Update: Includes comments from Cyd Zeigler, publisher of outsports.com and comments from Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel.
COLUMBIA — Missouri defensive end Michael Sam has a challenge in front of him.
He already went from being a two-star recruit out of Hitchcock, Texas, to an All-American and the 2013 Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year. He was the breakout star on a Missouri team that reached the SEC Championship game in 2013.
Now, Sam is preparing for the 2014 NFL Draft, which could be his biggest challenge yet. After announcing publicly Sunday he is gay, Sam is attempting to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
"This is the most important story in the history of gay sports," said Cyd Zeigler, publisher of outsports.com, a website that covers gay sports.
"This is going to dominate headlines and really change how people see football and all of sports."
Sam, who is projected as a mid-round pick in May's NFL Draft, could become the first openly gay athlete in the NFL — or any major American professional sport.
Sam first came out to his team during fall camp in August and played the best football season of his life in 2013.
"We're really happy for Michael that he's made the decision to announce this, and we're proud of him and how he represents Mizzou," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement.
"Looking back, I take great pride in how everyone in our program handled his situation. This past August, Michael was very direct with the team when he decided to let everyone know that he is gay We discussed how to deal with that from a public standpoint and ultimately Michael decided that he didn't want that to be the focal point of the season."
Sam entered his senior season with 17 career tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. As a senior, he led the SEC with 19 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.
After fall camp, Sam stopped doing interviews with the media in an effort to focus on school and football. His 2013 success suggests the decision paid off. In a span of four games during September and October, Sam collected three sacks in three different games and returned a fumble for a touchdown in Missouri’s upset victory over Georgia on Oct. 12.
On Jan. 25, Sam competed in the 2014 Senior Bowl, a postseason all-star game showcasing the best senior prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Sam recently hired publicist Howard Bragman, who is openly gay. Bragman has represented LGBT athletes, including three-time Olympic women’s basketball gold medalist Sheryl Swoopes and retired NBA player John Amaechi, according to OutSports.com.
Sam is scheduled to participate in the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis from Feb. 20 to Feb. 25. ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a conference call last week that he expects Sam to be drafted between the third and fifth round.
Sam attended Hitchcock (Texas) High School. The 6-foot-2, 255-pound defensive end was a member of the Missouri team from 2009 to 2013. He redshirted during the 2009 season.
Sam is one of at least 10 former Division I football players to come out as gay after his college football career. No Division I football player has come out during his college career, according to OutSports.com.
The only Missouri athlete to previously announce publicly that he was gay is four-time All-American diver Greg DeStephen, who dove for Missouri from 2006 to 2010. DeStephen came out in 2008.
“I would like to congratulate Michael and say how inspiring his courage is to come out publicly,” DeStephen told the Missourian on Sunday. “I wish him the best. I hope this sends the message that the sports world is becoming an inclusive environment that allows athletes to excel no matter who they are or what they are. Young athletes will now be able to see that they can be top athletes gay or straight. I can’t say how excited I am that a Missouri Tiger has taken it on himself to be the first top level football player to come out. I’m proud to say that I am part of the Missouri Tiger family that has created an atmosphere of acceptance and a tradition of excellence.”
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.