Michael Sam was just another recruit when he left his small Texas hometown and arrived in Missouri. Playing for the Tigers, he turned into a private loquacious leader ready to make a trailblazing announcement.
The defensive star wants to become the first openly gay NFL player.
“I told him: This is going to be mammoth,” coach Gary Pinkel said Monday, a day after Sam came out to the world. “I don't have a word, OK, for how big this is going to be.”
It's a bigger deal for the older generation. Sam's teammates and acquaintances easily made the adjustment, plus he proved himself on the field.
“He's a leader,” former 49ers great running back Roger Craig said. “I would definitely welcome him on my team. I'd play with him any day. I like people who stand up for themselves.”
Sam revealed he was gay at one of the football team's get-acquainted dinners last summer hosted by Pinkel and assistant coaches. The next day, Pinkel said, Sam told the entire team.
Realizing the enormity of the situation, Pinkel left the next move up to the senior who blossomed into one of the best defensive ends in the country — and one surrounded by teammates who didn't worry one bit about sexual orientation or reveal his secret until he came out on Sunday.
Athletes across the campus approve.
“Love is love,” basketball guard Jordan Clarkson said. “That's their personal life.”
Pinkel, athletic director Mike Alden and other school officials applauded Sam's courage Monday at Faurot Field. As a backdrop, the first two letters of Sam's last name were etched in snow to join the giant “M'' just beyond the north end zone.
“Pretty cool,” Pinkel said.
Coaches and Sam agreed that making an announcement during the season might be a distraction. It was Sam's call to skip all the weekly media days and postgame news conferences, too, the better to avoid the risk of the topic coming up. Sam broke his silence prior to the Cotton Bowl and the conversation stayed on football, just like he wanted.
Sam was prompted to make his decision to come out after the Senior Bowl, where it became apparent the player's sexual orientation was widely known. This meant a declaration just days before the NFL combine and shouldering the pressure that goes along with the historic declaration.
“It's very clear that everybody in the NFL knew,” said Howard Bragman, a consultant hired by Sam's agent to help manage the announcement in the media.
The NFL and many others, including the White House, publicly applauded Sam's decision. President Barack Obama's spokesman, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden all called him a courageous and inspirational athlete.
But now, after a few high-profile interviews, it's back to silent Sam. The fifth level of the stadium was jammed with dozens of reporters for Monday's news conference but there was no sign of the star attraction. Bragman said Sam was traveling Monday to a camp at an undisclosed location where he'll prepare for the combine.
Though he's been a most reticent public speaker, Pinkel described Sam as a virtual chatterbox.
“He drove me crazy a lot of times, he doesn't shut up sometimes,” Pinkel said with a chuckle. “He talks and talks and talks.
“You always know he's in with my secretary because I can hear him and I have to close the door — I can't concentrate.”
Sam arrived at Missouri without fanfare. Rivals.com gave him just two stars when he was coming out of Hitchcock High School. He had 10 career starts before his breakout senior season.
The All-America defensive end led the Southeastern Conference with 11½ sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He was the co-SEC defensive player of the year.
But Sam has been projected as a mid-level NFL draft pick, probably because he's a bit undersized at 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds and is likely headed for a transition to outside linebacker. Pinkel doesn't think the announcement will hurt Sam's draft status.
“Our team was able to move past it and work together,” defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “So why shouldn't a bunch of professional football players be able to do the same thing?”
There have been a few NFL players who have come out after their playing days, including Kwame Harris and Dave Kopay.