A season of significance at Missouri
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 3 Analytics Issue. Subscribe.
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- In the days before he came out to his teammates last fall, Michael Sam had been both inspired and heartbroken. He'd told Marvin Foster, a 6-foot-1, 300-pound defensive lineman, that he is gay during a talk about relationships over cigars and Al Green. "Tell me more," Foster said, and they talked forever on one of the last summer days before their senior season at the University of Missouri.
"It was awkward at first," Foster said. "It was really awkward. There was no point for us to be awkward about something I already knew. Once he realized I didn't care about him being gay, he could talk to me."
But not everything was rainbows and sunshine for Michael Sam, because this is football, and these are young, testosterone-charged men. This past summer, he asked three of his teammates to accompany him on a trip to St. Louis. Missouri tight end Eric Waters said yes; the other two said no because, Waters said, they suspected Sam was gay and they were apprehensive about being alone with him.
Sam knew this, but didn't let any heartache show. What his teammates didn't know was that Sam was going to a gay pride parade in St. Louis, and he wanted them there to help celebrate who he was. Sam came out to Waters in a text message. "Dude," Waters replied, "it really doesn't matter who you are ... I will be there for you."
Soon, Sam would tell his team he is gay, and six months later, he would tell the world. Shortly after his announcement on ESPN and in The New York Times on Sunday night, teammates responded with a flurry of support through social media. They said they were proud of his courage.
Halfway through the platitudes, Waters couldn't take it anymore.
He took to Twitter. "Half of y'all posting these pics saying how proud you are," Waters wrote. "But most of y'all was the ones talkin s--- behind his back in the locker room."
Waters, who is currently training in St. Louis for the NFL combine, said repeatedly in an interview Monday that he did not want to draw attention away from Sam, his roommate and a man he feels so comfortable with that he occasionally turns to him for dating advice about women. Waters also doesn't want the story to be about him.
But eventually, some NFL team is expected to pick Sam in the draft in May, and another football player probably will come out, and perhaps the league will look at Missouri as the blueprint on how to handle a situation that some front-office types are anonymously saying will be dicey, if not impossible.
What happened at Missouri proved that it's not impossible. But it wasn't perfect, either.
"I want everybody to understand what it's been like for Mike," Waters said. "I want everyone else to understand that yes, it is an amazing thing, and it takes a strong individual to come out and be proud about who he is and tell the world about it.
"But now that this is so great, and everybody is jumping on his coattail, I want people to understand it hasn't always been like that."
College, obviously, is different. After practices at Missouri, players don't retreat home to their waterfront condos or wife and kids; they live together, in dorms or crowded houses with broken-down furniture ill-equipped to handle their ever-growing girth. The Tigers carried 127 men on their 2013 roster, which is bigger than some towns in Missouri and more than twice the size of an NFL team. They are not yet old enough to be jaded over contracts, escalators and bonuses. They throw around words like "brotherhood" and "family" as if they're not clichés, as if they didn't know that those words have been used a thousand times, as if they're real. Here, they have to get along. For most of them, this is the last football they'll ever play, the best four or five years of their lives.
Their story has been front and center since Sunday night, and the narrative is endearing: Sam tells his secret in August, during a team-building exercise, and 126 teammates proceed to keep their mouths shut for one magical 12-2 season. The Tigers win the SEC East, come within a quarter of the national championship game and beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. And Sam plays the season of his life, becoming a unanimous All-American and co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
"We actually became closer as a team probably because of it," said senior defensive lineman Brayden Burnett. "It's the same as if you get to better know a friend or a family member. You just have a feeling of closeness."
As NFL teams carefully ponder and analyze how they'd navigate having an openly gay player, they should consider this: That Michael Sam's sexual orientation probably wasn't the most pressing thing weighing on coach Gary Pinkel's mind at the start of the 2013 season. He was close to losing his job after going 5-7 in an injury-plagued 2012, a year in which his team looked as if it had no business playing in the SEC. That Pinkel, who is 61, from Akron, Ohio, and widely known as being an old-school coach, had no experience on how to handle an openly gay player when Sam came out in August.
But Pinkel knows players. He knew that Sam was widely respected, popular and one of the best players on the team. He knew he had a strong senior class full of leaders. He told the Tigers that if they wanted to be successful, they had to come together and protect their family members, everybody from the freshmen to the coaches to the video staff.
He leaned on his captains, and in the days after Sam came out to the team, he met with them daily, asking, "How's the team doing? What's going on?"
Pinkel changed, too. Faced with so much pressure, he let it go and loosened up. The most noticeable difference was at practice. At the urging of the seniors, Pinkel allowed the team to play music during warm-ups. In all of the years that any of them had known Pinkel, he'd never had music during warm-ups. The change allowed the players to be more relaxed and comfortable.
Pinkel trusted his team. He never asked them to keep Sam's announcement a secret, even though he knew if the news had leaked, it would've been a big distraction. He just told them to respect each other and protect each other. "Coach Pinkel didn't have separate meetings pointing out how we should handle it," senior offensive lineman Justin Britt said. "I think he kind of let us learn as we went along.
"We got to know Mike before anybody really had a clue and before he came out. We got to know him as a person rather than judge him on what he claims to be. He produced on the field, which we all loved. I never had a problem with it, and it didn't change the way I looked at him."
It doesn't have to be an issue. That's what former NFL safety Bubba McDowell thought as he watched the Sam coverage from a distance this week in Texas. McDowell was surprised that the story was such a big deal.
