SAN FRANCISCO — In a week of endless parties, events, and promotional gimmicks—that’s Jerry Rice driving your Lyft! Play flag football with Joe Montana!—this one seemed especially fitting for a Bay Area Super Bowl: Michael Sam at Hi-Tops, a gay sports bar in the Castro, for a happy hour meet-and-greet Friday night to benefit the Sports Equality Foundation.
The crowd arrived early—mainly men, mostly excited. They ordered pints of Lagunitas IPA and drinks like the Berry Zito (vodka, blackberry puree, ginger, champagne and lime). Flatscreens showed the Nets-Kings and Mavs-Spurs. Near the entrance, Jesse Woodward, the co-owner of Hi Tops, waited nervously. A former high school basketball player, Woodward has season tickets to the Warriors and is friends with Rick Welts, the team’s president and chief of operations (and the first prominent American sports executive to come out). It was Welts who, along with Cyd Ziegler of Outsports, helped arrange the event; Welts knows Sam and invited him out for the weekend. Sam, with an open schedule, flew out but, since all the hotels in San Francisco were booked, he was crashing at Woodward’s apartment, three blocks away. And now he was 45 minutes late for the scheduled 6 p.m. start time, which concerned Woodward because, well, it’s not like you can get stuck in traffic going three blocks.
But then, near the front of the bar, a roar erupted. Sam walked in in a white T-shirt, black jacket, slacks and loafers, holding a steady smile. Dozens of cell phones shot in the air. To these men, Sam is a combination of celebrity, hero and role model. Sam grinned, posed, hugged and shook hands, eventually making his way over to a corner where he took photos with an orderly line of fans. A pair of men in North Face jackets and business attire. An older man in 49ers gear. “Thank you,” some said. Others asked about football. Sam’s narrative is now familiar: SEC Defensive Player of the Year at Missouri, first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL, spent training camp with the Rams, made the Cowboys practice squad, then a brief stint in the CFL. Recently, he announced he was going to try to make the NFL again. “I’m excited to give it another shot,” he said during a break. He says he’s training in Los Angeles at Unbreakable, Jay Glazer’s gym, and feels good. This trip is part fun and part symbolic. Said Sam: “I’m out here because this is the gay capital of America and I want to show my love and support for the community.”
The event benefited the Sports Equality Foundation, which launched last month. The idea: that the best way to affect change is not necessarily through awareness or campaigns but for athletes to come out. So, just as Ziegler once helped prep Sam for his interviews, SEF aims to provide resources to LGBT athletes as they prepare to come out and then support and guide them in becoming role models and changing the culture. The organization’s advisory board includes former NBA center Jason Collins, former MLB outfielder Billy Bean, and ESPN baseball writer Christina Kahrl.
Watching from a nearby table, Ken Goff, an entrepreneur and organizer for the San Francisco Gay Basketball Association, said he hopes more pro athletes follow Sam’s lead but understands why some are reluctant. “I’ve been openly gay for a while but I didn’t walk into my place of employment on the first day and shout, ‘I’m gay’!” he said. “You don’t want that to be what defines you.”
Around 7:30, Welts arrived. Though he’s known Sam for a couple years, Welts said he’s never met him in person. On his way over, he exchanged a hug with Woodward, who is lobbying Welts to put a Hi Tops in the Warriors’ new arena complex (it’s one of the restaurants currently in the running). It does seem a natural fit.
As the night rolled on, the bar became more packed, though not everyone was there for Sam. At Goff’s table, a tall blonde man in his twenties noticed the commotion and asked who it was.
“Michael Sam,” he’s told. “You know, the football player?”
The man paused for a second, as if trying to place the name. Then he remembered. “Oh!” he said. “We just matched on Tinder yesterday!”