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Michael Sam is at the podium. There’s no commissioner’s hand to shake, no NFL team hat to put on. He faces out at a room that’s less than half full.
For the past year, this has been his primary source of income – booking speaking engagements on college campuses. Arizona State University’s Global Sports Institute has invited him to discuss “defining oneself in the 21st century.”
It's Valentine's Day and it's raining in the Phoenix area. Inside Beus Center for Law and Society, Sam looks down at his notes. His arms bulge out of his dress shirt. Besides a handful of grey hairs, he looks like he could still play defensive end.
He starts his speech simply: “I’ve learned a lot about myself.”
It’s a brash understatement. It’s been five years since he publicly came out and then became the first openly gay football player drafted into the NFL. Five years since he burst into prime time with a one-on-one with Oprah, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, won an Arthur Ashe award for courage at the ESPYs and was one of GQ’s Men of the Year.
In early spring, 2014, he was an icon and all trajectories pointed upward.
But then he never played an official NFL game. Instead, he fizzled out of the public’s consciousness — pulled apart by pressure, bigotry and his own shortcomings. He fell into a cycle of drugs and alcohol until he nearly self-destructed.
So, did he learn a lot about himself? Sure, but it almost killed him.
At the podium, his speech is succinct, focusing on courage in the face of hate. He ends with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “One day we will stand on the mountaintop of history.” Afterward he takes questions from the audience and unleashes his charm. When asked about his appearance on “Dancing with the Stars,” he says, “I think I was probably a stripper in my last lifetime,” to a chorus of laughs.
He’s asked about coming out, then about playing for the Rams. It’s as if the audience wants to reminisce on those few months when the world seemed more hopeful, when Michael Sam nearly changed sports forever. But five years is a long time.
After the talk, he meets me at a bar across the street, inside the Sheraton. He has a relieved smile. He orders a cabernet, and live Jazz standards echo off the wall. The rain has stopped.
“So,” he says, “where should we start?”
Maybe the place to begin this story is at the bottom.
It was August 2016 — it’s hard to say what day exactly, it was mostly a blur then. Sam woke up in his Los Angeles apartment after a particularly long night and looked in the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot, with large bags under them. He looked unhealthy.
He’d arrived in L.A. a few months earlier with lofty ambitions. His NFL dreams might have been dead but he hoped to reinvent himself as a TV personality.
It started promising; he had interviews with a handful of large media companies. But then the callbacks didn’t come and the rejections piled up. And as they did, Sam dove head-first into L.A.’s seductive nightlife scene.
He drank, did hard drugs — MDMA and cocaine. He had many “associates,” but few friends.
After one night out, he got into a heated argument with a group of men, yelling and cursing — “I will lay your ass on the ground,” he screamed at one man. The scene was recorded and sold to TMZ. His shame mounted.
And so on that August morning, looking in the mirror, he knew he had to leave. He packed up everything, got in his Audi and headed back home to Texas. He wanted to call someone, but who? He rarely spoke to his best friends, the love of his life was moving on, and his family was estranged. To know him was to leave him.
Somewhere between Phoenix and Dallas, he was overcome by his emotions.
Growing up in Hitchcock, Texas, Michael Sam had a burdensome childhood. His father left home when he was 5. His older brother, Julian, who he calls his “protector,” went missing when he was 8. When Julian was pronounced dead in 2000, it marked the third child the family had lost.
One of Sam’s favorite memories from his childhood happened two months after Julian’s disappearance. Sam’s brother Christopher showed up with a trunk full presents for Christmas. His mother, JoAnn, is a Jehovah’s Witness and normally doesn’t celebrate holidays. But when Christopher arrived with all those gifts, it didn’t matter that they were stolen, for one day Sam felt like any other kid.
It was short-lived. Christopher and his other brother Josh became physically and emotionally abusive, says Sam, once burning his hand with an iron. He blamed his father and resented his mother.
“I believe she chose to ignore the horror going on in her household,” he says. “She didn’t want to lose any other kids and I understand that.”
Once on the football field, his anger became his greatest weapon, and he found security in a network of coaches willing to mentor him. Football was also his lone connection to his father, who would sit in the stands at Hitchcock High most games his senior season.
Sometimes he’d give Michael advice afterward. “I craved that love,” Sam says. Then he wouldn’t see his father until the next game.
