited for a scholarship offer from them. He ultimately accepted a scholarship from the University of Missouri, and attended the school from 2009 to 2013. Sam was the first member of his family to attend college.
Sam played for the Tigers, competing in the Big 12 Conference. An outstanding player, Sam intercepted a tipped pass in a game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in his sophomore year, which secured a victory to make Missouri bowl eligible. As a senior in 2013, Sam led the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in quarterback sacks and tackles, and tied Missouri’s single-season record for sacks. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week in two consecutive weeks. After the season, he was named the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Sam was named a first-team All-American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation, Associated Press, “Sporting News,” the American Football Coaches Association, and the Football Writers Association of America. He was also named a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Hendricks Award, and the Lombardi Award. Missouri played in the 2014 Cotton Bowl Classic, in which Sam forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, securing Missouri’s victory over the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
During his college career, Sam accumulated 123 tackles, including 36 for loss, 21 sacks, six forced fumbles and two intercepted passes. He graduated from Missouri in December 2013, and participated in the Senior Bowl in January 2014. He ranked as one of the smaller stars of the game, and some pundits considered him too small to play as a defensive end in the NFL. He played as an outside linebacker, sometimes struggling at the new position. But he had widespread support, and was frequently touted as a possible first-round draft pick.
In August 2013, Sam took the opportunity of a team “introduce yourself” session to reveal to his Missouri teammates that he was gay, and found them supportive. He hesitated in speaking to the media to avoid addressing rumors of his sexuality. Sam came out to his father via text message a week before coming out publicly. “The New York Times” reported that his father, a self-described “old-school…man-and-a-woman type of guy,” said, “I don’t want my grandkids raised in that kind of environment.” His father told the “Galveston Daily News” that he was “terribly misquoted,” though “The New York Times” maintained that he was quoted “accurately and fairly.”
On February 9, 2014, in an interview with Chris Connelly on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” Sam responded to questions about his coming out experience, and his status as one of college football’s first openly self-acknowledged gay players. At the time, no active NFL player had ever been out publicly. Anonymous NFL executives told “Sports Illustrated” that they expected Sam to fall in the draft as a result of his announcement. Those statements caused NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith to respond that any team official who anonymously downgrades Sam is “gutless.” From jail, Sam’s brother Josh said, “I’m proud of him for not becoming like me. I still love him, whatever his lifestyle is. He’s still my brother and I love him.”
The week after his ESPN interview, Sam returned to Missouri with the Tigers football team to accept the 2014 Cotton Bowl championship trophy at a ceremony held at the halftime of a Missouri Tigers basketball game at Mizzou Arena. Anti-gay activist Shirley Phelps-Roper and about 15 other members of the Westboro Baptist Church, an organization widely considered a hate group, protested his appearance. Students organized a counter-protest numbering in the hundreds if not thousands, assembling a “human wall” in front of the protesters.
The St. Louis Rams drafted Sam in the seventh round, the 249th of 256 players selected in the 2014 draft. He became the first publicly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. In a statement, President Barack Obama said that he “congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward today in our Nation’s journey” and that “[f]rom the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT Americans prove everyday that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are.” Rams jerseys bearing his name became the second best-selling rookie jerseys at the NFL’s website behind Cleveland quarterback (and Heisman Trophy winner) Johnny Manziel.
After being drafted, Sam’s emotional reaction was broadcast live on television, during which he kissed his then-boyfriend, Vito Cammisano. Reported to have been dating Sam for several months, Cammisano is a fellow alum of the University of Missouri who had been a member of the school’s swim team. In January of 2015, it was announced that Sam and Cammisano were engaged, but by June, they had ended their relationship.
Sam made his professional debut on August 8, 2014, and during four exhibition games recorded 11 tackles and 3 sacks, including a team-leading six tackles in the Rams’ final pre-season game. Despite his performance, St. Louis released Sam as part of a final round of cuts to reduce their roster to the league-mandated 53 players before the start of the regular season.
On September 3, 2014, Sam was added to the practice squad of the Dallas Cowboys. More than a month later, the Cowboys waived Sam to make room for linebacker Troy Davis. Sam complained openly that he was not on an NFL roster because he’s openly gay, telling TMZ Sports in December of 2014 that he strongly believed he had the talent to play in the league, and many in the sports world appeared to agree. Former teammates and coaches have derided the apparent snub by the NFL of such a celebrated player, saying he deserves to be in the NFL, and is deserving of a spot on a team, not only as an openly gay player, but as a skillful and tested professional with great ability and promise.
In a December 2014 documentary about Michael Sam, produced by The Oprah Winfrey Network, Sam opened up about his personal life, and the challenges of being the first out player in a macho and often violent sport. In the interview with Winfrey, he said he has been thanked by other same-gender loving NFL players. “There’s a lot of us out there,” the defensive end said, “I’m not the only one. I’m just the only one who’s open.”
On May 22, 2015, Sam signed a two-year contract with Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League (CFL). The signing made him the first openly gay player in the league’s history. On June 12, a day before the Alouettes’ first preseason game, Sam was granted permission to leave camp for “personal reasons” to return to home to Texas, and was placed on the suspended list.
After sitting out the team’s first five games, he made his CFL debut on August 7, 2015, against the Ottawa Redblacks, and became the first publicly gay player to play in a CFL regular season game. Sam missed the next game after the team reported he had a sore back. He left the team the following day, citing concerns with his mental health after a 12-month stretch which he described as “difficult.” Montreal again placed him on its suspended list.
On February 24, 2015, Sam was announced as one of the celebrities to compete in the 20th season of television’s “Dancing with The Stars.” He partnered with professional dancer Peta Murgatroyd, but they were eliminated in the fourth week of competition and finished in tenth place.
Michael Sam earned the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2014 ESPY Awards. He was named one of “GQ” magazine’s Men of the Year, and a finalist for Sportsman of the Year by “Sports Illustrated.” He was also honored by “Outsports” as their 2014 Man of the Year.
Sam currently shares his experiences as an author and motivational speaker. To this day, no NFL player appearing in a regular season game has come out publicly as gay while active.
We thank Michael Sam for his trailblazing athleticism, inspiring advocacy, his leadership in professional sports, and for his many contributions to our community.