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Michael Sam announces he is gay, and Columbia's SoCo Club cheers

Photo: Jim Dedmon/Icon SMI

Michael Sam registered an SEC-high 11.5 sacks to help lead Mizzou to a 12-2 record in the 2013 season.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Inside the SoCo Club, patrons paid homage to their heroes, to Tina Turner and to Madonna and to Prince. They belted out "Rolling on the River" and "Black Velvet." They drank whiskey and cocktails and beer poured from a rainbow Bud Light tap.

It was Sunday. It was karaoke night. And it was so much more than that.

It was also Cable News Night, and perhaps for the first time. Whenever the local anchor cut to another segment on Michael Sam, the University of Missouri football player who became the first openly gay NFL draft prospect earlier that evening, the microphones went silent. The volume on the television went way up. The commentary started.

"Why do they say 'gay?' I'm a homosexual."

"Michael Sam! The best!"

"Is he gay? In that suit! No way!"

Outside, it was quiet, the streets all but deserted. Inside, the owner of the joint, Marty Newman, sat in the corner near his laptop, surrounded by wood-paneled walls and paintings from a local artist. The anchor read a statement from Gary Pinkel, Missouri's head football coach. Everybody clapped.

Newman watched an interview Sam gave ESPN. He read the commentary on social media, most of it overwhelmingly supportive. He felt, well, mostly he felt proud, because Sam was more than an athlete who declared his sexual orientation to the world, more than a local star now in the center of an international media scrum. Sam was a patron. Just like all the folks taking turns behind the mic.

Like many around here, those inside SoCo expected this day would come. They knew that Sam is gay. They considered that his business.

"It wasn't our story to tell," Newman said.

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

SoCo opened in 1999, but south of town, away from the university. At that time, Newman said, "alternative nightclubs were off the beaten path, not labeled, you had to know somebody to know how cool it was."

He wanted a space for everybody. For gays, for lesbians, for straights. For drag queens, for fraternity boys, for businesswomen. His clientele grew to include all types, those included, and so many more.

Not everyone loved the idea of an alternative nightclub. Newman had to chase down those who snapped pictures inside, wary of who they might have captured. Regulars asked if they could come in from the back entrance.

That started to change in recent years. States began to approve gay marriage. That was huge. Famous people came out by the dozens. That was huge. Popular television shows featured gay characters. That was huge.

Then Jason Collins graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, and there was an NBA player, albeit near the end of his career, willing to tell the world he was gay. And while that was also huge, here at SoCo, patrons already knew an openly gay athlete.

They knew Michael Sam. Many of them, anyway.

Newman cannot remember the first time he met Sam, but he does remember the time Sam made a first impression. There was a fight one night, and Sam stepped in between combatants and cooled everybody off.

Sam stopped in regularly. He usually ordered water, or sometimes a glass of Merlot, and, every once in a while, a vodka soda when the occasion called for it.

He often came on Thursdays, for what Newman billed as the "best drag shows in mid-Missouri." Those shows take place at 10:30 p.m. in the showroom upstairs from the bar. By 10, SoCo has usually reached its capacity of 120 upstairs. It often reaches its total capacity of 265 on those nights.

Because of the shows and the clientele, whenever something happens in the LGBT world, reporters tend to show up at SoCo in search of sound bites. Sunday was no exception. There was a local television crew, then a local reporter and photographer. They were all met with the same response: No, they were not surprised; yes, the announcement was historic.

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

Darren Lammers was at the bar when the news broke. Someone noticed it on Facebook. He jumped up and started a chant: M-I-Z! S-A-M! Others joined in.

"It's a courageous move," Lammers said. "You hear stories in the past. You hear rumors here and there. So sure, this day was coming. But it took guts."

As karaoke continued in the background, Lammers talked about Missouri football, about the overflow crowds that settled in SoCo on gameday Saturdays, about the undersized defensive end named Sam who played like the next Dwight Freeney. The anchor awkwardly said "gay." Everybody laughed.

"He's a football player," Lammers continued. "And he just happens to be a gay football player. But he's first a football player. And a very good one."

Karaoke and Cable News Night continued. Someone sang the song from The Little Mermaid. "Wandering free, wish I could be, part of that world." Someone else changed the lyric "Until I hitched a ride on a river boat queen" from "Rolling on The River" to "hitched a ride on a big, fat drag queen."

"Hey," someone nearby shouted. "Why am I fat?"

Newman kept his earphones in, searching for more reaction. I asked him if Sam's announcement would open up the floodgates -- if it would bring a sports world still sometimes stuck in the 1950s more toward the present.

He noted how SoCo moved to its current location, downtown near the university, more than a year ago and how one guy still complained. He wondered if that guy was a Missouri football fan, if he rooted for Michael Sam.

"That's a very hard question," Newman said. "There's a lot of gay folks in the sports world, be it ice skating or football. It just depends on the situation. It depends on the person. Like Michael, if you're secure enough with yourself and how you're coming out is going to impact your job, you have those options to weigh. If he had been a quarterback, it may have been a different situation. But being that he is a defensive lineman, people fear him. It made it easier for him to do what he did."

I asked Newman what he expects to happen in the near future. "You know what?" he said. "I think we're not far from the day where [sexual orientation] just doesn't matter."

Amen. But until then, it does matter, from the larger world of sports to inside NFL locker rooms to inside the walls of SoCo, where patrons toasted Michael Sam on Sunday night.

No one ordered a glass of Merlot. But they added another hero to their karaoke night.

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

NIESEN: Missouri's campus celebrates Michael Sam's announcement

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