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updated: 2/10/2014 1:02 PM

Michael Sam more than right man at right time

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  • Video: All-American says he's gay

  • Missouri senior defensive lineman Michael Sam says he is gay, and he could become the first openly homosexual player in the NFL.

      Missouri senior defensive lineman Michael Sam says he is gay, and he could become the first openly homosexual player in the NFL.
    Associated Press/January 2014

 
 

Michael Sam came out on a Sunday night in February 2014 and announced to the world he was gay.

People will remember where they were when they heard the news. It will be talked about decades from now and remembered as a truly landmark moment in major American professional sports.

Someday, his name may be included in paragraphs with Jackie Robinson.

If that seems a bit of hyperbole, it's not to the scores of gay players who currently reside within the sports world having hidden their lives from the men they fear most within their locker rooms.

If that seems an exaggeration, ask the children who are bullied, threatened, harassed or beaten daily in this country because they are gay.

It is that big a moment, but rather than have it chosen for him, Sam has chosen the moment. He is the right man at the right time, a tough and thoughtful person who is also extremely talented.

He was, after all, the defensive player of the year in the SEC, merely the best college football conference in the country.

Still, there are not enough words to describe the courage it has taken to first share the truth with his Missouri teammates last summer, and now with the world before the NFL combine and draft.

And as amazing a story as this is, there is something more remarkable about Michael Sam than being the first openly-gay, NFL draft prospect.

How can that be, you say? Well, consider the story of his life.

"I am not afraid," Sam told ESPN's "Outside the Lines." "I endured so much in my past, so much tragedy growing up, seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound."

As bad as it gets, right? No. Sam was only warming up.

"My older sister died when she was a baby and I never got the chance to meet her," Sam continued. "My second oldest brother went missing in 1998 and me and my little sister were the last ones to see him, and we pronounced him dead two years later."

Few emerge from that with any semblance of sanity, but we are far from the end of this tale.

"My other two brothers have been in and out of jail since eighth grade, currently both in jail," Sam said. "There were some hardships. There was some tragedy and adversity."

Hardships? Tragedy? Adversity? This is about as bad a story as you will ever hear -- rather unbelievable, actually -- and somehow this 24-year-old man came out the other side alive and intact.

"Telling the world I'm gay is nothing compared to that," Sam said. "I could be dead. I made a choice at a young age that I knew I didn't want to follow that path of my brothers.

"I didn't want to have to call my mom from jail and say, 'Can you bail me out?' I knew that I wanted to have some success so my family could be proud of me."

From the utter depths of despair, the mind-numbing pain of childhood heartbreak -- truly, the worst life has to offer -- this extraordinary man has arrived and thrived and presented himself to the world.

This can't be an accident. This can't be coincidence. There is a reason it is him. There's a reason it is now.

But he shouldn't only be a hero to the gay community. He shouldn't just be a hero to the black community. He shouldn't only be a hero to gay athletes or black athletes or any athletes.

That simply doesn't encompass enough.

He is an example for everyone -- black or white, gay or straight, athlete or not. He is an example for every man, woman and child in America who isn't sure he or she can overcome a horrific childhood, dream of a better life, earn a college scholarship, get a college degree and become a millionaire all because of hard work, dedication and belief in himself.

Ultimately, Michael Sam just wants to be an NFL player who helps his team win games, and coming out now ensures that teams have a fair chance to evaluate and discuss the locker room ramifications, instead of whispering about what most of the scouts and GMs already knew.

Still, this is one incredible human being -- a man of staggering strength and character -- and he's going to need all of his survival skills in the next 12 months.

A minority of players will snicker behind his back and undermine him at every turn. The vast majority will accept, but even within that group will be ignorance and discomfort.

Let's not kid ourselves, ex-NFL safety Kerry Rhodes was only "suspected'' of being gay and he couldn't get a job last season, after metrics showed he was one of the top safeties the year before.

There are bigots everywhere. They are in NFL locker rooms. They are in the front office. They will be on opposing teams. They will be in NFL stadiums. And they will be everywhere Sam goes for the rest of his life.

What seems certain is that Sam will not be afraid and he will not be deterred.

He has already seen the very worst that life has to offer. He has stared it down and he has overcome.

No matters what happens next, Michael Sam has already won.

Michael Sam is still alive.

brozner@dailyherald.com

•Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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