Students were filled with both tears and cheers when Michael Sam, the first openly gay athlete drafted by a major American sports league, spoke at the University of New Mexico on Tuesday night.
The public speaking event was held in the Student Union Building ballrooms, where hundreds of students and community members gathered to hear Sam tell his life story.
“I have an amazing opportunity to share my story and going around the nation to do that,” Sam said in an exclusive interview with the Daily Lobo.
Sam began his speech by addressing the struggles he faced as a child. Three of his siblings died or disappeared, his father left his family and he was abused by his other brother as well. He described the vivid detail the dangerous environment he grew up in.
“Our house was pretty much a crackhouse,” Sam said.
During high school, Sam turned to football as a tool to get him into college and escape his hometown in Hitchcock, Texas. He eventually went on to play football at the University of Missouri.
It was in Columbia where he began his journey coming out.
“I didn’t have the opportunity in Hitchcock to explore my sexuality,” Sam said.
Sam explained that he didn’t plan on coming out until after college, but that changed when he began dating Vito Cammisano, another student at Mizzou. In one instance, Sam describes running into one of his coaches when he and Vito were eating at a restaurant.
“I knew that he knew,” Sam said.
Eventually, Sam came out to the rest of his teammates before his senior year, during which he earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and then came out to the world just before the NFL Draft. He said he expected to be drafted in the late second round — he ended up being drafted in the seventh round, one of the last picks that year.
After Sam had been drafted, he kissed Cammisano, which ended up being covered and talked about more than him being the first gay athlete drafted by a major sports league.
“Who the hell was I supposed to kiss?” Sam said.
He would later be cut by the Rams and the Dallas Cowboys. After a brief stint with the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League, he retired from football. He said he became depressed as a result of the experience.
Coinciding with his talk’s overall theme of resilience, Sam said that learning to forgive those who wronged him, such as his family and the NFL, and becoming a more spiritual person helped him through this difficult period. He told the Daily Lobo he considers his speaking management company, Keppler Speakers, to be his greatest mentor because they were able to help him tell his story to the world.
Perhaps the most emotional part of the meeting came during the Q&A section after Sam finished speaking. One student, Nadia Mata, asked Sam how he knew he had finally accepted his sexuality, adding that she still struggled with the shame and regret that LGBTQ people often feel when they come out. Sam cited his relationship with Cammisano as a primary factor.
“That’s all we’re here to do, is to give love and feel love,” Sam said.
He then hugged Mata, which was followed by a roaring applause from the audience.
“It almost felt like acceptance,” Mata said of the hug. “It’s something a lot of LGBT kids don’t get a lot of.”
The event was sponsored by Student Special Events, Residence Hall Association, the UNM Feminist Research Institute, UNM Fraternity and Sorority Life, the LGBTQ Resource Center, Division for Equity and Inclusion and the Women’s Resource Center.
According to the contract with Keppler Speakers, the total cost for the even was $9,000.