Missouri's campus celebrates Michael Sam's announcement

Michael Sam led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and was the conference's Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Everyone knew.

His recruiting class found out quickly after moving to campus in the fall of 2009.

His teammates on the Tigers' defense found out as the years wore on.

The whole team learned in August, when Sam officially announced it to them.

The campus knew, too. What was once a rumor -- a gay football player? -- became something more substantiated. The story of Michael Sam's words to his team became common knowledge in Columbia, a college town smack-dab in the middle of a traditionally red state. The star defensive end was out, but he wasn't.

Media knew. Students knew. Fans knew. Yet no one said a word. Words were not written. Television speeches were not spoken. Everyone from student journalists to the national media to the men who spotted Sam at one of two local gay bars kept quiet, because it was Sam's story, and because they accepted it.

On Sunday night, when televisions at Campus Bar and Grill in Columbia broadcast Sam's announcement on ESPN, the place broke into applause. That was all there was to do.

"You kind of think about it for a while, but then you have to accept it," former teammate Donovan Bonner, a linebacker, said on Sunday. "He's a cool dude. He's a great football player. After a while, it's just a normal thing to everybody in our facility."

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

"Yeah, honestly, we just forgot about it," Bonner continued. "We would go out with him to parties, bars, whatever, and he would do his thing, we would do our thing. It was just kind of normal."

That's the world these men live in, and the world Sam's classmates grew up in. He may be different, but he is normal. He is applauded.

Still, it's more complicated than that. Westboro Baptist Church is already plotting a visit to Missouri's campus to protest. Columbia is a liberal outpost in a swath of country teeming with people who will disagree with who Sam is -- who will disagree vocally and angrily. If this weren't complicated, it wouldn't have been an announcement. It wouldn't have been news.

If it weren't complicated, Sam would have never agreed to sit down with the local paper, the Columbia Missourian, in August to discuss his sexuality before bowing out an hour before.

If it weren't complicated, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel would have never released this statement: "We discussed how to deal with that from a public standpoint, and ultimately Michael decided that he didn't want that to be the focal point of the season. He wanted to focus on football and not do anything to add pressure for him or for his teammates, and I think that's a great example of the kind of person he is."

If it weren't complicated, NFL scouts would have no place in Sam's story, and it wouldn't matter where he is projected to be picked in May's draft.

If it weren't complicated, former teammate Kony Ealy, a projected first-round pick at defensive end, wouldn't have stopped short in talking to me on Sunday night. Ealy wouldn't have told me he supports Sam, period, but that he can't talk about it, because it'll be a distraction as he prepares for the NFL Combine.

And so it is complicated. It is very complicated. It is so complicated, even, that Bonner compares Sam to the last person you'd ever imagine, and it makes sense.

"It's kind of like one of those Tim Tebow situations, you know what I mean?" Bonner said. "A lot of people didn't like Tim Tebow, but he won."

Some people disliked Tebow for being sanctimonious and righteous. Some people will dislike Sam for his announcement, for the things people don't understand -- or refuse to understand.

And Sam will play well, Bonner says, just as Tebow did for a time, and the world will be forced to love him for his record, for his statistics, for his talent.

"There are always going to be people who don't accept that lifestyle regardless," Bonner said. "It'll be like a 50-50 deal."

But not in Columbia. Not on Missouri's campus on Sunday night. Fifty-fifty looked like 100 percent as people watched Sam's announcement and clapped. Maybe it's just one bar in one town, but it's a start.

Everyone knew. Now, everyone knows.

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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