Twenty years ago, his Oilers team was somewhat like the Tigers: talented, close and adept at hiding secrets. The Houston Chronicle reported in December that the 1993 Oilers had at least two gay players on their team. The players were not out, but, according to the article, it was widely known that these unnamed men were gay, and they were accepted by their teammates.
"You don't have time to think about it," McDowell said. "We were winning. Those guys were helping us get to the next level. At the end of the day, it's all about leadership. We were successful, and we didn't want that type of distraction.
"The majority of the friends I played with just blew it off, like, 'Heck, so what? Let's go play football.'"
When Sam arrived in Columbia in 2009, his teammates didn't know what to make of him. He wore a cowboy hat and carried a knife. The story about the size of the knife varies depending on with whom you talk. Some say it was a Rambo knife; others called it a pocket knife. They have no idea why he had it, though.
"He was very country," Foster said of Sam, who came from Hitchcock, Texas. "Country goofy."
He used to have a short temper, used to internalize things and be on edge. But he was also known for being loud, funny and happy most of the time. He always seemed to be singing, Tigers defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said, and his teammates always knew where he was. They knew he'd give everything he had in a game. They loved him for that.
By his sophomore season, many of the people in Sam's inner circle suspected that he was gay. They'd see him with other men who were known around the gay community. They'd notice things, "mannerisms" and signs that they couldn't put into words. They never asked him about it.
"He's a grown man, and that's his life," Waters said. "It's not my place to ... ask any questions, especially if he wasn't open about it yet. So I didn't want to cross any lines or any boundaries like that."
In the months before his senior year, Sam knew it was time. He told Foster and Waters and L'Damian Washington, one of the team captains. And when he opened up to the team in August, he finally felt free.
Sam started wearing rainbow bracelets in warm-ups before games. Foster thought he took them off before games because he didn't want to be a distraction. But in pictures from the 2013 season, Sam can be seen tackling his opponents while wearing the bracelets around his giant wrists.
"I know he wanted to make that statement," Foster said, "saying, 'Hey, I'm gay, and I'm about to ball out.'
"He's more lighthearted now. He's calmer. We talked about that, too. It's like dude, ever since you came out, you're nicer. More at ease. He can be himself. He doesn't have to hide anything."
Foster and Waters said there were plenty of teammates willing to embrace Sam for who he was. But there were also a few "knuckleheads" too, guys who talked behind his back or used homophobic slurs.
Some of those words, even Sam's closest friends concede, are hard to stamp out because they're deeply embedded in locker-room culture.
Waters estimates that roughly 5 to 10 percent of the team was slow to come around to Sam.
"There were hurtful things that were said at the very beginning," he said. "But you have to think about it. On a football team, there are various ages ranging from 17-year-olds all the way to 24-year-olds. Some kids haven't matured; some guys haven't learned. There's more cultural differences in one small locker room. Some guys don't know how to handle situations like that.
"Once that stuff came out, people automatically turned on him. Some people turned on him as they smiled in his face."
But eventually, the team grew closer, and came together. That, he said, is one of the biggest success stories of 2013. Just watch the film clips that are currently playing in a loop during all the coverage on Sam, he said. They show Sam making big plays. And after every one of them, his teammates surround him with hugs and pats on the head.
"It wasn't about, 'Oh, I don't want to touch him, he's gay,'" Waters said. "It didn't matter to us. It was all about celebration with our team. With our family."
On Sunday night, Foster sat in a house on Lubbock Court, another street named after one of the old Big 12 haunts. He said in Columbia, there's just one city that isn't mentioned in a street: Lawrence, for obvious reasons. Earlier in the day, Sam texted Foster and told him to watch ESPN around 7 o'clock, when his announcement would air. So Foster tuned in on a large, outdated TV in a home full of college football souvenirs and broken furniture. He noticed that Sam looked a little nervous. He couldn't blame him. In some ways, he didn't understand why Sam was coming out now, before the NFL combine and the draft, when he might have a lot to lose.
But Foster knows that Sam's agents and advisors are much more versed on this than he is. This is all new for Foster. He said he's never had a gay teammate, at least one that he's known of. He's an enlightened man, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, and a member of the SEC academic honor roll. He rolls his eyes when people ask him if guys were ever nervous about taking showers in front of Sam, like all of a sudden a man is going to change after four years in that same locker room.
Foster says none of this should be an issue for anyone comfortable with their own sexuality. But he's realistic. If the tables were turned and he was gay and on TV making the same announcement, he could probably choreograph the reactions from back home in Texas.
"If I were to do what he did, my dad would probably be up here in a minute," he said. "My daddy would not play that. Man, he'd ... I don't know. He wouldn't be happy. My mom would probably be disappointed, but she was a single mother, an African-American woman, and she had three things against her. She's been discriminated against before. I can't put it on the same field as race and sexuality, but if I were to just excommunicate this guy because he's gay ... I'm being a discriminatory person.
"That's just not what my family is about. My mom raised me to be kind and caring to everybody."
Unlike Sam, Foster won't play football again. But one day perhaps he'll tell his kids and grandkids about the 2013 season, and how 127 men came together and came close to playing for a national championship. It wasn't perfect. But it was historic. And now everything for his friend is about to change. Here, in this college town in Middle America, things were simple. There, in the NFL, it will be a circus.
"You think so?" Foster said.
"I don't know."