COLUMBIA — It’s nobody’s business.
It’s a sin.
Cast a net around mid-Missouri and you’ll find lots of opinions about the news this week that MU senior Michael Sam would likely become the first openly gay football player in the NFL.
Since Sunday, the president and first lady have congratulated Sam and his teammates, coaches and MU athletics department officials have applauded him.
But what do everyday people — cashiers and veterans and plumbers and truck stop workers — have to say? The Missourian sent 10 reporters in search of their stories:
Columbia Senior Center
It is almost bridge time at the Columbia Senior Center and few people are inclined to delay their games to discuss the week’s big news. Andrea McMillen, 65, wipes the corners of her lips and takes a moment to state her opinion with a sense of finality. She has short-cropped blond hair and wears a sparkly, nubby scarf to brighten her black sweater.
“Sexual orientation should have nothing to do with an athlete’s ability to play,” she says. “I commend Michael Sam for all that he has endured.”
Others begin to join in.
“My reaction is that there is too much reaction,” says Vickie Lanes, punctuating her comments with orange Doritos pinched between dark, polished fingernails. “What is the big deal? I can bet that there are some golfers who are gay.”
“It is just ridiculous,” Mary Rackers says. Her pink sweater and Barbie-pink lipstick contrast with the bluntness of her declarations. “I am tired of it.”
Joe Miller has stepped outside for a cigarette. His opening comment sounds almost rehearsed. “If you can’t do anything to me or for me, I don’t care. If he stays within societal boundaries, he’ll be fine.”
What does he mean?
“Just don’t hurt anybody.”
A moment of silence and then he leans in conspiratorially. “However, not everyone’s gonna feel that way,” he says, taking a puff. “The NFL’s gonna have a problem.”
— Contributed by Atiya Abbas
Breadeaux Pizza in Boonville
BOONVILLE — It’s 11 minutes to closing time at Breadeaux Pizza on a still Monday night. The brightest lights around are the stoplights at the intersections. The loudest noise is the door chime that signals brisk air rushing in as the last customers head home.
Kylie Hohensee sweeps the floor in wide, fluid motions, as she does at the end of every shift. Like many rural Missouri kids, she was raised in a Christian household and went to church on a regular basis. But at 16, she has formed her own opinions about homosexuality.
“I hate that people use my religion as an excuse to tell people what to do,” she says as she leans on her broom. “I mean, why is it any worse to be gay than to judge people for being gay?”
Her friend Holden Hinkle, 20, sits at a nearby table and sets down his slice of pizza. “Yeah, who cares if Michael Sam is gay?” he says.
Hinkle says that their parents often scold them for the way the younger generation lives. “But, at least I think, we have to make up our own minds about what we think is right or wrong,” he says.
— Contributed by Emily Adams
At the 63 Diner on the northside of Columbia, Larry and Leah Sullivent are finishing the last of their lunch: a BLT and a country-fried club, barbecue sauce on the side for the fries.
Leah, 54, isn’t a football fan but says she quit volunteering with Soldier’s Angels, the organization that does sewing and knitting to donate to troops, when the military decided to accept gays.
“I'm not ignorant,” she says. “I know they've probably been in there since Valley Forge. But now it's all in the open. My problem is, before the eyes of God, it's wrong. They don't understand that there are people who don't accept them. But we have to accept them? I don't think so!”
Larry, 62, says he has lost interest in football over the years. He’s sick of all the scandals and the general lack of morals.
“If I were running a team, I wouldn't want any of those guys on it,” he says. And when it comes to homosexuality, he said, “I'm 100 percent against it. It's not normal.”
The couple stress that they don't wish gay people any harm, but they don't want to know anything about their sex lives.
Leah says that societal changes don't matter. “In the end, the person they're going to have to answer to is the Lord Jesus Christ. Not to me, not to the president, and not to anyone in football. But to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
— Contributed by Miranda Metheny
Midway C-Store, Interstate 70
From his spot behind the convenience store counter, Trey Chisholm exchanges a few pleasantries with a customer: “How are you doing, driver?”
