Over the past 12 months I’ve been called by some a distraction, by others a hero, but I’m still working to earn the label that matters to me most: football player
BY MICHAEL SAM
It’s a little after 7 a.m. in North Texas, and the sun is just starting to rise.
I’ve been up already for a little bit and am getting my things together to head to the Michael Johnson Performance center in McKinney to put in another three hours of intense, NFL-caliber training. I’ve been eating right and pushing myself physically every day since I was last in an NFL locker room in Dallas in October, because I know that when my phone rings with an opportunity from one of the 32 NFL teams across the country, I’ll be ready to come right in and contribute.
All around me that morning are young men in their early 20s preparing for the NFL combine or their upcoming pro days. Watching them work out around me, I recognize the process, and their emotions are something very familiar to me, though their journey will ultimately be very different.
* * *
Just over a year ago I decided to tell the world what I had known about myself, and what my teammates at Mizzou had known about, for some time: I am a gay man.
Contrary to what some people may think, I didn’t make this announcement for the sake of making history, or because I relished the attention that it came along with.
When I was a player at the University of Missouri, before the start of my senior year I stood up in front of my teammates and coaches and told them face-to-face who I was. I felt that these guys were my family and that I wanted to be myself with them, and I knew that I could trust them. My trust was justified, as I not only remained a teammate and friend, but was a defensive leader during a great 12-2 season that culminated in a Cotton Bowl championship.
If I had it my way, I would have done it the same way with whatever NFL team decided to draft me, but things didn’t seem to want to work out that way.
I don’t believe that being gay has kept me off an NFL roster, but I will challenge anyone who says I don’t have the talent to make it in the league.
Immediately after my senior season ended, national reporters started approaching me to tell “my story.” I knew what they were talking about; they knew what they were talking about. These requests kept intensifying after the Senior Bowl, and it was becoming obvious that what was kept in the family at Mizzou was about to come out in a big way before the biggest moment of my football career—the NFL draft.
Deciding to publicly come out is a major moment in every gay person’s life, and nobody wants to be outed. So the reason I came out in the public way I did, in a nationally televised interview, was to ensure that I would again have a chance to tell my story on my own terms.
I don’t think I was prepared, nor could I possibly have been, for what happened next. So many people called me courageous, and some even called me a hero, while others told me that my announcement had given them inspiration and even helped them in their personal journeys. For the record, I don’t consider myself a hero or courageous. I was just being true to myself, but if that was enough to help some people through a difficult time in their lives, then I am very grateful to have been able to do so.
My personal journey over the last year has been filled with ups and downs, steps forward and back, but at this time there was one thing that was very clear in my mind:
I was just ready to play football.
* * *
Growing up how I did in Hitchcock, Texas, was not easy. In fact, it was really damn hard. There were times when I didn’t want to go home or plain didn’t have a place to go home to. I’m not saying I was without love, but in a lot of ways I was on my own from an early age.
Playing sports was my salvation during my childhood. I was always a big kid, and I was born with a natural desire to compete. Trust me when I say that I’m not a good loser. There’s a reason I was voted “Least Liked on Gameday” while I was at Mizzou.
As I grew older I became fascinated with football. Captivated by it. I wanted nothing more than to play. My mother strictly forbade me from doing this. It was against her religion, and I was not allowed. But I made the decision to strike out on my own path and defy my mom to play this game, and it was the best decision I have ever made.
Here’s the thing—football has always been a constant positive force in my life. So many of the greatest experiences of my life have come because of this game. I love football. Football has been there for me at times when few others have. Football is family to me. It’s pure and it’s good and it’s what I do.
* * *
By the time I was drafted by coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams, I was ready to dive in head first and make an impact for my new team. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at Rams training camp, but my new teammates were just as supportive as my family at Mizzou. A lot of the veterans welcomed me to the team personally and made me feel like I was just another football player—another rookie, in fact—and that I had better be prepared to be treated like one in the coming weeks.
