Michael Sam, the first player to come out as gay before a career in the National Football League, spoke openly about his life’s adversities to University of Nebraska-Lincoln students Feb. 14.
Sam’s speech, hosted by the University Programming Council, covered the challenges he has faced over his 28 years, including family issues, being African-American and being gay. His story is full of “adversity, perseverance, owning your truth and self-discovery.”
Sam, who grew up in a small Texas town, lost several family members early in his life. His oldest sister drowned when Sam was a baby and his oldest brother was shot and killed when Sam was 5. After that, Sam’s father left their family.
Sam said his next oldest brother, Julian, pieced the family together and, for three years, they thrived, until Julian disappeared when Sam was 8. Then, Sam said, his next two oldest brothers got involved in bad crowds, turning the house “into a crack house” full of loaded weapons.
Sam said his brothers abused the rest of the siblings. To get out of the house, Sam said he said he would take walks or hang out at football games.
“As long as my mother wasn’t home, I wasn’t there,” he said.
Sam played football in the seventh and eighth grades said the high school coaches noticed him, taking him on as a waterboy of sorts. He said he would watch every game, to listen and learn.
His freshman year of high school, Sam made varsity, which he said was a big deal in Texas, where football was “religion.” However, he didn’t have any intentions of playing football in college, he said, and his grades were low.
Also in high school, Sam said he became sexually attracted to men but had no one he could talk to about it.
“I couldn’t talk to my mom,” he said. “She probably would’ve thrown a bible at me.”
In June 2009, Sam became the second child in his family to graduate from high school, with his mother “crying tears of joy” in the stands. He said that day is the proudest of his life.
After high school, Sam went to the University of Missouri to play football. He met a man who said he had a “fairytale” relationship with. But, since Sam’s boyfriend was openly gay and Sam was not, they eventually broke up.
“He asked me, ‘When you look at yourself in the mirror, who do you see?’” Sam said. “And I didn’t know.”
In August, 2013, right before his last semester of college, Sam came out to the rest of his team while introducing himself on the first day of camp. That season, Sam said, was the best in Missouri Tigers history, and one in which he worked extremely hard.
“I sacrificed everything I had for a team that protected me the entire season,” Sam said.
He graduated from MU in December 2013. In February 2014, he came out publicly during an ESPN interview. Being an African-American gay man, he said, was a double whammy.
Following that interview were many more for Sam, who said he didn’t understand why people kept congratulating him.
“All I did was own my truth,” he said. “I didn’t do anything to be a hero.”
Sam said the first time he understood what his coming out meant to other people was during a conversation with an individual who said Sam saved her life. Previously, she had been on suicide watch after getting bullied for her sexuality.
After being abused as a child, Sam said the thing he detests most in the world is bullying.
“I decided to be the shield and the sword,” he said, “to be whatever people needed me to be.”
His newfound understanding, Sam said, changed the way he thought about himself. His performance improved and, in May 2014, he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams (now the Los Angeles Rams).
In August, however, Sam was cut from the Rams. He joined the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad but was waived from the team in October.
Sam signed a contract with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes in 2015, but said it wasn’t the right fit for him. He hasn’t played football since.
Sam said he moved to Los Angeles, got involved with the “fast lifestyle” and lost who he was, falling into a depression. He left Los Angeles and said he has since been going on a “spiritual journey.”
Sam recently returned from a trip to Peru for an ayahuasca retreat. Sam said ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic, is used as a spiritual medicine. He said while under the influence of the hallucinogen, he saw himself as a kid, afraid of his older brothers.
Sam said he cried to the shaman, who told him it was OK to face his fears. After that, he said he forgave everyone who has wronged him.
“When I was done facing my fears, I saw the man I could be,” he said.
After leaving Peru, Sam said he is in a place of love and sees himself as a man who helps people, in whatever way he can. He ended with a favorite quote of his by Horace Mann.
“Be ashamed to die,” he said, echoing the words of Mann, “until you have won some victory for humanity.”
UPC President Kaelie Kellner said UPC invited Sam to UNL in hopes of bringing a new perspective to what it means to be an athlete.
“We wanted to reach an audience that we typically don't reach with our events,” she said, “with a message that could hit home for many different students on campus.”