The woman responds in kind, her black beanie and blue-collared shirt signifying her status as a bus driver for Greyhound.
“I’m making it, I guess,” Chisholm tells her as he rings up her snacks for the evening ahead.
“You know what?” she replies. “That’s all we can hope for, right?”
Chisholm, 22, has been working full time at Midway C-Store on I-70 for almost a year now. He’s on a first-name basis with his regular customers, and he’s got smiles to spare for everyone who comes through the door. If former Missouri football player Michael Sam walked in, he would be welcomed wholeheartedly.
“He’s still a human being,” Chisholm says. “His preferences shouldn’t affect whether or not he gets drafted.”
Chisholm says he doesn’t understand why some men like other men, but it doesn’t bother him.
— Contributed by Tess Catlett
Tuesday is bingo night at the VFW, but not everyone is interested in filling the cards. Two men ignore the game to stay at the bar. They’ve followed the news of Michael Sam and dive into a brief debate.
“I think it’s his right to live his life,” says Dave Beem, 62. As surgeon for the post, Beem regularly visits members who are in the hospital.
Post commander Don Briggs, who is working behind the bar tonight, has a slightly more complex view.
“I’m a Baptist. It says in the book, you don’t do that,” says Briggs, 73. “But if he plays football and he’s a good football player, then let him play.”
The club’s volunteer cook, Fred Cole, overhears the discussion and walks over to join in.
“He’s put the NFL in a really bad position,” Cole, 63, says.
Cole and Briggs both speculate whether Sam timed his decision to increase his chances of being drafted in the early rounds.
“If he wants to make a platform out of this,” Briggs trails off, “that’s not right.”
Beem counters: “I don’t think there’s any ulterior motives.”
“It’s bullshit if he’s not drafted and then he files a discrimination lawsuit,” Cole says. “I have no problem with any of it, be it black, gay, whatever, unless they get special treatment because of that fact.”
Beem counters again.
“I don’t think he would do that,” Beem said.
Then Briggs puts a cap on it for all three of them: “It’s gotten so far-blown out of proportion.”
— Contributed by Ashley Crawford
Lucy's Bar & Grill, McBaine
McBAINE — Country music plays over the speakers at Lucy’s Bar & Grill as three patrons agree to disagree over Michael Sam’s public coming out.
Clad in sweatshirts, tan Carhartts, boots and baseball caps, they have bought each other bottles of Bud Light and share pictures of the 7-foot icicle a friend had pulled off a nearby barn earlier that evening.
Now Steve Squires, Chris Moore and Alan Jarman take a moment to debate the week’s top local sports story.
“I think it was very brave of him to come out and do it,” Squires, 34, says. “In today’s world, I don’t even think it should be a story. He’s good at what he does. Who am I to judge the guy?”
Moore, 32, agrees.
“Gay, straight, it don’t matter,” Moore says. “He’s a hell of an athlete.”
Moore played linebacker when he was a student at Missouri State University, then went on to play semi-pro for the Columbia Trojans and the KC Shockers. A knitted cozy with a Mizzou tiger on the front keeps his Bud Light cold.
Jarman, who at 53 is a bit older than the other two, has a different take. “There are supporters and nonsupporters,” he says. “I would be a nonsupporter.”
Jarman chalks up his discomfort with homosexuality to age and a conservative upbringing.
But Squires pushes back: “He was essentially the best defensive player in the country. If he doesn’t get drafted, what’s that going to look like for the league?”
The debate stays friendly. Squires, Moore and Jarman say they’ve known each other for as long as 20 years and have disagreed just as long.
— Contributed by Tracey Goldner and Hannah Baldwin
Walmart in Mexico
MEXICO, Mo. — This city has produced two NFL players: Jason Brookins, who played with the Baltimore Ravens in 2001, and defensive end Howard Kindig, who was drafted in 1964 in round 13 and went on to play for the San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.
Richard Herndon, 46, is at the Mexico Walmart to get a Valentine’s Day present for his wife.
“You’d be surprised how many football players are gay,” he says. “Now he’s out, probably a lot of others will be coming out.”
