Brave and bold

Mizzou DE Michael Sam

"I came to tell the world I'm an openly proud gay man. I understand how big this is, it's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL."

--- Michael Sam.

"I don't think football is ready for (an openly gay player) just yet. In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time, it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a (gay slur) is still so commonplace. It would chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."

--- Unnamed NFL player personnel assistant.

Michael Sam is gay, you may have heard this by now.

Sam, a 6-2, 255-pound defensive end for the Missouri Tigers, just completed his senior season by being named the co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

This is the SEC we're talking about. They play some fairly good football in the SEC, so this was no small feat.

Sam was the best of the best.

He was a consensus All-American and had a huge hand in helping the Tigers go 12-2, win the SEC East, and eventually the Cotton Bowl.

Then came Sunday's announcement. This came as a shock to many, but certainly not to all. Sam told his Tiger teammates and coaches in August.

It wasn't easy.

"I was kind of scared," Sam told ESPN. "But they took it great, they rallied around me and supported me. I couldn't have asked for better teammates."

One of those teammates was defensive lineman Marvin Foster.

"Who cares? I think that's what the story should have been," Foster said. "What he was saying is now that everybody knows that I'm gay, I just want to play football."

The support for Sam has been nearly universal, especially on campus. At Faurot Field, students added an S-A in the snow before the snow-covered rock M on the grass hill.

Great stuff.

"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," Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said.ã??

"Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others. He's taught a lot of people first-hand that it doesn't matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we're all on the same team and we all support each other."

Tom Whelihan echoed those sentiments.

"If you just asked the players, they don't care," said Whelihan, a kicker who played for the Tigers in the mid 80s. "Even 25 years ago, they didn't care. As long as that guy can help you win, they don't give a rat's behind."

But why make this announcement now, just three months before the NFL draft?

"I was actually going to wait until I got drafted, and I was going to tell the coach, the owner and the GM about my sexuality," Sam said. "But knowing about how many people already knew, I was afraid it would leak out without me actually owning my truth.

"I wanted to let the world know, 'Hey, I'm gay,' and let me tell my own story."

More great stuff.

But how will this affect the football future for Sam, who's been projected as a mid- to late-round pick?

There are two takes on this.

Obviously, the MU players accepted Sam with open arms --- the team wouldn't have had this degree of success without that acceptance. Because team chemistry is as big a part of winning football as offense, defense and special teams.

In other words, it was a non-factor.

"If Michael doesn't have the support of his teammates like he did this past year," Pinkel said, "I don't think there's any way he has the type of season he put together."

Then there's this: Sam was already established as a senior force in the Missouri locker room. The older players had known him for four or five years, the younger players looked up to him.

But now, Sam will at the bottom of the pecking order as he enters an NFL locker room, where rookies never have it easy.

And he'll enter that locker room as the first openly gay player --- announced prior to retirement --- in NFL history.

"For some teams, he may not be the right fit, because they don't have the proper locker room leadership and the proper tools in place," ESPN analyst Chris Mortensen said.

"Is it worth the trouble and distraction for a guy who may be a fifth- or sixth-round pick, or even a seventh-rounder?"

NFL locker rooms are not quite as progressive and accepting as other parts of society. They are the ultimate man cave with a bunker mentality, a war mentality, kill or be killed, be the hunter or the hunted.ã??Don't ask, don't tell.

"I think it will make some guys uncomfortable, because you don't know what you can say, or if you're allowed to joke around with players in a certain way," said ESPN analyst Antonio Pierce, who played nine years in the NFL with the Redskins and Giants.

"This is all we're talking about, do you want that distraction? Do you want to answer the same questions each and every week, after each and every practice, each and every game? If something bad happens, or guys get in a scuffle, was it because of this?

"That's what makes it uncomfortable for a lot of players."

In a statement, the NFL said:

"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage. Michael is a football player, and any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."

While opening up, however, did Sam close some doors?

"This is an openly guy player who's going to get drafted," ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Herm Edwards said. "There are going to be some teams that look on the board and say: 'We don't want the distraction.'

"But somebody's going to draft this kid and the team that he goes to is going to have to deal with it.ã??I would hope that an NFL locker room would handle it like the University of Missouri did ... they handled it very, very well."

Indeed. Kudos to Pinkel, his staff and the players for handling this in such a superb way. The old-school guards may not have done the same ... and nobody is more old-school than former Jefferson City Jays coach Pete Adkins.

Did he ever have to deal with something like this?

"Not to my knowledge," said Adkins, who coached for 44 years and retired with 405 wins. "If we did, I would have been aware of it, I think."

Adkins continued.

"It really wouldn't have mattered to me. If you make a contribution, you help us win and you're good for the team, fine. But if you're going the other direction, you're a distraction and hurt the team, your butt was out of there in a minute.

"That's the way I always felt about it."

As he said, Sam knew this would be a big deal, but he couldn't have imagined it would be THIS big. It's not just the lead story on ESPN, it's the lead story on CNN and basically every other news outlet.

This, however, is not life and death. It was a brave, bold moment for Sam, but this isn't a moment equal to those of Jackie Robinson or Rosa Parks.

Having said that, and in closing, here are a couple of light-hearted looks at the situation.

A friend said: "I think the NFL is getting more progressive. Last year, a guy (Manti Te'o) with a fake, dead girlfriend was drafted in the second round."

Tweeted former Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Saumel: "If anyone misses watching me play, turn on ESPN, I think I've been sacked by Michael Sam over 150 times in the last few hours."

Michael Sam is gay.

Live with it.

Because he is.

"I'm not afraid to tell the world who I am," Sam said. "If I work hard and make plays and help a team win games, that's all that should matter."