By Wade Davis
I had the pleasure of spending six hours with Michael Sam on Saturday night, and let me tell you, America, if you don’t already love him, get ready to.
We met in Los Angeles at the home of P.R. pro Howard Bragman, who is leading the charge in helping Michael establish his identity before others do it for him. The dinner included several leaders from the LGBT sports community: former major league baseball player Billy Bean, who came out after he retired; David Kopay, a former NFL player who is gay; Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe, two former NFL players and LGBT advocates; Outsports.com editor Cyd Zeigler; and Michael’s agents, Joe Barkett and Cameron Weiss of Empire Athletes. We had each learned of Michael and the discussion to make his sexual orientation public at different stages; I learned of it a few weeks ago when Troy Vincent, a senior vice president at the NFL, reached out to me after speaking with one of Michael’s agents.
We met on the eve of Michael’s announcement over a meal that featured Cyd’s homemade peach cobbler, which Michael had requested. During dinner, Howard Bragman offered a toast. He saluted Kopay for his courage to be the first ex-NFL player to come out, and he thanked the rest of us for pushing the envelope, and he praised Michael, the bravest of us all. “We’ve come full circle,” Bragman said, “but Michael is the real hero here.”
The night was a celebration for the people who had advanced this movement for years, and an effort to show Michael our love and support. While the rest of the crew ate Asian food, Michael and I opted for the Asian-style ribs, a logical choice for a kid from Hitchcock, Texas, and an old man from Little Rock, Arkansas. Michael was happy, but not overwhelmed. It was clear that the moment was not too big for him. A large part of him hoped for the hoopla to begin and end quickly, so he could focus on preparing for the combine.
Michael told us the story of coming out to his team. “We were supposed to stand up and say our name and something about ourselves,” he recalled. “So I stood up and said, ‘I’m Michael, and I’m gay.’ ” We were blown away by the nonchalance of it, but he explained that almost everyone knew his secret. Times had clearly changed since I graduated from Weber State in 2000. I began to think about how incredible his Mizzou experience was, and what it all meant. Michael played his college ball in the middle of America, in the SEC, in a big-time program, and somehow no fans, teammates or coaches had an issue with it. Michael has accomplished so much—why would anyone question his ability to play on Sundays just because he’s gay?
Michael continued, explaining the recent success of the Mizzou football team and his 11.5-sack season. He said the team bonded, in part, because coach Gary Pinkel loosened the reins and let the players be themselves over the past two seasons. Coming out was a big weight off Michael’s shoulders, and as I listened to him, I realized he hadn’t experienced the same type of internalized homophobia that I did. And whatever he did experience, he was able to transcend it. Where I had crippling doubts about how I would be received, Michael knew 100% that his teammates wouldn’t care. He says, “Hey, I’m gay. Next?”
We had discussed the reasons for coming out now to the larger public, which I’m sure will be debated for months. Here’s the truth: Everybody at Mizzou knew Michael was gay, and he wanted to tell his own story. There were reporters at the Senior Bowl who knew his story and were trying to pitch themselves as the reporter who would write it. For Michael, the fear of being outed before he got his say was a major factor.
After several hours, the dinner party moved on to a local nightclub, then another bar, and by midnight, a gay bar. Michael, wearing jeans and a button-up shirt, made fun of Cyd for wearing jeans with sneakers.
“I’m country,” I told him, “but you’re more country than a dozen eggs.”
Michael’s agents, Barkett and Weiss, joined us and fit in nicely, which impressed me. These guys are level-headed, open and focused on what’s best for Michael. He came to them after dumping a previous agency, because he felt they were too focused on him coming out and not focused enough on football. Empire Athletes is a small agency, which is ideal for any challenges Michael will face; he’s going to need guys to be there for him through his historic rookie season.
With Bragman’s help, they’ll navigate through the onslaught of media requests, and ensure that Michael finds a place to work out this spring free from distractions. I’ll do what I can to help. As I told him, “I know you’re a football guy. You know you’re a football guy. And we need to make sure everyone else knows that.”
Here’s what impresses me the most: Michael isn’t planning on running to the media when people make stupid comments, whether they’re from fans or a smattering of players, or when teams ask him difficult questions at the combine. He’s looking to protect his teammates, his coaches, his team and the NFL.
I admire his courage and how comfortable he is in his own skin. Shortly after midnight he jumped on stage with five of us and led a karaoke rendition of “My Girl” by The Temptations. I loved watching how liberated and free he is, and I thought about how powerful this is going to be for LGBTQ youth who still struggle with issues of self-hatred.
When I left him at 1 a.m., I told him how proud I am to know him, and I wished him luck. On my way to the hotel and on the flight back to New York, I wondered, Would other players follow Michael’s example? Certainly, I believe, but not in the droves many will imagine.
I thought about Michael in the greater context of American society, and it hit me: This is a black man, from the rural south, who is set to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. Paired with the NBA’s Jason Collins, his presence has the potential to reframe all the misconceptions about masculinity in athletics, about LGBT tolerance among African-Americans, and about homophobia in rural areas. I wondered if he truly grasped the significance of this moment that would change lives for gay men and women in sports going forward. Then I decided that it doesn’t really matter if he does. He’s here to play football.
A former football captain at Weber State, Wade Davis was cut by the Redskins in training camp and retired in 2003 because of a leg injury. He came out nine years later in media interviews and is the co-founder of the You Belong initiative, an LGBTQ and straight ally youth sports and leadership program. He is also executive director of You Can Play and lives in New York City.