The thing about an NFL roster is that there are so many different people coming from different backgrounds, perspectives and ideologies. And during the offseason it’s not the 53-man roster you hear so much about, it’s 90 guys plus coaches, assistants, training staff and other support staff. You’re talking a lot of people. Guys are gathered from all four corners of the country and are all there for one common purpose: to win. Despite this, there was never any awkwardness about who I was, and I guess anyone who met me with preconceptions of who I was must have had them broken down once we met face-to-face. Once people met me, and saw that I don’t take myself nearly as seriously as the situation was being handled by the national media, things quickly just became about football, and for me, about making the team.
I never doubted that my teammates had my back, but if I needed any evidence, it happened toward the end of camp in August when a television network decided to run a questionable segment about what my showering habits looked like. I immediately received support inside the Rams locker room from my teammates, but when Chris Long sent his famous tweet informing the network that “everyone but you is over it,” that meant a lot. To see a veteran like Chris very publicly get my back is something I will never forget and will always be grateful for.
When I was cut by Rams at the end of camp, I was devastated but also grateful. The Rams made a business decision that I understood, but they’d also given me an opportunity to show that I could play at the pro level. In four preseason games against guys who ended up playing on Sundays, I was able to record 11 tackles and three sacks.
Not long after I was released by the Rams, the Jones family and the Cowboys organization gave me the chance to return home to Texas. The life of a practice squad player is tough. You’re expected to learn not only your team’s playbook, but the opposing squad’s as well, every week. I put my head down and worked hard for the Cowboys, doing everything I was asked and even at times playing offense in practices to simulate opposing teams’ formations.
Having not had the benefit of spending all training camp with the Cowboys, I thought my arrival might be tough, but once again I found a welcoming locker room full of guys who respected me and treated me as part of the team. I learned a lot in Dallas from some of the best in the NFL, such as All-Pro tight end Jason Witten, who used his years of experience blocking pass rushers to teach me some tips on how to get to the quarterback faster.
Unfortunately, as in St. Louis, my time in Dallas came to an end much quicker than I wanted. There’s a reason so many veterans say that NFL stands for “Not For Long.”
Being let go the second time was very similar to the first. I felt that I left a good impression where I had been and that the door could be open for me to come back one day. The only thing that felt different was the realization that this could be my reality: life on the edge of the roster—something I have no choice but to embrace. This is the business.
* * *
The last few months have been difficult for me as a football player. For the first time since I was a kid I had to watch a football season end in my living room, instead of on the field.
Through all the ups and downs, though, I’ve remained focused on getting back on an NFL roster. It’s why I get up early every morning and push myself at the gym, and why I’m looking to participate in the first-ever NFL veterans combine this winter.
I’m working hard hone my craft. I’ve heard the critiques on my game, both positive and negative, and I am constantly striving to be the best football player I can be. I’m using the latest performance technology coupled with good old-fashioned sweat to improve my explosiveness to help get around the edge, my flexibility to make me more versatile and, of course, my strength, hands, coordination and various techniques that I use at my position.
As I train with some of the guys in McKinney, I know they know who I am. I played against some of them in the SEC in the fall of 2013, when I earned co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. I also know that when I blow past them doing wind sprints or when they see me putting up the weight I do, they wonder why I’m not on an NFL roster. Some have even said as much out loud.
I don’t believe that being gay has kept me off an NFL roster, but I will challenge anyone who says I don’t have the talent to make it in the league, and I will continue to push myself every single day and do whatever it takes until I can to earn another roster spot.
Over the last few months I’ve been approached by networks about participating in pregame shows or being a guest analyst, especially towards the end of the college football season. I’ve even been asked point blank why I don’t quit football to explore other career opportunities.
I tell them the same thing every time: I’ll give up the game when my legs are both broken.
I’m a football player and I will keep fighting for my dream to play in the NFL.
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