The play's the thing


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I was in Samford Stadium when Michael Sam changed the country’s perception of the 2013 Missouri football team on a balmy October day in Athens, Ga.

Up 20-10, just before the half against No. 7 Georgia, the unanimous first-team All-American nimbly scooped up an Aaron Murray fumble and bolted 20 yards for a score. 27-7. The upset of the season to that point in the books. An SEC stadium, silenced.

It was a football play, by a football player. And the other 92,745 people in attendance with me didn’t think anything more of it.

The truth is, this game, is just that — a game.

Sam’s announcement that he is “an openly proud gay man” is a big deal when put into a historical context. The NFL draft and season will be under a microscope in 2014. The league’s stance on tolerance has been on trial for years.

But the real story here lies in Columbia, Mo.

A football locker room has already embraced a man whose sexual orientation may have been different from that of the other players. Sam’s teammates have known since last summer that their MVP is gay. Some have known for years. It stayed in the locker room because that is what Sam wanted, and his teammates respected that. It simply wasn’t an issue.

Sam’s decision to come out is a story that will not matter a year from now if he makes a play to help his team win at the next level. His personal life will not be front-page news after all of the 16 games he will potentially compete in. This story only remains a story if the society we live in chooses not to casually accept what, quite frankly, we have expected for quite some time. Sam has said himself that revealing his secret is “nothing” in comparison to what he has already gone through in his life.

The outpouring of support for the best defensive player in the country’s best conference makes me think we’re closer to that collective casual acceptance than most would think. Sam recently created his first Twitter account only to see 48,000 follow him within a few days. He will need that support moving forward as well.

Most forget that the 24-year-old is facing the same draft uncertainty as other draft hopefuls of the 2014 class. Pegged as a “middle round” draft pick, advancing the to next level is not guaranteed. He is like any other college graduate, looking to start the next phase of his life but unsure of where life will take them. He will be seen as pioneer for the rest of his life, though, whether he wants it or not.

The good news for Sam is he will almost certainly be drafted. Great NFL minds and front offices simply won’t pass on the opportunity to bring in a potentially disruptive defensive force and playmaker. His ability to explode off the edge of the defensive line, coupled with his 6-3, 260-pound frame makes him a versatile prospect, someone that could use his athleticism to excel as an outside linebacker in a number of NFL coordinator’s defensive schemes.

It did not matter on any of Sam’s 21 career sacks or 123 tackles that he is gay. It will not matter at the next level, either. Sure, when his name is called in May it will make history. Sure, when he makes his first play at the next level it will make headlines. But eventually, his involvement in a game will be just that — just another player, looking to perform well for his team and its fans in a game.

Sam was mobbed by his teammates when he crossed the goal line that afternoon back in October. I still remember the silence that fell over one the nation’s largest college stadiums, with the exception of the small, traveling Missouri contingent, reaching out for the chance to high-five one of the players they journyed across the country to see make plays.

Because in this game, it doesn’t matter where you come from, who you are, or what you stand for. All of that just makes you a story. What defines you, in this game, is your ability to make plays on the field.

And Michael Sam can do just that.

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