Mizzou rooting for Sam to break NFL’s glass ceiling
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Struby Struble had a what, but no who.
It burned in her back pocket for weeks, then months, through the spring and summer and fall, to the point where she wondered if the chip would ever be played.
On Monday, her mind raced like a rabbit back to homecoming, to a tilt against South Carolina last October bathed in moonlight and cursed by a left upright.
"And (I was) feeling so proud of Mizzou and how far we’ve come, and the support we’ve had on campus and thinking, ‘Wow,’" said Struble, coordinator for the LGBTQ Resource Center at the University of Missouri.
She knew. Knew for certain that one of the Tiger football players chasing an SEC East crown was gay. Knew that it was only a matter of the right time, the right place, the right stage, the right moment.
"(I knew) that ‘a player, right there, that we’re watching that (day) is a part of us, too.’ The excitement of how great that was."
A head popped around the open door to Struble’s office.
"Chad Moller’s on the phone," the man said.
Moller is director for media relations for the Missouri athletic department. Struble’s LGBTQ Resource Center has been the hub for the gay and lesbian community on campus since 1995.
On Sunday, their worlds intersected, thanks to defensive Michael Sam. But, truth be told, the intersection actually came a lot sooner that.
Struble says she got a call — unexpected — from the athletic department last spring. She was told a football player was gay, that everybody around (or inside) the Tigers’ inner circle was pretty sure of it, and that it was probably a matter of time before he went public with his orientation.
"It was kind of (asking) how to do this: ‘We think we have a player who might be coming out,’" she recalls. "So I was consulted in an official sort of fashion."
Educational sessions were arranged between the LGBTQ Resource Center and male athletes, "more communication and collaboration than we’d done before," Struble recalled. "Especially with me."
LGBTQ’s Pride Parade draws hundreds every spring. Struble says the group trains or works on outreach with as many as 1,000 students a year. But she says no one ever was told it was Sam, nor was she ever put in contact with him.
"People like Michael taking this step helps all of us," Struble said. "(It) helps break down stereotypes socially with athletes."
The chip landed on the table, loud enough to crack the glass ceiling above.
Coach Gary Pinkel revealed Monday that Sam came out during a team dinner last summer. Fourteen players from different position groups were mixed together, and invited to stand up and reveal something about their lives or backgrounds. There was the moment. The first one, anyway.
"I think that it was just a splash in the pond," defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. "The ripples eventually go away, and you’re back to business."
But sometimes, those ripples travel on, in corners and circles no one thought possible. There’s Sam, a 6-foot-2 black man from Hitchcock, Texas, poised to become the first openly gay college football player drafted by an NFL club. There’s Mason Kerwick, a white kid from Austin and a senior at Mizzou, cheering for the road to rise beneath Sam’s feet, for the wind to be at his back.
"I think it’s really important that we’re having this conversation," Kerwick said. "And I guess I think it’s sad that an individual has to bear such weight on his shoulder for a community that’s so diverse and so large.
"It’s such a case-by-case basis. And you look at Michael Sam, he’s a person of color, he’s queer, and he’s a football player. And when you incorporate all those things, it is groundbreaking, the fact he’s doing what it is that he’s doing.
"And I think that if somebody’s just going to flip on the TV and watch a football game, now they can be having a social-issue conversation while watching the game. I think that’s very important, because there’s obviously a lot of conversations that revolve around sports. Because it’s not just (confined) to the entertainment industry or fashion or politics. This is sports."
This is different. Sam once dated a member of the Mizzou men’s swimming team. Kerwick’s brother, Max, was a Tigers swimmer from 2008-2012. Max is straight but knew Sam socially.
"I don’t think (Sam) hid it very well," Kuligowski said, "if he was trying to hide it."
Buried too, is Mizzou’s role in this, even in a passive sense. It’s the largest public university in the reddest part of a traditionally red state. The school’s individual history with gay rights is a complicated and checkered one, at best: In 2008, diver Greg DeStephen came out to Gay.com. In 2002, Tigers runner Derrick Peterson was quoted in Genre magazine that he was "definitely not heterosexual," only to later back off those comments. In 2006, Kyle Hawkins, the coach of the club lacrosse team, came out in a forum on OutSports.com; his contract was not renewed.
In 1973, the University’s Board of Curators refused to recognize both the Gay People’s Union and Gay Lib as student groups, insisting that it would lead to increased violations of sodomy laws. Four years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Gay Lib. Mason Kerwick, ironically, is the current communications director of that group, known today as the Triangle Coalition.
"It’s weird that a place in the Midwest," he says, "can have such a historical LGBTQ community."
Pinkel likes to call this is a family, and members of a family will disagree — some from a mole hill, others from a mountain.
Mizzou officials declined several requests from FOXSportsKansasCity.com (and others) to make current Tiger players available to discuss the topic. The players out of eligibility weren’t shy about hitting social media. Sam’s teammate, senior tight end Eric Waters, went to Twitter Sunday night and chided fellow Tigers for praising Sam publicly while privately ripping him behind his back. Another classmate, guard Max Copeland, the Hell’s Angel from Montana, wrote on Facebook in his own uniquely Copeland way:
"im so proud of my brother mike sam. hes one of the best people i know.. a true warrior. im honored to call him a friend. and if anyone has anything negative to say about him ill snap your neck."
Yeah, we’re gonna miss Mad Max.
"When these types of things are going to become a non-issue," athletic director Mike Alden said Monday, "I think that shows unbelievable progress."
"I think we’re getting there — we’re not there yet," Kerwick said. "We still have a lot of work to do. This is sort of starting that conversation not only nationally, but here in Columbia at Mizzou. And I think that’s very important."
The ripples might go away. They might be felt for a decade, if Sam’s NFL career takes off. But with each passing week, that crack in the ceiling gets a little wider, a smile that refuses to quit.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.