Former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, a seventh-round pick by the St. Louis Rams in May, accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award during the ESPYs broadcast Wednesday on ESPN.
Sam, who publicly announced he was gay in February and three months later became the first openly gay NFL draft pick, called it one of the thrills of his life.
After a stirring mini documentary about Sam’s childhood and rise to prominence against the odds with the Tigers, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson presented Sam with a trophy.
Sam rose from his seat, gave boyfriend Vito Cammisano a smooch, hugged Rams general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher, walked back a row to hug Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, stopped for a hug and peck on the cheek from Robin Roberts and then shook hands with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson before ascending the stairs onto the stage.
Since coming out, Sam’s persona has been carefully managed, but during a raw 5-minute speech much of that manufactured quality was stripped away.
He fumbled over his words a few times, but Sam also offered an unvarnished peek into his life seldom seen before.
During his opening remarks, Sam channeled Ashe, imploring the audience to start where you are, use what you have and do what you can.
The most poignant moment came when Sam choked up talking about a recent conversation with a friend’s sister, who was contemplating suicide rather than admitting to her family she was gay.
“When we spoke, she said she would never consider hurting herself again and that somehow my example helped her,” Sam said.
That’s the power of Sam’s story.
“Great things can happen if you have the courage to be yourself,” Sam said in closing.
Sam — who was the Tigers’ MVP, a unanimous All-American and won the SEC defensive player of the year — also thanked Missouri coach Gary Pinkel individually and offered a verbal nod to the MU community as a whole.
“My entire Mizzou family, for all the support they’ve given me, you will always be home,” Sam said.
He also thanked Cammisano, a former Rockhurst swimmer who teared up when Sam said, “People tell me that I’m their inspiration. You’re my inspiration.”