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A different kind of defense

Michael Sam was a star defensive player at the University of Missouri. Now Sam plays a different kind of defense.

Sam is a Texas native, but to him, home will always be here in the Show Me State. He was born into a family of ten children, seven of whom he considers family.

“Technically there are 10 of us, but we don’t count those other two,” Sam said.

Sam lost his oldest sister when she was just an infant. Chanel died while bathing in the sink. The babysitter went to answer the phone and by the time she had gotten back the baby had drowned.

The family moved on from the tragedy. The Sams had more children (including Michael), but it was in 1995 at the age of five that tragedy would strike the Sam household again. Sam’s oldest brother, Russell, was shot and killed. Sam said that at the time he didn’t understand death, but his brother’s funeral is something that he will never forget.

“I just thought that Russell was asleep, and I just started laughing, and my dad slapped me across the head,” Sam said. “I didn’t understand at the time, I just thought he was sleeping.”

The loss of Russell crushed the Sam family. But, Sam gives credit to his brother Julian for picking up and putting the pieces back together.

“I don’t know how he did it, but he got all the pieces of glass from our broken family and patched us all back together,” Sam said.

The joy would only last for a short while, because in October of 1998, Julian dropped his siblings off at the bus stop, waved goodbye, and they never saw Julian again.

The loss of another child split the family in a different way this time. Sam’s parents divorced soon after their child’s disappearance.

“My dad blamed my mom for Chanel, and my mom blamed him for the other two,” Sam said.

The next few years were tough for Sam. His brothers began selling drugs out of their house and abusing their little brother. It got to the point where Sam was not comfortable being home unless his mother was there.

It was in middle school, though, that Sam found his calling — on the football field. Football did not come easy at first; his mother would not allow him to play for religious reasons, and he had never played the game before. It was his father who finally convinced his mother to allow him to play.

“They noticed something different about me. They noticed that I didn’t carry myself like my brothers,” Sam said.

The learning curve was steep at first. On his first offensive possession he sacked his own quarterback.

“As a defensive player, the rule was always hit the guy with the ball,” Sam joked. “Clearly I got better.”

The more he learned, the better Sam got. He was so good that he received multiple scholarship offers from Division I schools across the country. Sam eventually settled on Arizona State.

“It was the furthest school away from my home and there were so many beautiful people there,” Sam said.

He thought he had made his decision until he got back to Texas and received a phone call from a recruiter at the University of Missouri.

“I believe that everything happens for a reason. I could not tell you then what it was,” Sam said. “But something drew me to that place.”

After a phone call with coach Gary Pinkel, Sam chose Missouri. He was just the second child in his family to graduate high school.

It was when he got to college that his feelings toward the same-sex really caught up to him. He had those feelings in high school, but he thought at the time that it was just a phase. There was no one in his high school or his town to talk to about his feelings.

“I knew that I was going to have to experiment when I got to college,” Sam said. “And in the summer of 2009 I did, and after that first time I knew that I was gay.”

It was at a party that he met Vito Cammisano. Cammisano was on the swimming team and the two of them met at a party. The two carried on a secret relationship throughout college.

“It was so awesome, it was like a fairy tale,” Sam Said.

The relationship did go through its fair share of turbulence. Sam had not come out, and so they had to hide their relationship from everyone.

“When we went to the movies there was always a seat between us, when we went out he would always walk into the bar before me,” Sam said.

In May of 2014, right before Cammisano’s graduation, the couple got into one final fight.

“After he slapped me, he said, ‘when you look yourself in the mirror, who do you see?’ and I took that personally.”

It was at that point that Sam decided he had to figure out who he was. He and a few teammates took a trip to St. Louis for the St. Louis Pride. It was then and there that he realized who he was.

“I was nervous, being a football player at that parade, but no one cared,” Sam said. “I started going to the gay bars in Columbia and no one cared.”

It was after that in August of 2014 that he stood in front of his coaches and teammates and told them that he was gay.

“It was the first time that I was actually Michael Sam,” Sam said.

There was no turmoil, no judgement–it made the team stronger. Despite his efforts, his sexual orientation was known by those around him. To hear him come out and say it built trust and made the team closer.

The people of Columbia, Missouri did not let his secret out. It was before the NFL Draft in the spring of 2015 that Michael Sam let the world know what he had been hiding his entire life.

Sam’s NFL career did not last long, but now he has found a new battle. Sam is still playing defense, but not on the football field. It was a phone call he had with a friend’s cousin who had contemplated suicide that changed his mentality.

“After that conversation, my mindset changed,” Sam said. “Because I will be the voice for those who don’t have one for themselves, I will be the sword and the shield for those who don’t believe they’re strong enough.”

Sam will continue to be that voice, to stand for those who cannot stand for themselves. He has also worked to forgive those closest to him.

“I can forgive. I thought it was impossible,” Sam said. “But God gave me the power to forgive.”

 

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