Coaches at the University of Missouri divided players into small groups at a preseason football practice last year for a team-building exercise. One by one, players were asked to talk about themselves.
As Michael Sam, a defensive lineman, began to speak, he balled up a piece of paper in his hands.
“I’m gay,” he said.
With that, Sam set himself on a path to become the first publicly gay player in the National Football League.
“I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out,” Sam said Sunday in an interview with The New York Times, the first time he spoke publicly about his sexual orientation.
Sam, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound senior, went on to a stellar season for Missouri, which finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He was named a first-team All-American. He was the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered the top league in college football. Teammates voted him Missouri’s most valuable player.
Now Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.
Sam, 24, is projected to be chosen in the early rounds of the NFL draft in May, ordinarily an invitation to a prosperous professional career. He said he decided to come out publicly now because he sensed that rumors were circulating.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” said Sam, who also spoke with ESPN on Sunday. “I just want to own my truth.”
Although Sam’s professional prospects are far from certain, several NFL draft forecasters have predicted that he will be chosen in the third round. (Thirty-two players are selected in each round.) Rarely are players who are drafted that high cut by teams, and often they become starters, sometimes in their rookie year.
But it is reasonable for Sam to wonder what sort of impact his declaration will have on his professional prospects.
“I’m not naïve,” Sam said. “I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the NFL.”