COLUMBIA — Michael Sam needed advice.
The day after telling his Missouri teammates that he is gay, Sam knew it wouldn't be long before he would come out publicly. That's when he went to coach Gary Pinkel's office and consulted the coaches about how he should handle the situation.
Sam never hid his sexuality. He was often seen at a gay club in Columbia and had told select teammates about his sexuality before coming out to the entire team on Aug. 15. But as more and more people found out and Sam grew in prominence as a player, he realized it was all building to the moment on Sunday night when he announced his sexuality publicly for the first time in an interview with ESPN.
"It was Mike’s decision to do this on his timeline," strength and conditioning coach Pat Ivey said on Monday. "No one forced him to do this. This was his decision. He consulted with us, absolutely. He said, 'What do you think? What do you think are the pros and the cons? What are the ramifications?' And so we would be open and honest: 'Either way, Mike, we’ve got your back. However you want to do it.'"
On Sunday night, Sam was prepared. He was eloquent as he answered questions, comfortable with who he is and aware of and prepared for the challenges he would face.
Back in August, Sam wasn't ready to be in the spotlight as he has been since the announcement on Sunday. He wasn't ready to be the subject of every talk show or to drag his teammates into that spotlight with him. Sam didn't want to be a distraction.
Pinkel said he had a conversation with Sam and asked him how he wanted to handle the situation. He wanted to see how Sam was feeling and make sure he knew that regardless of when he decided to make the announcement, he had the support of the entire athletics department.
Sam decided to wait.
“I don’t care what anybody says, that was 100 percent his choice,” Pinkel said. “Whatever he decided, we were going to do and that’s fact. Anybody that says anything different hasn’t done their research or is not telling the truth.”
For Sam, coming out to his teammates was enough. His burden lifted, a new Sam began to emerge.
“Mike, we like you a lot better since you came out,” teammates said, according to Ivey, who also noticed a change in the senior.
“I think what that meant is he was able to be himself 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and didn’t have to worry about who was thinking something or who was knowing something,” Ivey said. “I think he sang a bit louder. The team would ask him, ‘Mike, would you lead us in a song? Can you do a performance for us?’”
After Sam came out to him last April, the strength coach was not sure how the team would receive the news. When the team accepted Sam, football was once again the only thing on his mind.
"I think his ability to focus and get that off his plate — and he also had his teammates embrace it — which from a confidence level, I think had to make him feel like a million bucks," Pinkel said. "It allowed him to play freely and focus and have his best year."
Sam's on-field success helped further strengthen the bond with his teammates.
“He protected the team by doing his job,” Ivey said. "He protected the team by being the team MVP and co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He protected the team by bringing his best every Saturday. And so the team protected him in return.”
But what if Sam wasn’t one of the best defensive players in college football? Would he still receive the same level of protection from his teammates?
“That’s a tough question,” Ivey said. “I would hope that athletes — maybe current or in the future that may not be all-conference, All-American players — that they would still be comfortable in our environment.”
The fact remains: Sam was excellent on the field. And Ivey, who played in the NFL with the Chargers from 1996 to 1997, thinks that certainly helped Sam succeed in the locker room while being openly gay.
Taking the next step to the pros will be a well-documented challenge for Sam, who will need to win over his new NFL teammates.
“Once they get past the notion of, ‘What’s he going to be like in the shower?’ ... Once they get past all of that, guys in the locker room are very understanding,” Ivey said. “When I was in an NFL locker room, it (homosexuality) was talked about. So it’s not as taboo as how it may be perceived.”
No matter what comes next, it's clear that Sam was happy with how things went at Missouri. On Monday, his former coaches stood in a luxury box overlooking Faurot Field, where fans had drawn the letters 'S' and 'A' in snow, in front of the Rock M. They proudly answered questions about the man they watched go from a two-star recruit to an All-American and weren't hesitant in voicing support.
"Fear drives a lot of the conversations that are out there right now," Ivey said. "It's the fear of the unknown. For us, we don’t have any fear. We know Mike. Mike knows us."
Across the room, Pinkel could have stuck to the statement he released Sunday night. He could have stood in front of a crowd of reporters, said what he wanted to say and left.
Instead, he woke up Monday and said a prayer. He drove to Faurot Field on Monday afternoon and answered every question. He spoke about Sam, he spoke about football, and he spoke about acceptance.
"This isn’t just about Mizzou," Pinkel said. "This isn’t about one player making a decision to make an announcement. This is going to have a profound effect, I think, on sport, certainly initially. And hopefully it will trickle down to everyone that we’re all different, and we have to respect people."
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.
Former Missouri defensive end and last season's SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam, came out publicly as gay on Sunday. Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel and athletics director Mike Alden spoke at a news conference Monday afternoon.