At the University of Missouri, Sam found a “family” in his teammates. But he initially struggled with his sexuality, wondering if he was just “going through a phase.” By the time he met Vito Cammisano at a house party freshman year, he was secure with his identity but still unwilling to be open about it.
Their first date came two years later. It was a movie. It might have been “Sherlock Holmes,” but Sam was so smitten with Cammisano he can’t remember. “It was amazing,” Sam recalls. To avoid any rumors, they sat with one seat in between them. This became a contentious part of their relationship.
For months Cammisano, a swimmer at Missouri, would sneak into Sam’s dorm bedroom through a window. They broke up for a time, then reconnected. Sam knew the health of his relationship was contingent on owning who he is.
He started by confiding in Marvin Foster, his roommate and teammate.
“I knew Vito,” Foster said. “He really understood Michael.”
Before his senior season, Sam came out to his teammates during a bonding exercise.
With his newfound freedom and acceptance, Sam transformed from a middling player with seven career sacks into the SEC’s most ferocious defender, winning the 2013 conference defensive player of the year award.
After the season, one mock draft projected him as high as the 37th overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
Sam’s future seemed secure.
In the months leading up to the draft, Sam and his agents discussed waiting until after his first NFL season to publicly reveal his sexuality. Ultimately, though, they wanted to “own the narrative.”
On Feb. 9, 2014 via an interview with the New York Times, Sam announced to the world: “I’m gay.”
Two days later, his father spoke to the Times, disowning his son.
“I’m a man and woman type of guy,” Sam Sr. said, claiming that Deacon Jones, the Hall of Fame defensive lineman and a symbol of American grit, would be “turning over in his grave” at Michael’s announcement.
Sam read the quotes and tried to shrug it off, “That’s just the way he is,” he told friends. But he was crushed.
On the football side, some scouts began labeling him as a potential “distraction” for NFL teams, and one unnamed NFL executive claimed Sam would “chemically unbalance” a locker room.
Through it all, Sam remained undaunted.
“I thought the whole thing would blow over in a couple weeks,” he says.
Sam was in San Diego for the draft, flanked by Cammisano and Sam’s two agents. Through three days and six rounds they waited, his name yet to be called. The stress mounted. Sam began to doubt his decision to come out publicly.
Late in the seventh and final round, the St. Louis Rams were on the clock with consecutive picks. Before announcing their selections, general manager Les Snead called Demetrius Rhaney, a center from Tennessee State.
“We’re going to draft you with the second of these picks,” Snead told Rhaney. “But no one is going to remember because of the guy we take before you.”
The Rams selected Michael Sam with the 249th overall pick – the lowest a reigning SEC defensive player of the year has ever been selected, by more than 100 spots. Live TV cameras were focused on Sam’s reaction and when his name was called, he turned and kissed Cammisano, then playfully rubbed cake in his face. Social media exploded.
To some he was changing stereotypes as few athletes ever had. President Obama even tweeted his congratulations.
However, in a snap national HuffPost/YouGov poll, nearly half the respondents thought broadcasting the kiss was “inappropriate.” One journalist snidely asked if Jackie Robinson would ever rub cake on his wife’s face.
Dozens of reporters greeted Sam at Rams training camp. Everything from his three-point stance to his shower habits was critiqued. He did his best to tune out the noise.
“He came to work,” Snead says. “He played with a sense of urgency.”
During one intense practice, a frustrated Rams player lashed out at Sam, calling him a “faggot.” Practice was immediately halted.
While at Missouri, Sam had been targeted in a similar situation. A teammate berated him with homophobic language, and Sam became so enraged he walked off the field and went home. This time he stood his ground and seconds later was offered an apology.
“That moment was when I earned respect from my teammates,” he said.
In the fourth quarter of the team’s third preseason game against the Browns, Sam rushed off the edge and sacked former Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. He sprung up in pure elation, pumped his fist, then rubbed his fingers together, hands held high — mocking Johnny Football’s favorite celebration. By now the stakes were evident; Sam was playing for a silent minority he knew well.
“There are probably hundreds of athletes in the closet,” says Tyler Dunnington, a former baseball player in the St. Louis Cardinals organization who came out after he left baseball. “We were cheering on his every step.”
A week before the regular season began, the Rams cut him.
“You played really well,” head coach Jeff Fisher told him over the phone.
