Former NFL player Michael Sam said he always felt like an outsider — the deaths of two older brothers, the bullying he endured by other family members and even his mother's religion, Jehovah's Witness, made him feel apart from his peers. But nothing made him feel more like an outsider than being gay in the NFL.
"I had to prove myself, to show that I was one of the guys," said Sam, who spoke Tuesday night as part of Sexuality Month at the University at Albany. "I was cut from the Rams, even though I was in the top five in sacks. Then I went to the Cowboys and had to do it all over again. And then I was cut there. I always felt like an outsider looking in."
Sam assured the few hundred students who came to hear him in the Campus Center that "everything happens for a reason."
The difficult childhood and NFL disappointment led him to become a motivational speaker urging others to be true to themselves.
"When I came out to the world on Feb. 9, 2014, I got tons of emails from people telling me how they were condemned for their sexuality," said Sam. "It made me sad and angry. I spoke to one girl who told me that because I came out, she didn't commit suicide. I was speechless."
After high school in Hitchcock, Texas, Sam, a defensive end, was recruited to play for the University of Missouri. Named an All-American and Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, he expected to be drafted in the second or third round of the 2014 draft. But his prospects plummeted the day after he announced he was gay. He wasn't drafted until the seventh round for the St. Louis Rams.
"When I was drafted I thought the headline would be 'NFL has first openly gay player,' but instead it was 'Sam kisses boyfriend.' Should I have kissed a girl? The media made it a distraction."
He said it was also difficult that he, as a rookie, garnered constant media attention.
"I'm still baffled," said Sam. "I thought it would be a story for two weeks and then it would go away."
Sam remains wary of the media. He refused interviews with the local press and stopped his talk to ask the television crews to turn off their cameras.
The attention and what he believes is the sports' discomfort with homosexuality ultimately destroyed his career. After being cut from the Rams and then waived by the Dallas Cowboys, he joined the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League. That stint didn't last either. He said he left preseason camp for personal reasons.
"I tried to earn their trust, make them believe I belonged," said Sam. "Now I speak from the heart."