INDIANAPOLIS – Just about the only thing 18 to 21-year-old college football players collectively keep their mouths shut over on a routine basis is how much money they’re receiving under the table.
That is until the fall of 2013, when a more progressive group of post-adolescent gridiron warriors held lock and key the biggest cultural secret in recent American sports history. Their teammate, redshirt senior defensive end Michael Sam, was and is gay.
They knew because Sam had told them, personally delivering the message at a team-building exercise in August a few weeks before the start of the 2013 campaign. Some closest to Sam, like wide receiver L’Damian Washington and cornerback E.J. Gaines, already knew, but the entire Missouri football program was put on notice nearly six months ago, custodians of the juiciest scoop in who knows how long.
And not a single one of them said a damn word to anybody.
In the modern age of fast-traveling information that jumps from Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to the world quicker than the time it takes for a player to run a 40-yard dash, that’s not impressive or mildly unheard of; it’s downright impossible.
“It wasn’t our place to tell people his story,” Missouri offensive lineman Justin Britt told reporters this week at the NFL Scouting Combine. “It was our place to protect his story.”
KNOWING THE MAN LAID THE FOUNDATION
To think a band of brothers, of any age range, would preserve the sanctity of news like this for just anyone is borderline foolish. Sam had garnered their respect, on the field and off, since he arrived in Columbia from Hitchcock, Texas, in August 2009, leaving a universally positive impression that resonated throughout the Missouri locker room.
Even before his teammates knew who Sam was, they knew what Sam was about.
“A loving brother, he’s caring to the team,” said defensive end Kony Ealy, who started opposite Sam along the Tigers’ defensive line. “He’s always singing, which gets on my nerves sometimes. Other than that, he’s just fun to be around and fun to play with. I know at the end of the day he’s going to come out and do his job. There’s no other guy I would rather go to war with.”
Ealy, Missouri turned things around on the field in 2013 (Dak Dillon/USA Today)
Ealy, who was also a roommate of Sam’s, described the bookends’ relationship as “very close,” saying, “He’s a brother, a friend, anything you want to call it.”
Britt echoed a similar sentiment about the man No. 52 in black and gold was, sans pads and a helmet, to him at Missouri. “He’s a real good teammate. He’s very loyal and very respectable around the locker room. He’s somebody that I can call a good friend.”
Wide receiver Marcus Lucas chimed in on the subject as well while at the Combine in Indianapolis, confirming the unanimous teammate take on Sam that he was well-liked and that the man, more than the player, was worth defending, no matter what the subject matter.
“Mike and I are pretty close actually. We’re buddies,” explained Lucas. “We don’t necessarily hang out as much as L’Damian and Marvin [Foster] and some of those guys, but his locker was probably three down from mine. So we were always messing around, saying jokes. He’s one of the guys. There’s no other way to put it.”
Sam’s congeniality on top of the respect he commanded in team facilities and around campus played a part in the Missouri team’s ability and desire to eventually keep his outing from public ears, but it was nowhere near the only, or primary, motive.
IT DIDN’T HURT THAT HE COULD PLAY
From the bottom-line vantage point of many, including gay rights activists, acceptance is acceptance. Period. The rationale behind it should not matter.
But in the case of Sam, who plays arguably the most rugged sport on the planet and one that’s cup runneth over with machismo, it’s undeniable that his approach and production on the field made anything previously taboo or unexplored in major football circles all the more palatable and worth discovering for teammates on the fence.
After all Sam wasn’t just another Joe out there between the lines.
Even before his storybook 2013 season, and prior to proclaiming his true inner self to the team in August, Sam made strong contributions for the Tigers in the trenches. Following a redshirt season in 2009, he went on to register 75 tackles, 17 for loss, 9.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions from 2010-12.
Then, this past fall during the program’s 12-2 run, Sam exploded with 48 tackles, 19 for loss, 11.5 sacks and two forced fumbles en route to being named SEC Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press and Co-Defensive Player of the Year by the league’s coaches. No Missouri Tiger had ever accomplished the latter feat before Sam.
“Mike has a really good motor, and him being a fifth-year senior, he really knows how to play the game,” commented Britt. “That’s something that doesn’t come right away. It comes with time. His knowledge of the game is very high, and he just knows how to get the upper-hand.”
Sam's development on the field wasn't lost on Britt (Tim Heitman/USA Today)
Intensity has also been a hallmark of Sam’s on-field persona, something his teammates value highly. “He’s a player,” said Lucas. “He’s giving 100% every single game. That’s all you can ask from somebody. What they do off the field should have no concern for you.”
Washington, who entered Missouri at the same time as Sam as a member of the Class of 2009, recognizes not only his friend’s past performance and accolades but also his potential moving forward in the NFL.
“I think he has a bright future. The guy can play,” leveled Washington. “SEC Defensive Player of the Year, up for the Nagurski Award – I mean that doesn’t happen by mistake.”