Despite being the only player who recorded at least 2.5 sacks that preseason (he had three) to not at least make the practice squad, Sam felt the Rams gave him a fair shot.
“They did right by me,” he says now.
Three days later, the Dallas Cowboys called and offered him a contract. It all seemed perfect, America’s Team set to usher in a new era of America’s game. Sam, however, lingered on the practice squad. After six weeks, team owner Jerry Jones called him into his office wrapped in mahogany wood and full of memorabilia and trophies.
“You ever see a Super Bowl ring before?” Jones asked, before handing Sam one. “Hopefully we can bring one to Dallas this year.”
Sam’s eyes lit up. Was this the moment he’d be called up to the 53-man roster? Then, like a pick-six, the conversation took a swift turn.
“Well, sit down,” Jones said. “We're going to have to let you go.”
Sam walked outside, his head still spinning.
“I was like, holy s---.”
The 2014 season ended and Sam hadn’t played an official down of NFL football. The next few months were a whirlwind. In January, while on vacation in Italy, Sam and Cammisano got engaged. Shortly after, he played in the NFL veteran’s combine but ran a poor 40-yard dash north of 5 seconds. (Although it was reported every athlete’s times at the combine were slow due to possible faulty equipment.) He then taped the next season of “Dancing with the Stars” in L.A.
Some criticized Sam’s choice to do the TV show at the perceived expense of his football career, but as he told a reporter in Dallas at the time, without football “this is my source of income.”
Meanwhile, Jim Popp, general manager of the CFL’s Alouettes, had been calling Sam’s agents for months pitching liberal Montreal as a logical landing place for the first gay professional football player. He offered Sam C$100,000, a hefty salary for a CFL rookie with no NFL experience. Cameron Weiss, one of Sam’s agents, helped convince Sam it was the quickest way back into the NFL.
In the fourth week of “Dancing with the Stars,” Sam performed to “Not My Father’s Son,” from the musical “Kinky Boots.”
It’s not easy to be this type of man
To breathe freely was not in his plans
At the end of the episode, the judges praised him for his vulnerability but he was voted off by the fans. A few weeks later he was on a plane to Montreal.
When Sam arrived in Montreal in May of 2015, Cammisano stayed back in Dallas. They had broken off their engagement but were trying to work on their relationship.
Ever since the “kiss seen round the world” on draft night, their relationship had been in the spotlight. Sam was no longer gay in the abstract sense, and vitriol came from everywhere – bigots, trolls, colleagues, even those within the LBGT community.
At Arizona State he told the small crowd this was, in part, “because I was dating a white guy.”
The crowd laughed.
“Oh, I’m serious,” Sam said.
Cammisano, meanwhile, felt the wrath from the other side. Was he just in it for status?
“It was f---ing exhausting and mentally draining,” Sam says.
As Alouettes training camp started, Sam struggled and The Montreal Gazette reported he was out of shape.
“I didn’t want to be in Montreal,” Sam admits now. “I felt like I had to do it for the community.”
By phone Cammisano encouraged him to “be strong,” but in mid-June Sam abruptly left for Dallas, telling management he needed to “go home.” The Alouettes kept him on the active roster, which would allow him to rejoin the team. Popp told the Gazette, “If he doesn’t come back, I would think football’s over for him.”
Two weeks later Sam returned and played in his first game — 12 snaps, no tackles. He had become the first openly gay CFL player in history, but he found it difficult to celebrate. His relationship with Cammisano was dissolving. To cope, Sam partied and drank, even the night before his first game.
A week after his lone appearance he left the team for good, tweeting that he was “concerned for his mental health.” Whether he was ready to admit it or not, his career was finished.
Sam moved back to Columbia, Missouri, next door to his best friend Foster, and got into a familiar routine. He took classes toward a master’s degree in sports psychology and worked out every day. He hadn’t made peace with football but was trying to move on.
To get a jump start on his next career, he reached out to the NFL’s player engagement department asking for help. The NFL flew him to New York and put him up in a hotel. Sam assumed it was leading to a job interview. He was given a tour of the league’s offices, “then they just sent me on my way.”
Frustrated, he left Missouri and headed back to Dallas. His communication with his college friends became erratic, he often ignored calls or he’d text back weeks later. When they did catch him on the phone, he could be antagonistic.
“[It was] him versus us,” Foster says.
