Michael Sam can handle his situation

In this Jan. 3, 2014 file photo, Missouri

In this Jan. 3, 2014 file photo, Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam warms up before the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma State, in Arlington, Texas. Photo Credit: AP / Tim Sharp

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As he looked around the table at the people who lifted their glasses in a toast to Michael Sam, Brendon Ayanbadejo was overcome with emotion. The image will stay with him always.

"You saw history unfolding before your eyes,'' Ayanbadejo, a two-time NFL All-Pro and longtime advocate for gay rights, said in an interview this past week. "It was a remarkable moment.''

This was the night before Sam, a star pass rusher at Missouri, publicly disclosed that he is gay, thereby setting the stage for him to become the National Football League's first active openly gay player.

Sam acknowledged his sexual orientation in two interviews, but not before getting together with some of the most important figures in professional sports, men who once held secrets about their own sexuality but who now gathered to support a player about to make an historic announcement.

Among those gathered inside the Los Angeles home of publicist Howard Bragman were Dave Kopay, a former NFL running back who revealed in 1977 that he is gay; former NFL receiver Wade Davis, who acknowledged his sexual orientation shortly after his career ended; former major-league outfielder Billy Bean, who came out in 1999 (not to be confused with Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, the subject of "Moneyball''), and former NFL players Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe, also a longtime gay-rights advocate.

"Right there you saw the past, with Dave Kopay, the more recent, with Wade Davis, and now you have the future, with Michael Sam,'' said Ayanbadejo, a two-time All-Pro with the Bears and Ravens. "Michael is taking everything, all that knowledge, and will carry it with him into the future being the first [active] openly gay male player ever in any of the three major [professional] sports. It was a pretty amazing moment.''

On the eve of coming out, Sam was remarkably composed. In less than 24 hours, his story would become one of the biggest in sports, one that would ignite intense conversations about how this would all work and whether the NFL, a sport steeped in machismo and one that often has been perceived as homophobic, was ready for its first openly gay player.

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"It didn't seem burdensome to him at all,'' said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports magazine, who also was at Bragman's house celebrating Sam's impending announcement. "He said to me, 'I got this. This is no problem.' We even went out for drinks afterward and he sang at a karaoke club. Anyone who knows what Michael has been through in his life knows that this is not the most difficult thing he has been through.''

Far from it. Sam, it turns out, has been through much more challenging circumstances.

Tough childhood

Growing up in Hitchcock, Texas, a town of less than 7,000 located near Galveston, Sam endured a difficult childhood. He was the seventh of eight children born to JoAnn and Michael Sam Sr., who separated soon after their last child was born.

One of the children drowned before Michael was born. One of Michael's brothers was shot and killed, reportedly after trying to break into a home. Another brother did not return home one day in 1998 and is presumed dead.

"It was very hard growing up in that environment,'' Sam said in an interview with The New York Times, one of only two interviews he has done since coming out. He is not expected to speak publicly again until later this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, where his skills will be evaluated by scouts, coaches and team executives.

"My family was very notorious in the town that we lived in. Everyone would say, 'There goes those damn Sams.' I didn't want to paint that ill picture of me. I knew the good in my family. They didn't know our background and the adversity we had to endure. I wanted to succeed and be a beacon of hope in my family.''

Michael's aunt, Geraldine Sam, sensed Michael could be that beacon of hope when he was growing up. What she didn't know was what form it would take.

"Every time I saw him, he always had a book in his hand,'' she said in a telephone interview from her home in La Marque, Texas, a town a few miles away from where Michael grew up. "I never heard of him getting into a fight in school. He never got into trouble. He just loved to read, so whenever I saw him, I was always giving him a book.''

But she knew her nephew had a difficult time dealing with the tragedy his family experienced.

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"Death is a difficult time for anyone,'' she said. "You grow up and you deal with it over time. It's not easy. It's not something you wake up the next day and say you're over it. You never get over a person in your family dying. But that boy [Michael] is tough. He's been through a lot.''

Michael's sexual orientation was never an issue, she said.

"I've never asked any of my nieces or nephews what their sexual orientation is," she said. "That's not important to me. I just loved them for who they are. If we were going to discuss anything, it had to do with politics or what was happening in the news. But it had nothing to do with his sexuality."

Sam's father, who lives in a nursing home in Dallas and is "very sick,'' according to his sister, offered conflicting views on Michael's sexual orientation, saying he supports the decision but also saying he is troubled about it.

Sam Sr. later said his comments about his son's sexuality were taken out of context. In an interview with the Galveston County Daily News, Sam Sr. said his son "did the right thing, and I am not against him at all. He has made a great statement in coming out . . . I love him unconditionally. Once he gets on the field and hits [someone] once, they won't think he's gay.''

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Geraldine Sam said her family is "very proud of Michael. What he's doing is changing history. The world will never be the same. He's just a very courageous person. When you see him, you look at him and you look at how intelligent he is. He may have gone through some things in his life, but he came out smelling like a rose."

She said she experienced a feeling somewhat similar to what her nephew is experiencing now, albeit on a much smaller scale. In 2009, Geraldine Sam was the first African-American female mayor elected in Galveston County, she said.

