Ayanbadejo: Coming out a liberating move for Michael Sam
Saturday began with a relationship between two souls. One was in the twilight of his professional basketball career, and the other has yet to step a foot on the professional gridiron.
On that beautiful February morning, however, they were on the same path, at the same time, facing the exact same ups and downs as they jogged through the hills of West Los Angeles together.
Jason Collins made a decision that could have possibly sped up his exit from the hardwood when he announced back in April that he was gay. On Sunday, Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, the 2013 SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year, also made the choice to come out, delivering the big announcement just a few months before he hopes to be drafted into the NFL.
Though they have walked in the same shoes at one point in their journey, their decision-making is polar opposite.
It was Michael's first time on that L.A. trail; Jason knows the land and he knew every twist and turn as he forged ahead, only slowing so Michael could keep pace. The trusting guardian and bigger brother that Collins hopes to be for Sam knows of the pitfalls that lie ahead -- in hiking and life.
Collins' main concern for Sam is securing a job. He remains skeptical if coming out prevented him from catching on with an NBA team this season, or was it just that the 12-year veteran was at the end of the line?
Jason Collins is the closest person we have had to a professional athlete in the big three sports -- MLB, NBA and NFL -- coming out while still active.
As morning broke with a modern-day pioneer in Collins, evening dinner began with the first pioneer of gay inclusivity in professional sports: David Kopay.
Kopay is a former NFL running back who came out in 1975. Billy Bean, Wade Davis, Chris Kluwe and I were all in attendance at this dinner to support Michael Sam. We were there to celebrate his ground-breaking voyage that in many ways is similar to those of Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks -- extraordinary moments in the push for equality.
To borrow from Neil Amstrong, this is one small step for gay men and one giant leap for the LGBTQ community.
Sam has been contacted by 26 of 32 NFL teams, according to Cameron Weiss of Empire Athletes, which represents the Missouri grad.
Sam came out to his Missouri teammates before the 2013 season. He found it liberating.
"I could go on campus and go around local gay bars in Columbia and not worry about anybody judging me," Sam told me. "Prior to coming out, I would be in a local restaurant with my boyfriend and coaches would come in and I would feel insecure and want to sneak out."
After telling his teammates, Sam achieved improved results on the field. Feeling free, the defensive end upped his sack total from 3½ in 2012 to 11½ as a senior.
Sam shares the Missouri single-season sack record with San Francisco 49ers All-Pro Aldon Smith. At 6 feet 2, 260 pounds with a wing span of almost 7 feet, Sam is a relentless pass rusher much like the Denver Broncos' Von Miller and Indianapolis Colts' Robert Mathis.
"Michael should be drafted in the first two days of the draft," Weiss told me.
Seven former SEC Defensive Players of the Year -- Jarvis Jones, Morris Claiborne, Patrick Peterson, Rolando McClain, Eric Berry, Glenn Dorsey and Patrick Willis -- were chosen in the first round. So, history is on this history-making player's side.
"Michael Sam has raised the bar for expectations and excellence," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said recently. "(Mizzou's defensive ends) are all competitive and they want their tackles for loss. They want their sacks, and it's a real healthy competition. But Michael, with the level he's been playing, everything's kind of changed a little bit."
Since starting out as a water boy in eighth grade for his future high school team in Hitchcock, Texas, Sam has always known he wanted to be a football player. He played every single play on both sides of the ball in his the last three years of his high school career.
I am most impressed that Michael is so comfortable in who he is. He has faced so much adversity in his life that telling the world that he is gay isn't that difficult in comparison.
"For me, I just want to play football," he told me.
For him this is a perfect storm. He is young enough to benefit from what everyone did before him, with no need to fear what happened to people in the past. I wanted to keep the air in his sails. I wanted to be assuring and realistic.
"I want to play for the team that drafts me, the team that believes in me," Sam said. "The team that believes in Michael Sam the football player."
I told him not to worry about being an activist. Let the rest of us worry about that. He should go out there and worry about X's and O's, and we will worry about LGBTQ rights.
One of the concerns over the timing of the announcement was that Sam's camp didn't want him to have to be at the NFL combine later this month and have to deal with the issue of being a gay player. It was perceived that any announcement or news conference could be construed as a negative and scare off teams.
But Sam is a proven talent. Now his biggest hurdle is entering a league that has never had an openly gay player. A league that reaches headlines several times a year due to its lack of acceptance and inclusion of and from its players. Will the NFL prove us all wrong or will it continue to be considered one of the last bastions of homophobia?
For Michael Sam, he would like his life to be judged on sacks and not his sexuality. Only time will tell.