COLUMBIA — Despite the headlines, talk show chatter and Internet buzz, Michael Sam is not a hot topic of conversation with the early morning coffee crowd at the Hy-Vee Cafe on West Broadway.
Coffee steams from mugs. The smell of bacon perfumes the air. And conversation wraps around the weather, friends who are under the weather, war stories, farming and pulling trucks out of icy ditches. Older men with hearing aids huddle around tables in their baseball caps — Ford, John Deere, Korean War Veteran, the P-38 Lightning fighter plane. Newspapers are scattered across tables, copies of USA Today in various states of disorder.
Michael Sam is all over the papers, a former Missouri defensive star now poised to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
Some customers prefer to leave it at that.
"Sorry, I’ve got an appointment to get to," says one, who leaves when asked his views on Sam.
Six men — mostly retirees with the hands of lives of hard work — share a table and are reluctant to talk. Initial questions are answered with long pauses and skeptical looks.
"I’ll give you my opinion, but I won’t give you my name," one finally says.
The conversation is slow to start, but when it does, it goes on for more than an hour.
"It’s been blown out of proportion," the man says.
"It’s above my pay grade,” says another. "I’ll let God be the judge."
A third says his wife had heard one of the anchors on KOMU talking about "LGBTQ." He’s confused about the Q, which some in the gay community say stands for "questioning" — a reference to people who are unsure about their sexual orientation.
"What does that mean?" he wonders.
Yet, another friend chimes in: "I just don’t see what big deal is."
None of the men will give their name. They understand why a lot of folks don’t want to talk publicly about their views on Sam or gays: They don’t want to be publicly ridiculed if they hold unpopular beliefs. They don’t want folks to think they’re narrow-minded. One of the men who still works says businessmen are reluctant to inadvertently offend some of their customers. Another says parents have to worry about the example they might set for their children.
But, they say the views of a bunch of conservative older men like themselves should come as no surprise. And, maybe the women who gather here a little later each morning will see things differently.
The women settle in. They, too, are hesitant to talk at first and won’t give their names. Of the four, only one — wearing a pink hoodie with "Mizzou" across the chest and matching pink shoes — knows immediately who Michael Sam is. The others soon figure it out.
The vibe here is different than with the men’s group. Although the women voice some similar ideas — "I don’t think it’s a big deal" — they characterize it differently. They didn’t understand why Sam had to come out, but what does being gay matter? People are people. They think some folks are just born that way. All that matters is what’s on the inside. "We’re all how God made us," one says.
It’s the publicity surrounding Sam that is more unsettling, they say. So, too, are "PDAs" — public displays of affection; doesn’t matter if it’s between two women, two men or two teenagers. They wonder why people have to be so public with everything — have you seen what folks post on their Facebook pages?
Not much more to say, but they suggest talking to another group that will stop in soon to claim their table. A group of retired coaches.
As promised, the coaches arrive and take over the round table. One of the women lingers to greet them and jokingly warns them of the coming questions. "There’s a reporter over there who wants to ask you about the Michael Sam thing, and we told him you’d talk with him."
Six men in their 70s and 80s pull up around the table, wearing big gold high school and college rings. A black windbreaker with the "Mizzou" moniker. A weathered gray MSHSAA (Missouri State High School Athletic Association) sweatshirt. One finally gives his name.
Bob Murrey is 85, a long-time Columbia resident and former MU baseball and basketball player.
"African-American, Jewish-American, Irish-American — we’re all American," Murrey says. "Why do we need all these labels? He’s (Sam) a helluva football player."
After college, Murrey coached high school baseball and basketball at both Hickman and Troy and served as St. Louis Community College-Meramec's athletics director. He says he doesn’t care about Sam being gay but acknowledges that his was a different era — gay players weren’t a part of his athletics experience.
Jack Miles, a 76-year-old former director of MSHSAA, joins in.
"I hope they (NFL players and personnel) don’t look at him (Sam) in a negative way," Miles says. "You wonder about a guy like that, why he had to come out — I hope he’s not setting himself up."
The other four coaches don't give their names but begin to add their perspective.
"Sexual orientation’s not an issue — they (gay people) just don’t know what they’re missing," one of them says, referring to heterosexual men enjoying the company of women.
"Never met a mean gay person," another adds.
The conversation returns to generational differences. They hadn’t known many — if any — gay people. Gay athletes weren’t around in their playing days as far as they knew. It was just a different time.
Three tables. Three groups of friends. A variety of views on whether Sam’s announcement was an affront, whether they were confused why he couldn’t lead a closeted life, whether they chalked up homosexuality as something of a different era. Yet all seemed to wonder this: What’s the big deal?
As some leave the cafe and others arrive, conversation centers on more everyday matters. Newspapers remain scattered about, filled with the news of Michael Sam.
Supervising editor is Jacqui Banaszynski.