Michael Sam's safe havens
HITCHCOCK, Texas -- From inside Galveston County Jail, where he's awaited trial since his January arrest, Josh Sam caught clips of the interview, rebroadcast on local news. It surprised him to hear his brother was gay. It surprised him to hear it in such a public forum. But as he watched, Josh Sam knew something clearly.
The fact that his brother was on television, the fact that the world cared about his announcement, the fact that Michael Sam might soon become the first openly gay player in the NFL meant something good. It meant his little brother didn't follow his wayward example.
"If I was talking to him now, I would tell him I don't judge him," Josh Sam said, his voice heard through a television monitor by which he can speak with visitors. "I'm proud of him for not becoming like me. I still love him, whatever his lifestyle is. He's still my brother and I love him."
Following a path like that of his brothers, Josh and Chris, both in Galveston County Jail, would have been easy for Michael. He spent his childhood watching his older brothers struggle with family tragedies and peer pressure. The kid they called Mikey at home didn't want any part of that life.
"Growing up was very hard, very hard to see the things that I saw," Michael Sam said in the interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines," during which he first announced his sexual orientation. "Police coming in our homes, for my brothers, arresting them. I accidentally got maced before as a kid. ... It was hard. It was scary. No kid should ever have to see that or go through that. Being who I am now, I knew that I didn't want to go down that road like my brothers. I wanted to make a name for myself, and so I surrounded myself with good people, and I played sports, and football was my safe haven."
Some greeted Sam's announcement awkwardly in his hometown of Hitchcock, Texas. The school district hesitated to grant interviews, eventually and reluctantly making football coach Craig Smith available to several outlets. The day after Sam's announcement, the district released a statement saying how proud it was of Sam's football accomplishments and that he called Hitchcock home, never mentioning anything about his being gay. All day reporters and cameras had descended upon the normally quiet town.
But those who knew Michael Sam best barely even reacted. To them, the hubbub was far more perplexing.
They saw him survive and thrive despite an environment that could have meant an early death or imprisonment. They saw the gregarious kid who was always singing something or another succeed where even some in Hitchcock didn't think he would. They saw him develop the kind of strength he needed to become a pioneer.
Hitchcock, with approximately 7,000 residents, is a town in which it's not uncommon to see a horse or a cow in a yard or hear a rooster crowing as you pass. The median income is about $29,000, and homes average $128,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. City Hall is a small, brown building on Highway 6, one of two major roads that cross through a town that's part of a heavily conservative region.
It's a town one might drive past without even noticing on the way from Houston to Galveston. Michael Sam was one of the best-known people to come out of Hitchcock, even before becoming the most talked-about football player in America.
He started the conversations there two years ago.
One of his first stops was to Ronnie Purl, a man who became like a second father to Sam, who had a complicated relationship with family. He told Purl he was gay.
"No s---," Purl said, with his characteristic glibness. Purl recalled the conversation this week. Sitting behind his desk at Prosperity Bank on Highway 6, he laughed heartily at the memory.
"I said, 'Michael, I've known that for years,'" Purl said.
Sam asked why Purl never brought it up.
"Why would I make you feel uncomfortable in your own home?" Purl replied.
That's what the Purl home became to Michael Sam. The relationship started when Candy Purl, Ronnie's wife, invited Michael to dinner during his freshman year of high school. Ronnie, a man with a personality much bigger than he is, discovered a kid he didn't recognize and demanded to know, "And who are you?"
"Without skipping a beat, my brother replied, 'I'm Michael Alan Sam Jr.!,'" said Ethan Purl, Ronnie's son. "And after that, he never left."
It didn't take many more days for Ethan to start considering Sam family.
Despite all the time Sam spent at the Purls' house, Ronnie has never met Sam's parents.
Ethan, too, had a hunch Sam was gay but never asked, wanting instead to let Michael tell him when he was comfortable.
Sam never fully moved in to the Purls' home, but he'd stay there for days at a time when he couldn't stay at home. He helped around the house and learned how to cook -- Candy taught most recipes, Ronnie taught gumbo.
When the boys messed up, they were all punished the same -- Ethan, Michael Sam and Michael Nyberg, a teammate of Sam's whom the Purls adopted. Candy once caught the boys drinking beer on the porch after they'd snuck out of the house late one night when all three were upperclassmen at Hitchcock High School.
"When Mom came around the corner, she smelled beer automatically and called our names out," Nyberg said.
They woke up at 5:30 the next morning to start mowing the lawn on about three hours of sleep.
"The Purls don't sleep in," said Nyberg, who is now a train conductor. "Michael Sam knew that. When he came over, we told him, 'We're not sleeping in. We're going to be doing chores. We're going to do anything that Dad asks and Mom asks.' They were teaching us responsibility. That's pretty much what the Purls were doing."
The first time he left Hitchcock for college, Michael's mother, JoAnn Sam, was supposed to take him. When she backed out at the last minute, Ronnie Purl proposed a road trip to his wife. They loaded a truck at 3 a.m. and headed to Columbia, Mo. As they drove away, leaving Michael to the next chapter of his life, Ronnie saw Michael shrinking in his rearview mirror, waving until he became a tiny speck.
"I guess he latched onto us as much as we latched onto him," Ronnie said.
The Purls' home became a safe haven for Sam. He found another with the high school football team.
They were places Sam focused his energies as he grew into adolescence. They helped him avoid snares that might have derailed someone else. His tragic family history had that impact on his brother Josh.
"We've been through a whole lot of deaths," said Josh Sam. At 29, he's the oldest of the living Sam children. Chris is 28 and Michael is 24.
