Former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s unanimous All-American season traces back to August, but it may have nothing to do with any drills he ran through during camp.
Instead, it might stem from Sam’s decision to discuss his sexuality with his Tigers teammates. On Sunday, Sam publicly announced he is gay, sharing his story with ESPN and The New York Times.
“I think that helped him a lot, because he was under pressure,” said former Missouri running back Henry Josey, who shared a locker room with Sam for four seasons. “That comes with anybody that’s hiding something, so I’m proud that he had the courage to come out — and now to tell the world that he’s gay and he’s comfortable with it.”
Several teammates knew about Sam’s sexual orientation before he confided in a small group of MU players during a team-building exercise last summer, according to Josey.
“In our program, we’re a big family team and during two-a-days, when it’s just us there, we like to go around and have little small groups, where we tell each other about ourselves — our backgrounds, family, girlfriends,” Josey said. “That’s when he first came out.
“It was something he felt he had to do. A couple of the guys knew already. Just for him to come to the whole team, it was a great moment for him so he could be able to relax and have that great season like he did this year.”
Sam led the Southeastern Conference with 19 tackles for a loss and 11 1/2 sacks, which tied the Missouri single-season record. His performance helped the Tigers bounce back from a tough first season in the SEC to match the school record for wins during a 12-2 campaign that included an SEC East title and a win in the Cotton Bowl.
“If Michael doesn’t have the support of his teammates like he did this past year, I don’t think there’s any way he has the type of season he put together,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement from the university, adding that it was Sam’s decision to focus on football and not make a public announcement during the season.
Josey said the Tigers accepted Sam as they always had after he came out to the team.
“It’s a respect thing,” Josey said. “We have to respect who he is as a person and that’s something that was very big. He knows who he is, and he’s happy with who he is. That’s the main thing you have to take from it. You can’t judge anybody.
“God makes everybody differently, but he’s always been the same person and he still acted the same. It wasn’t like he was somebody different after he told us. He was just the same person, the same person having fun with us all the time and being normal around us.”
Josey expects Sam’s future NFL teammates also will be accepting.
“I definitely think he’ll be accepted in the NFL, because he wants to win games and that’s the most important thing,” Josey said. “That’s also the most important thing to the other players. I just don’t think it will bother him at all. If you’re winning games and he’s helping you win games, what else can you want from the dude.”
Of course, it wasn’t just Sam’s teammates who celebrated Sam’s announcement. Missouri also expressed its pride Sunday night at Sam’s courage.
“We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents Mizzou,” Pinkel said.
Missouri athletics director Mike Alden praised all that Sam “has accomplished at Mizzou academically, socially and competitively” in the university’s statement.
“This is a young man who earned his degree from MU, was a unanimous All-American on the football field and now he’s being a leader in his personal life,” Alden said. “He continues to display great character, courage and compassion. We are proud of him on every level.”
In downtown Columbia, people clapped while seeing the news on television. Gov. Jay Nixon and MU posted supportive messages on Twitter.
Missouri star freshman 197-pound wrestler J’den Cox expressed appreciation for Sam.
“I got no problem with it, he is who he is meant to be,” Cox said. “I have nothing but respect for a man being true to himself.
“And no matter what people say about this, the judgment people should pass is his actions and character towards others. He is a respected person because of how he carries himself.”