Michael Sam and the Draw That Changed American Sports Forever
By Christopher Glazek
The first 15 minutes of the interview were excruciating. Sam refused to make eye contact with me. His answers were curt and nonrevealing. What was college like? “It’s a normal school.” How did you like living in Columbia, Mo.? “It’s a normal town.” He delivered his responses as rebuttals, swatting away my questions as if blocking kicks from a tedious adversary. He seemed especially determined to keep a lid on any details regarding his relationship with Cammisano. Do you go on dates? “Yeah, we date.” What do you like to do together? “We do what people who date do.” I was starting to understand why he won Defensive Player of the Year. The only information he volunteered was that he felt annoyed that the photo shoot had run over and thrown off his schedule. “I don’t like when the plan changes,” he huffed.
Desperate to turn things around, I started talking about myself and mentioned visiting a boyfriend in upstate New York. Suddenly Sam’s head perked up; for the first time, he looked me in the eyes. “Wait—you’re gay?” I wasn’t sure how this could have been unclear. “Uh, yes,” I replied, wonder- ing how he was going to take the news. “Oh!” he blurted, his voice rising five octaves. “And Aaron [Hicklin, Out’s editor in chief ]? Is he gay, too?” I nodded. His face melted into a smile; he inched his chair closer to the table and loosened the furrow in his brow. “I thought you guys were straight! That’s why I was giving you a hard time.” His eyes, which had glared with impermeability all through the shoot, suddenly started to radiate warmth and comradeship. Sam’s metamorphosis was so sudden and cartoonish, it suggested how much energy he was having to expend to protect his sexual orientation from people he feared would use it against him.
Whereas before Sam had refused to discuss his relationship, now he was busting out his phone and showing me pictures of his treasured man. I had seen some images of Cammisano online, but these were better. “Very cute!” I exclaimed. He was clearly used to such compliments, and clearly gratified by them. He responded, “Thank you, thank you,” in a practiced tone that reminded me of a politician trying to quell applause before launching into a speech. “I’m sorry about before — I just thought you were some reporter after a story. Some of those guys are vultures.” Sam may not have an effective gaydar, but he had a keenly developed sense of kinship. His entire adult life had been dominated by teams and, evidently, a binary vision of friend or foe. All it took was the word “boyfriend” for him to switch from lion to lamb, and to become not only cooperative but downright solicitous. “Have you still not gotten your tea?” he fretted. I hadn’t. He hounded the waiter and obtained my tea, but he was still worried. “Are you sure you don’t want lemon and honey?” He was a strong advocate of lemon and honey.
He then launched into his life story, skipping over the bad parts. His journey to the NFL started in the seventh grade, when his father, a long-haul truck driver who had moved to Dallas, prevailed upon his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, to let Sam participate in school sports (Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden from playing sports or doing anything that requires consorting with nonbelievers, such as sitting on juries and donating blood). In the beginning, he was just a water boy. By the time he entered high school, though, he was a starter on his school’s varsity squad. (“I kind of stood out from most of my teammates,” he later wrote in an email. “I started getting letters and visits from scouts and coaches from schools all over the place.”) At that point, he had no illusions about the NFL — he was just trying to get to college, something no one in his family had ever done.
After high school, Sam accepted a scholarship to play football at the University of Missouri. Though he was only a two-star recruit, his talent grew over his four years at Mizzou, as it’s affectionately known, and in his senior year he was unanimously voted a first-team All-American. “That was my goal all through college,” he said — it was the honor he was proudest of. All-Americans at Mizzou get their portraits painted, Sam explained, and he pulled out his phone again to show me his portrait. “When I first saw it I just stared at it for a while. That was my goal, and I achieved it.” Sam’s signature move as a Mizzou defensive end was executing an outside rush around an opposing offensive tackle. He was also known for his fondness for singing during practice. “I’d sing Madonna, Marvin Gaye — whatever came into my mind,” he said. “My coaches got used to it over time. They’d say, ‘That’s just Michael Sam.’ ”
Sam met Cammisano at one of the first big parties he attended in his freshman year. “We didn’t start off as huge fans of each other,” he says. It was a lingerie party, and Cammisano was dressed as a rabbit, his underwear amplified by a bushy white tail. Sam remembers the tail because when he first saw him, Cammisano was bent over the railing of a second-story garden deck, violently puking. “I went up to him to ask if he was OK, and he started cursing at me, screaming, ‘Fuck off — do you know who I am?’ ” A new kid at Mizzou, Sam wasn’t aware that Cammisano was a star swimmer. “I told him I didn’t care who he was. We didn’t speak again for two years.”
By the time they were reintroduced by a mutual friend during Sam’s junior year, Cammisano had come out as gay. Sam, though, was still in the closet. One night, the trio went out together to a bar. “I could see he was interested,” Sam said. “I bought him a couple of drinks, got us tipsy. Toward the end of the night, I put my arm around him, and it was over.” The two started dating, but Sam was concerned about his teammates finding out. “Everyone knew Vito was gay, so we couldn’t even be seen together. There was a lot of climbing out of windows.” Eventually, the two split. As time went on, though, Sam grew more comfortable with being gay and the couple got back together before Sam’s senior year. This time they made no efforts to hide their relationship, and Sam decided it was time to formally come out to his team. “Vito was really the person who showed me I had to do it,” Sam said. “I wanted us to be comfortable.”