"I received death threats because I was black," she said. "I survived that, and Michael's going to survive what he's going through. He's going to make it. He's going to be ok."

It remains to be seen how Sam will be treated once he gets to the NFL. Some league executives have already expressed private skepticism about what his presence would mean to a team, since no player before has ever openly acknowledged being gay during his career.

A new dawn

Davis, who played for the Titans, Seahawks and Redskins from 2000-03 and came out in 2012, thinks the time is right for the 24-year-old Sam.

There's no denying his credentials.

At Missouri, Sam played defensive end and was voted the Southeastern Conference's co-defensive player of the year. The 6-2, 255-pounder is projected as an outside linebacker in the NFL. He is expected to be drafted in the third round or lower.

Davis said Sam's experience at Missouri, where he told teammates and coaches before the 2013 season that he is gay, offers a glimpse at what it will be like for whichever NFL team drafts Sam. Davis also said Sam thought it was important to make his sexual orientation known now so he can concentrate on being a football player first and foremost.

At Missouri, teammates and coaches did not dwell on his announcement about being gay, focusing strictly on his ability as a player.

"All these players that may be uncomfortable or think it can't work, it's already been proven,'' Davis said. "Missouri is the NFL. Thirty or 40 percent of NFL rosters are made up of guys from the SEC, and he played at a place that is perceived as homophobic. But he didn't have one incident there, because if he had, you would have heard about it. He debunked a lot of myths.''

But Davis believes it is healthy for people to express their reservations about what Sam's presence will mean.

Potential problem

Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas said this past week that he believes the presence of an openly gay player in an NFL locker room has the potential to be a problem because it might make some players uncomfortable and will bring unwanted scrutiny to the team.

Thomas said Sam's teammates at Missouri had an advantage that his NFL teammates will not.

"They knew Sam before he came out,'' he said. "The biggest issue is not going to be accepting him but getting to know him. All the attention that he will bring to the organization, it makes that part difficult.''

Thomas said he would not have a problem with a gay teammate, other than the "unwanted attention'' from a descending national media that such a situation would bring.

Sam isn't even in the NFL, doesn't have a team, and already players are being asked about him to the point of fatigue. And, Thomas found out, if a player says something considered to be out of step with society -- as many took his "the NFL may not be ready'' comments -- there can be a severe backlash from fans on social media.

Ultimately, Thomas said he's curious to see how the league does handle the first openly gay player.

"I don't know how it's going to work," he said. "You'd think that if 18 to 20-year-olds in college can accept it, why can't an NFL locker room where people are supposed to be more mature? I'm not saying we can, I'm not saying we won't. I can't speak to that right now. But we're going to find out."

Davis believes it's healthy for players to express this kind of skepticism.

"When people tell their truth, there is a shift in the world, and people change and we grow," Davis said. "If people don't speak up, we can't have real conversations. It doesn't make someone a bad person . It allows us to have these conversations."

The workplace

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will make it a priority to remind team executives and players that league policy mandates a safe and respectful working environment. He said this past week that there will be additional training provided to reinforce those standards.

"We have a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation,'' Goodell said. "We will have further training and make sure that everyone understands our commitment. We truly believe in diversity, and this is an opportunity to demonstrate it.''

An independent investigation into harrassment charges in the Miami Dolphins' Jonathan Martin case, recommended the creation of "new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people" in the NFL

A handful of NFL owners, including Giants president John Mara and co-owner Steve Tisch, as well as Patriots owner Robert Kraft, have expressed support for Sam's decision to come out.

One of the reasons Sam and his advisers gave for coming out when he did was the increasing number of people around the league who were in possession of -- or at least had been hearing rumors about -- one of the worst-kept secrets in football scouting.

Before a team invests even a seventh-round pick on a player, it generally will complete an exhaustive background check to dig up everything on the young man, from possible arrests to study habits to how well he treated the team's training staff.

And as teams began to look into Sam's life off the field as a potential draft pick, it was hard for them to ignore that he is gay.

So how often does that happen, that scouts believe a player is gay? Sam may be the first openly gay player to go through the NFL's draft process, but surely he is not the only gay player. Not even in this year's class.

One NFL personnel source said that the number of players he comes across in scouting each year who he and his team believe to be gay based simply on general investigations is "the same percentage as the general population." In other words, around four percent of the players who will be drafted or signed by NFL teams this spring will be gay.

In 2013, there were 254 players selected in the draft. Using that math, 10 of those players were likely gay. Another 10 or so will likely be gay this year.

"We've heard rumors," the personnel source said of the dozens of players who are believed to be gay but have not come out publicly. "But nothing specific."

Sam's experience now will provide a clear example of whether the league is ready to deal with its first openly gay player. Those who have gotten to know the Missouri pass rusher believe there is no better person to pave the way.

"I'm completely confident that the locker room won't care,'' said former NFL quarterback Shaun King, who said he had gay teammates during his career from 1999-2006. "As long as he can play, that's all they care about. They want to win a championship. If [Sam] can help them win a championship, they'll be fine with it.''

With Tom Rock

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