That Sam was a good guy and made the most of his God-given athletic abilities were feathers in his cap to those who witnessed his liberating declaration during Fall Camp. Neither was the predominant factor, however, in why he was so widely accepted by his teammates after the announcement or how they managed to keep that potential ticking time-bomb, should it have been leaked prematurely, from detonating.
ONLY AT MIZZOU
The resounding response emanating from Missouri players inside Lucas Oil Stadium this week was that they weren’t surprised things were kept air-tight with Sam because that’s what brothers do for one another and that’s the mentality Missouri’s football program breeds.
Apparently being in Columbia is akin to being at Olive Garden. When you’re there, you’re family.
Cue Britt: “We preach family. That’s a big thing that Coach [Gary] Pinkel and his staff tries to instill in you. So something like that happens, he’s more like your brother. You have to think of it as how are you going to act if your brother acted that way or if he was your brother? So it wasn’t our place to judge him and it wasn’t our place to go out and tell his story. It was our place to respect him as a person and as a player. For someone that was going out there and making a lot of good plays, something was happening right.”
And Lucas: “No, I’m not surprised (word didn’t get out). We’ve got this big family at Mizzou. You might hear about it a lot – this family atmosphere that we have, and it’s an atmosphere where we respect the cultural differences on the team. So it’s no surprise that we kept it in-house. I’m just so happy for him.”
Lucas on Sam: "He's one of the guys" (Pat Lovell/USA Today)
And Washington: “A lot of teams talk about being a brotherhood and being a family, but I think it’s one of those things that just sounds good. Most teams don’t have it. I think we had that at Mizzou. Mike Sam was really like my brother. I mean he got in last night (to the Combine), texted me and said ‘Where you at?’ That’s my guy, and I’ll be the first to tell you that.”
Finally Ealy: “(It was) no surprise for me because we have that type of environment, and we have that type of family atmosphere and core values that kinda protect our home.”
Several of the players interviewed for this story were insistent that credit be given to Pinkel for creating and nurturing that type of team-wide mindset and culture. According to Washington, seeds of tolerance were sewn in the Missouri program long before Sam’s August announcement.
“We do a great job of kinda getting our players to know each other,” continued Washington. “We do crossover meetings with guys from different positions – go to like the D-Line, the quarterbacks. It’s just to get to know each other because we understand everyone is from a different background and everyone has a different understanding about things. We try and just get everyone as close as possible.”
And so the truth comes into focus that, more than anything else, Sam might have just been in the right place, at the right time and playing for the right coach to rid himself of a burden he’d kept buried inside for so long.
SECRET KEPT, MESSAGES SENT
Fast-forward to February 9, 2014, and Sam’s secret was released to the masses in the way it should’ve been – by Sam. On the cusp of the Combine and the NFL Draft in May, Sam opted to go public with his sexual preference, seemingly laying down a gauntlet before one, or several hundred, could be thrown at him.
It is already being hailed as a landmark moment for the advancement and general comfort level of homosexual athletes in this country, and it will only continue to grow in significance once Sam crashes the NFL party, which he should based on merit.
In a candid moment Washington shared an interesting perspective on the message sent by so many teammates protecting Sam as well as a strong related statement to established players in the NFL.
Washington issued a powerful memo to the NFL establishment (Kevin Jairaj/USA Today)
“Some of the (NFL) guys were like ‘Yeah, you know, most of those guys already knew him [Sam]. It wasn’t a big deal,’” Washington said, parroting lines he heard while in Indianapolis. “But we had freshmen on the team that were 17 years old out of high school. I mean being 17 years old out of high school, you’re pretty immature, and it’s easy to be like ‘Aww snap, we’ve got a gay guy on our team.’ Those guys embraced it, though, because he was a great teammate, a great guy and he never brought any of that to the locker room.
“I feel like if 17-year-old freshmen can accept the fact that your teammate has a different preference in sex, why can’t 33-year-old vets accept that fact? I don’t understand that.”
Ealy conveyed a slightly different missive, underscoring the point that Sam’s mental toughness and attitude on the field will carry him farther than hatred or cross words will Sam’s detractors.
“Despite what you say about him, it’s not going to matter. He’s still going to go out there and do his job,” Ealy responded when asked how Sam would handle any potential locker-room negativity. “He plays under control. The only time he doesn’t play under control is when he’s tackling the other quarterback or running back. He gets along with everybody on the team. He motivates. If it’s tough times, say if I’m not having a good game, he motivates me and picks my game up. Then we have a helluva game.”
While Sam had his teammates’ backs through the ups and downs of SEC and Big 12 schedules the past half-decade, those same teammates – and friends – are returning the favor now, when it matters most for Sam in the rollercoaster ride that has become his life.
It should be no secret by this point that a Mizzou guy is going to take up for a Mizzou guy.
Ben Love is the publisher of Scout.com’s LSU site, TigerSportsDigest.com. CLICK HERE to try a free seven-day trial at TSD, and CLICK HERE to follow Ben on Twitter.