"We went to go see Sherlock Holmes. I was so nervous, so scared, and still in the closet, [so] we had to sit a seat apart," Michael Sam remembers of his first ever date with a man in college. "It was a recipe to lead to disaster to how we broke up because he was out and I was still in the closet," he continues. "It was moments like that... he couldn't do it anymore."
Sam, the former defensive end for the University of Missouri Tigers, made LGBTQ+ history during the 2014 NFL draft when it was announced that he was being recruited to play for the St. Louis Rams. While not the first openly gay former NFL player, Sam did become the first out player to be drafted in the league — and everyone watched around the world: Sam, his wrist encircled by a multicolored rubber Pride bracelet, goes rigid while receiving the news during the seventh round of picks. He collapses into a fit of sobs, pivoting to his left, and embracing his boyfriend at the time.
Compared to the historic Draft and public display of gay love, Sam hid his sexuality throughout college. He even recalls having his boyfriend climb through windows to meet him for dates. After fights, arguments, and a final blow, in which his boyfriend asked him, "When you look in the mirror, who do you see?" Sam decided to attend St. Louis Pride to do some soul searching. During that trip, he found concrete answers to some of the hard questions he'd been contemplating for years.
However daunting the task of "coming out" might seem, these beginnings marked by exploration and excitement help build the courage to barrel past fear and tackle opposition. Two months after attending Pride in St. Louis, Sam publicly came out at Mizzou.
"My coming out moment was very spontaneous," Sam says. "It was my senior year at the University of Missouri, and I heard coach Gary Pinkel had these crossover meetings where different players from different positions would come in different rooms, and the questions were: who you are, where you're from, what's your major, and something about yourself that no one knows. This is my fifth time doing this, and when it was my time to go up, I said, 'My name is Michael Sam, I'm from Hitchcock, Texas, my major is sports management,' and then I paused."
His story is as poignantly told as it was lived. "Some of my teammates saw that I was nervous, and I said, 'And I'm gay,'" he continues. At this point, Sam recalls how some of his teammates knew of his sexuality, but this was his first time openly mobilizing the statement. "When I came out, I felt the weight of the world came off my chest, and I didn't look back," Sam says. Luckily, he had an extensive support system comprised of his fellow teammates and the university itself. "I thought for years I would be an outcast."
For Sam, "coming out" was no longer an ominous blockade, but a revolving door inviting him towards new experiences and points of pride. Coming out to his team was the beginning of a process of opening up in new ways to different people. "My senior year, after I came out, I had this routine of every Thursday at the local gay bar," he says of openly gay university life. "I would go to the drag show, I would have two glasses of wine, and I would dance. My first time going to a drag show, I was completely nervous. I didn't know what to expect and it was the coolest thing I've ever experienced."
The NFL player recalls getting pulled onstage, and accepting the new experience wholeheartedly. "I was anxious to finally be in a safe place," he says.
Like many LGBTQ+ people, Sam waited a long time to find that safety, concealing parts of himself for years. One of his first crushes growing up was *NSYNC's Lance Bass, who he eventually got to profess his puppy love for upon meeting as out adults in Los Angeles. "I was a big *NSYNC guy growing up," Sam says. "I remember having a poster on my wall, and my dad came home from driving trucks and thought that was a little too gay, and tore it down, and I never put up any guys on my wall after that moment."
Years later, far away from torn *NSYNC posters and quiet crushes, concealment would turn to pure celebration. Sam was even awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2014 ESPYs. He recalls wearing a David Yurman watch and a sharp suit, feeling confident as ever. "That watch was the very first expensive jewelry I've ever owned in my life at that moment," he says. "It felt like I was a boss."
As for the rest of Pride month, Michael Sam wants to leave LGBTQ+ youth with a message that transcends any singular "coming out" experience. "If it ever comes to a point where it affects your well-being, where you have to hide yourself, where you have to be ashamed what other people might think of you — then that is a time and a moment where you need to take a stand for you well-being and the people around you."
In top image, Michael is wearing:
Photographer: Manolo Campion
Videographer: Ben Rutkowski
Stylist: Matthew Edelstein
Grooming: Gianluca Mandelli