The first was Chanel Sam, who died as a toddler before her future siblings were born. Then, Russell Sam was shot to death while breaking into a home in the mid-1990s.
"It was kind of hard, 11 or 12 [years old], coming home from school, see my mom crying, saying, 'Your brother was shot,'" Josh Sam said. "Seeing him in the casket. Two or three years later, [another] brother came up missing. When my brother died, I really started going down the wrong road. ... We all was in our own zone. Really, we all took different ways. It was just a hard time for our mother."
Julian Sam, then a teenager, went missing in 1998, a few years after Russell was killed. He has not been found.
Five of the family's eight children are still living.
JoAnn Sam could not be reached for this story and hasn't done any interviews. She discouraged Josh from speaking and instructed him not to give any information about her. Her relationship with Michael remains complicated. As a Jehovah's Witness, she didn't like her son playing football.
"Sometimes, I would argue and I got kicked out of the house, and I didn't have no place to stay," Michael Sam said. "Sometimes, I stayed at the school, the high school, and I'd bounce around to my friends' house."
Still, during that same interview with "Outside the Lines," Sam called his mother his role model.
Despite his mother's resistance, he started playing football in seventh grade and immediately caught the local coaches' attention.
"I didn't know his mom and dad," said Craig Smith, Hitchcock's head football coach, who has coached in town for nearly 20 years. "Easiest, nicest way I can say about it. Small school. I know a lot of people in town, but I didn't know his mom and dad. That's why you take a kid in the eighth grade and get him involved in the program. It's just kind of our job as coaches. There's a lot of good people that's helped take care of Michael throughout the years here."
Sam surprised adults by shaking their hands -- more mature than many of his peers -- and he always introduced himself as Michael Alan Sam.
The gregarious kid fit in fine with the high school players; he was constantly talking and inviting attention. A school as small as Class 2A Hitchcock often needs to bring freshman onto the varsity team, and Sam was one of the chosen. He was big and played offense and defense. By his senior year, he was the best player on the team. The future SEC defensive player of the year became the only one in his graduating class to get a scholarship to a big-time college program.
He made friends easily and always had a No. 2 pencil behind his ear. And he sang. A lot.
"It sounded like he just made it up," Nyberg said of Sam's songs.
It wasn't just noise.
"I sing because it takes, for a brief second, it takes a little from my past and just in that moment I'm just happy and I'm glad to be who I am," Sam said. "That's the reason why. I like to be joyful and happy and joke around with my team. And it takes me away from all of that."
The state of Texas's history with gay men and women is uneven, a mixture of acceptance in some parts and hate in others.
Just 40 miles away from Hitchcock, Houston recently re-elected Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian who married her longtime partner in California last month. In 2013, 326 miles away, just outside of Fort Worth, a gay man was beaten so severely he required plastic surgery. It's not the only example of a hate crime against a gay man in Texas, and those instances shape national perception of the state's attitude.
Much of Hitchcock's reaction didn't fit that impression. Many residents or former residents responded defensively when Sam announced his sexual orientation -- even those who didn't personally know Sam -- challenging anyone who might react negatively.
"Hitchcock is very diverse," Ronnie Purl said. "They'll come to his defense. Might be a small community, but we're strong."
Former teammates and cousins posted supportive messages on Facebook. One Internet meme circulated with Sam's picture and the words "Hitchcock strong, we love you Mike."
"A lot of students don't quite see the parameter that it really may touch upon," said Morris Tuck, a defensive coach who has been at Hitchcock High School for 19 years. "It appears to me everybody's been very supportive. People just in general are more supportive of that kind of thing anyway. I think it's just kind of more becoming our society, I'm not gonna say expectation, but it's not so out of the ordinary as it may have been 20 years ago."
While most have given support, not all of it has been without hesitation. Even from family. Michael Sam let his father know in a text message that he is gay.
Michael Sam Sr. has oscillated. In a few interviews, he spoke of his love for his son and pride in his accomplishments. In another, with The New York Times, he expressed concern about grandchildren being raised in "that environment," saying he was a "man-and-a-woman type of guy." He later said he was misquoted.
Josh Sam said he hasn't spoken to his brother Michael in nearly a year. Their lives are so different right now.
According to Galveston County records, 44 charges have been brought against Josh Sam since 2001, a majority of them non-violent misdemeanors, though his two most recent charges were for assault, one listed from Dec. 30, 2013, and the other Jan. 2, 2014.
He can watch TV during the day in the day room at the jail, where 60 percent of the inmates are awaiting trial. The channel is selected by a vote among the inmates who can select among educational channels or local television stations. They often watch the local news. Josh doesn't see his brother Chris because members of the same family are kept separate in the Galveston County Jail. Chris, who was charged with four felonies in June 2012 -- four of 23 charges against him since 2003 -- is not allowed visitors right now.
Was it hard to avoid the life they chose?
"Very difficult," Josh Sam said. "There's a lot of peer pressure, lot of drugs, violence."
But Michael did it.
"Is he in the NFL yet?" Josh Sam asks through that television monitor, having followed Michael's college career closely.
Not yet, but he might be drafted in May.
"Do they know which team will draft him?"
It's a question that's been parsed in the week since Michael Sam's public revelation about being gay and one that centers around both football and non-football considerations -- even though Sam had his best season after telling his college teammates he is gay. Some NFL executives have made clear that his sexual orientation wouldn't impact their evaluations. Others have anonymously wondered how he would impact team chemistry or how much of a distraction the attention surrounding his announcement would cause.
These questions wouldn't exist without Sam's own determination to not wind up in that Galveston County Jail.
Sam's childhood didn't break him; it steeled him. It gave him the strength to be who he is.