Sometimes life is really about learning to just be who you are, no matter how many challenges are thrown your way.
If you manage to accomplish this big step, you are then happily burdened with spreading love and joy to the rest of the world.
Such is the case of Michael Sam, a star college football defensive end who became the first openly gay NFL player to be drafted in the league. Sam was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the 2014 NFL draft and also played with the Dallas Cowboys.
Sam now speaks about his experience through Keppler Speakers, including the keynote at Association Forum’s 30th annual Holiday Showcase, held Thursday, December 13, 2018, at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
Michael Sam’s Early Life of Struggle
“My story doesn’t begin with a happy beginning. It actually begins with tragedy,” Sam told the crowd, adding that he was one of nine children, lost a sister when she was a baby to drowning, lost his oldest brother in 1995 to gun violence and had another brother go missing in 1998.
The responsibility of taking care of the family then fell to his two other brothers, who Sam said fell into drugs and guns and abused him terribly.
“It changes you,” Sam said. “It changes your perspective of everything, of the people who are supposed to love you and take care of you, and they abuse you and they betray that trust.”
As his mom was a Jehovah’s Witness and forbade him to associate with non-believers outside of work and school, Sam threw himself into football.
“Football was my house. Football was my therapy. I needed it,” Sam said.
“Football gave me a scholarship at the University of Missouri … but once I got there, though, I had a secret—I was gay,” he continued. “And I had just earned a football family and I did not want to lose them, so I decided to just be quiet and after I graduated, then I would decide to come out.”
Michael Sam at Association Forum's Holiday Showcase, Photo Credit: David Babb, Association Forum
Sam then fell in love with University of Missouri swimmer Vito Cammisano, but having to hide their relationship took a heavy toll on him in both his personal and professional life.
“When we went out to eat, if we saw someone we knew, we would leave,” Sam said. “If we went to the movies there would always have to be a seat between us. We didn’t show any affection in public.
“It was a very estranged relationship, and after a while a person who is comfortable in his own skin starts to resent this [kind of] relationship—this relationship is toxic,” he added.
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Being in the closet became too much for Sam, so he decided to come out to his teammates.
“The first day of camp of my senior year, I stood in front of my teammates and I said, ‘My name is Michael Sam, I’m from Hitchcock, Texas, my major is sports management, and I’m gay,’ Sam said. “After that, me and my other seniors led the team to a 12-2 record—the best season in Missouri history.
“I did that as an out, proud gay man, and I was not going back,” he continued.
Michael Sam During His Keynote at Association Forum's Holiday Showcase, Photo Credit: David Babb, Association Forum
Being one of the top defensive ends in college—he was a consensus All-American and the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year—Sam expected to be in one of the top few rounds of the upcoming NFL draft, but finally went to the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round.
As the story of the first openly gay player that would be considered for the NFL draft was now a national media sensation, Sam was in the spotlight for the three days of the draft until he was finally selected.
“The first thing I did was kiss the person who spent the longest three days with me, and it was natural,” Sam said of his show of affection toward Cammisano on national TV, “and the next day, instead of seeing ‘Michael Sam Makes History’—you know, the world is actually a really good place to live in—you see ‘Michael Sam Kisses His Boyfriend.’ The distraction: ‘The gay guy kisses his boyfriend.’
“That’s exactly why I came out—so you won’t be confused!” Sam continued with a laugh. “Did you forget? I came out for this exact reason; so you won’t be confused by me showing affection!”
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After putting what he said was extra effort to make the Rams’ roster, and leading the team in quarterback sacks in preseason, Sam was cut, and then picked up by the Dallas Cowboys for the rest of the year. He eventually was cut by them and played in the Canadian Football League for a short time.
“After that I was depressed and sad, and I blamed so many people,” Sam said. “I was hurting inside. I thought I had a right to play football in that league, but God works in mysterious ways.
“By going around and sharing my story I have started the healing process,” he continued. “I have forgiven the people who have wronged me in the past. I have forgiven my father. I have forgiven my brothers. I have forgiven the NFL. I have forgiven myself. And it’s a beautiful process.
“It’s really hard to forgive, but if you’re really hurting, the first thing you should do is to forgive. That’s how we heal. If you can heal yourself, then you can heal others, and that’s how we can heal the world.”
The End of an Emotional Holiday Showcase Keynote
By the end of his keynote address—and sometimes fighting back tears throughout it—Sam had the audience’s full attention. You could hear a pin drop in the large ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
“I believe in love. I really do,” Sam said. “Why is it so hard to love one another? Have we forgotten? Have we forgotten to love one another? To be kind to one another? A random act of kindness can go so far. When you leave this room and go to whatever city you hail from, show your love there. Plant your seeds of love wherever you go, and I promise you I will watch them grow into a beautiful garden.”
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