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In his hometown of Hitchcock, Michael Sam overcame the odds

Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Before he became a star at Missouri, Michael Sam grew up in Hitchcock, Texas, just outside of Houston.

 

HITCHCOCK, Texas -- The backstory of Michael Sam's life begins in a working-class town with a population around 7,186, about 40 miles southeast of Houston. It is, in many ways, a classic American scene, dotted with Baptist churches and a Jack In The Box, and best known as the home of the county fairgrounds. But Hitchcock is more than a place where Sam became a high school star. It is also where he endured tragedy and racial tension, and forged a reputation for fighting back against bigotry.

The sitting U.S. representative in the local congressional district, Randy Weber, a republican, filed an anti-marriage-equality bill last month. Last week, one of Hitchcock's neighboring towns, La Marque, terminated a fire captain for posting a controversial altered image of Barack Obama on social media.

Sam's announcement that he is openly gay is "sending shockwaves in some parts of the community, both white and black," said Jim Yarbrough, the former county judge of Galveston County, which includes Hitchcock. "It's not an easy thing for him to do I'm sure."

As Sam prepares for an uncertain reception in the NFL, his news has received mixed reaction in his hometown.

Sam never had it easy. One of his sisters drowned in a lake at the age of two, one of his brothers was shot to death and another disappeared and has never been found, according to his paternal aunt, Geraldine Sam. Two older brothers have been in and out of jail.

WERTHEIM: Michael Sam, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, says he is gay

During high school, Sam often stayed with the family of a teammate for weeks at a time. When Hurricane Ike struck in 2008, Sam's senior year, he stayed with a friend, Jordan Turner. That year, Sam also had a falling out with his mother about playing football, Geraldine Sam said.

"Michael grew up against all odds," said Turner, a close friend of Sam's since third grade. "If anybody shouldn't have made it, it was Michael. He came from a tough family. He pretty much raised himself. Nobody expected Michael to make it."

Sam endured thanks to a strong sense of self-confidence. In elementary school, he requested to be called by his full name, Michael Alan Sam Jr. He also routinely rattled off his lineage complete with his father's full name. "No one will ever forget that about him," Turner said.

By middle school, Sam insisted that other students call him "Ice Man," as he felt he was invincible. Physically, in comparison to his peers then, he certainly seemed that way. "People used to think he was already a grown man," Turner said.

That physical dominance translated to success on the football field at Hitchcock High, where Sam not only played at the varsity level as a freshman, but was also an all-district selection -- an honor he received in each of his four seasons.

As Sam grew older, Turner said his friend showed a particular sensitivity to racial comments and was quick to confront them. Once during a party, Turner said a white male called Sam a n-----. Turner said Sam told him to step outside; the two did, and, according to Turner, Sam punched the man once with a jab and knocked him to the ground unconscious. "It was the hardest punch I've ever seen," Turner said. "If you called him a n----- or was racist to him, he would say something."

KING: Missouri star Michael Sam's announcement tests the NFL's mindset

As news of Sam's announcement began to spread on Sunday night, some around Hitchcock were more surprised than others. Turner said he had known about Sam's sexual orientation for years. "Michael was just kind of different," Turner said. "We all had the idea he was going to come out eventually."

Geraldine Sam, who was the first black female mayor in Galveston County, said she didn't know her nephew is gay until Sunday.

"Michael is going to be Michael," she said. "We just love Michael. We accept him for who he is. Being gay is not going to change that."

Craig Smith, the head football coach and athletic director who was an assistant when Sam played at Hitchcock, initially declined to talk about his former player. However, he said, "We've always been proud of Michael and everything he's done. We love and care about him. He was a great high school football player for us and had a great college career. We hope he has a great NFL career as well."

Geraldine Sam is sure there is "negativity" in Hitchcock surrounding her nephew's announcement. In his initial statements, Sam appeared to be above such reactions. "I don't see Michael Sam caring what Hitchcock thinks," said Michael Bergman, the former school district superintendent. "He's grown up and developed his own personality and is comfortable with it. He's just making a statement this is who I am."

WERTHEIM: Q&A with Missouri star and NFL draft prospect Michael Sam

MANDEL: Michael Sam breaks longstanding barrier by announcing he is gay

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