Playing For the Other Team: Michael Sam: Some Type of Hero

Bleep.

Ugh, another iPhone notification.  Need to turn half of those off.  Ignore.

BLEEP!  Sigh.  I picked the phone up.

It was my Bleacher Report app.  “NFL Prospect Michael Sam Comes Out as Gay – Big Tests Loom for Him, League.”

Whoa.  I devoured the article.

Two weeks ago, save for college football fans, no one, including me, had heard of Michael Sam.  Today, you can’t find a sports blog without a mention of his name.  In early February, hungry for more information, I obsessively read every report from my favorite sporting news sources.  Certain phrases were especially exciting:

“…expected to be a mid-to-high round draft pick.”

“…SEC Defensive Player of the Year.”

“… could be first openly gay player in the history of the NFL.”

I couldn’t believe it.  A few weeks prior, a freshmen place kicker came out to his team at a small Division III school in Oregon.  While, at the time, I’d been excited for the possibilities, it wasn’t perceived as super shocking, and not many news outlets picked up the story.  Michael Sam was different.  Why?

If you’ve been living in a hole, do a google image search for Sam.  He’s a huge (by my standards, though not necessarily NFL standards), muscular and well-defined,  African American man.  (By the way, see how cute!)  He plays Defensive End.  For those of you that don’t follow football, that means he’s the guy that takes down quarterbacks.  The guy responsible for containing the Adrian Petersons of the NFL.  A kicker he ain’t.

He attended the University of Missouri, where last year he was named the best defensive player in one of the most competitive conferences in college football.  He grew up in Texas, where boys are bred to live and breathe the game and marry trophy wives.

Are you beginning to see why this is different?

Initial reactions to Sam’s announcement understandably were all over the board.  Pro and former pro athletes rushed to support him.  Journalists all had their say.  But what was the word on the street?  Seeing as how it’s too cold to go outside, I went to the next best source for “real talk”, the comments section of any online news article.

Yes, there were gay slurs, as there were adamant supporters.  And there was quite a bit of:

Whoooooo caaaaaarrreeees?!?!

Why is this even news

Who gives a crap!

next

move on

this isn’t big news it shouldn’t be blown up like this like hes some type of hero for doing this.  Hes not a hero.  Hes not overcoming anything that would affect the way he plays.

It’s said that apathy is worse than hate.  It’s merely a camouflage for it, of course.

Interestingly enough, coming out did affect the way Michael Sam played.  Just look at his stat line.  Sam came out to his Mizzou coaches and teammates prior to the 2013 season.

Selected 2012 Stats (Closeted Michael Sam)                                          Selected 2013 Stats (Out Michael Sam)

 

Tackles For A  Loss Sacks
22 7 4.5

 

Tackles For a Loss Sacks
48 19 11.5

 

And, if we’re labeling and name-calling, then I think Sam is “some type of hero.” A well-meaning Facebook friend, a straight ally, commented on the article I shared about Sam’s coming out:

“I’m not sure how I feel about this…I hope his orientation alone wouldn’t cause any team to think twice about employing this kid, but anything in training camp, especially with rookies, that will be seen as an obvious distraction is going to be looked at long and hard.  I’d hate to see this kid miss out on an opportunity because of this…I guess I would’ve waited until September…”

Webster defines “hero” as:

-a person who is admired for his achievements and noble qualities; one who shows great courage.

You know, everything my friend spoke of is a possibility.  Sam’s draft stock could plummet.  Teams could pass on him completely.  He could face hostility in the locker room and on the field.  He took an enormous risk.  And it was about more than owning his story, and beating the media to the punch.  (NFL scouts and reporters had already been asking his agents about his sexuality.)

Michael Sam wanted the NFL to know exactly who he is, knowing that telling them could cost him his career.  That is noble.  That took courage.  And many, including myself, admire him.  That is heroic.

There is some kid out there right now who now has the role model he’s been searching for.  Some closeted and afraid 10th grade football player that didn’t see a reflection of himself when he looked out into society.  We’ve all read the stats on suicide and bullying, specifically amongst gay youth.  That reflection of the self, those gay public figures that model confidence and success – they’re lifesaving.  And not just for kids.  If Michael Sam has helped any gay athlete hold his head a little higher as he walks into a locker room, if he’s given any scared gay kid from the South a goal to shoot for and reason to keep living, then he’s already done enough.

Sam still has obstacles to overcome before making an NFL roster.  Like all other prospects, he has to prove he can compete physically at an elite level.  He’s handled all press coverage thus far with grace and poise, though gave an average performance running drills at the NFL Scouting Combine.  I’m rooting for him.  I personally think he’d look great in green and gold.  Regardless of where he lands, if he’s playing in the NFL in 2014, I’ll sure be first in line to buy his jersey.

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