Herndon, who has a gay brother, says he believes it takes more courage to come out than stay in. And the fact that Sam is African-American will make openness even more possible.
“It doesn’t matter what community it is,” Herndon says.
Mike Easter, 65, came in for shampoo. He’s retired from drawing bridge plans for the state. He says he doesn’t hate anyone, but thinks Sam needs help and worries his public declaration will make other athletes think homosexuality is OK.
“I think it’s an illness that should be treated,” he says.
Jack Newell, 64, on the other hand, says Sam has “just as much heart” as anyone. Newell wears a Kansas City Chiefs jacket.
“Tell (Michael Sam) I say go all the way to K.C. to play,” he says.
— Contributed by Ally McEntire
Snoddy's General Store
NEW FRANKLIN — Chuck Hammers didn't think much of it when he heard on “Good Morning America” that Michael Sam was gay.
Hammers, 48, is a plumber and has stopped at Snoddy’s General Store in New Franklin on his day off for a two-liter bottle of Sprite.
"The whiskey's chilling outside," he jokes with another man at the check-out counter.
The white linoleum floors are smudged with dirt and scuff marks from tough-soled shoes. Big Smith overalls, nine-pound slabs of ribs, nearly 20 different brands of tobacco, electric deep fryers and six-pound cans of sweet corn are nestled within the store's aisles. There's a deli in one corner where the lunchtime crowd can buy sandwiches for $2.50 apiece. Pickle loaf, liver cheese, roast beef and smoked turkey are among the options.
Hammers and his family live in Boonville toward Columbia. He has two sons. One is a freshman at MU, and the other is a freshman in high school.
"I don't want my kids to be gay,” he says. “But if that's something they did, I guess I could understand it.”
Hammers' parents never talked about homosexuality. But Hammers' best friend's brother was gay — the only gay man Hammers would ever know, he says.
"We teased him a bit. Nothing was meant by it. He was a friend."
Then, Hammers says, "I packed him into his grave." The friend died of AIDs at age 25. That was in the late 1980s.
"He was a great guy," Hammers says. "He was just gay."
— Contributed by Madeline O'Leary
Ecco Lounge, Jefferson City
JEFFERSON CITY — Tuesday night at Ecco Lounge in Jefferson City means families settling in the red booths set against red brick walls. They’re celebrating anniversaries or maybe just settling in for a few winter hours in a warm building. A night at Ecco means bartenders and waitresses rushing to fill glasses and conversations.
Tattoo artist and California, Mo., native Shawn Pope stares ahead at his empty beer glass with its frothy remains. His brightly tattooed arms rest on the bar as he considers Sam’s news. Pope doesn’t mind talking about Sam, but he doesn’t think sexuality should be discussed in terms of his upcoming NFL draft.
“Honestly, I didn’t want to see some of the negative responses, so I didn’t even look into it," he says, as he closes out his tab and leaves for the evening.
A waitress speeds and sets two glasses in front of the soda fountain. As she fills the glasses, she says she doesn’t want to talk about Sam. But she has opinions and shares them anyway, with one hand perched on her hip as the other places a lemon slice on the edge of a glass.
“I don’t run around saying, ‘I’m heterosexual, I’m heterosexual,'” she says. “So, I think it’s a drag when somebody brings this up. I know it’s a popular subject, but it’s not a big deal. Just live with it. I am.”
— Contributed by Hilary Weaver
Lizzi & Rocco's Natural Pet Market, Columbia
Lizzi and Rocco’s Pet Shop’s employee Andrea Ward can tell you what to do when your cat gets fleas or what dog food is best for a dog on a diet.
She can’t tell you anything about sports, but she says she can relate to Michael Sam's struggle to tell everyone he knew a part of him he had previously been concealing.
Ward defines herself as queer and a part of the LGBTQ community.
“In the end, all Michael Sam has done is say, ‘Hey, this is who I like, but I am also an athlete, and this is what I have to do to be myself.’”
— Contributed by Rickelle A. Pimentel
Supervising editor is Jacqui Banaszynski.