Sam moved into the same house as Cammisano and hoped to work things out. “I felt like if I could get him back everything would be OK,” he says. But they lived in separate rooms and had separate lives.
That’s when Sam headed to L.A., and soon found himself staring into that mirror.
Four years earlier, during Sam’s junior year, while struggling with his decision to come out to his teammates, he and Cammisano got into an argument.
“Who do you see when you look in the mirror?” Cammisano asked him.
That question swirled in Sam’s mind as he packed his bags and left L.A. He thought if he could somehow answer that question – somehow change – he and Cammisano might work out this time.
But wherever you go, there you are.
In the fall of 2016, back in Dallas, he was a broken man. He became increasingly depressed and drank more. He stayed with Cammisano for a while but by then he had given up any hope of rekindling the relationship. He moved into a one-bedroom apartment and “brought the L.A. lifestyle” with him.
He reached out to organizations and companies in sports and the LGBT community but “no one would give me a job,” he says. “Where was the support that I got for coming out? I felt like I was used by everyone.”
He’d party at night, wake up and go to the gym, then sit alone in his apartment, doing lines of cocaine.
“I felt lost and worthless,” he says.
This went on for months.
In February of last year, at a Mardi Gras festival in St. Louis, some friends noticed he was struggling. One friend mentioned that he’d heard an ayahuasca retreat to the Peruvian Amazon could be life changing.
Sam knew almost nothing about ayahuasca but found online it was an extract with hallucinogenic properties mixed into tea used by ancient Amazonian tribes. Although in the western world it’s sometimes characterized as a fringe drug favored by hippies and new-age herbalists, it has recently become more popular with some mainstream neuroscientists as a way to break down emotional barriers and treat PTSD.
During these retreats strangers come together seeking some authentic truth about themselves that might be revealed while in their hallucinogenic states. The tea is administered under the direction of a shaman, and reactions are varied. Some report violent physical and emotional pain — nausea, vomiting and diarrhea — and mind-altering states. One man wrote he descended into a place where he was “watching a movie of every mistake I’d ever made.”
During the second evening, Sam sipped the tea and went into a trance. He was told to let go and be vulnerable. “It was as if my soul left my body,” he says. He won’t talk much more about his experience other than he found himself in the fetal position crying uncontrollably.
A few weeks later, in the summer of 2018, he backpacked alone through Europe and had a realization: “I can’t do this alone.” On his return to Dallas, he stopped hard drugs, joined workout groups and learned to meditate. He moved into a new apartment and began the long, arduous process of forgiveness.
He started by making a list of the people he held resentments toward.
He spoke to his brother Chris, who is now serving a 30-year prison sentence. Their conversation was brief. Chris, Sam says, began to say he was sorry for the abuse but partly blamed his behavior on their father.
“I don’t need an apology now,” Michael says. “As a family, we’ve been through a lot.”
He keeps in communication with his mother, Josh and sisters through a group text chat. He’s also reconnected with Foster and his best friends from college.
“We talk probably every other day,” Foster says.
Michael and Cammisano are now friends and, Sam says, at some point they’ll sit down and make amends.
Before Christmas, he texted his father and said he wanted to see him.
Sam, Sr. is now in an assisted living facility 25 minutes outside Dallas. He’s 57 and mostly confined to a wheelchair. Sam hadn’t seen him since his senior game against Oklahoma State five years earlier. Sam arrived at an expansive one-story brick building and his father led him inside. The conversation was terse. During most of the visit, they sat in silence watching a Dallas Cowboys game. As Sam got up to leave he told his father he loved him.
For Sam, the hardest person to forgive, perhaps, is himself. He’ll never be an NFL player and the trailblazer many thought he would be.
He tries to put his NFL experience into perspective.
“I wish I was still playing football,” he says, “but I know if I was in the NFL I wouldn’t have a relationship with my family.”
Nearing last call at the Sheraton hotel bar, the night of his lecture at Arizona State, the jazz has died down and just a handful of people are left at the bar. As he gets up to leave, Sam has a piece of news. “My father texted me today,” he says. “He wished me Happy Valentine’s Day.”
His eyes gleam. “It felt nice.”
He wishes me goodnight and heads to the elevator. He rose the following morning, and headed back to Dallas. Happiness is, at times, still elusive, but for now that’s OK.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he says.
Flinder Boyd is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.