(NEW YORK) — After University of Missouri football player Michael Sam came out publicly this weekend and announced he was gay, his teammates and fellow students at Mizzou said they had long known Sam was gay but kept the secret out of respect.
Sam, a senior defensive end at Mizzou who helped lead the Tigers to a 12-2 season in 2013, told ESPN’s Chris Connelly this weekend that he is an “openly proud gay man.”
Sam is an NFL draft prospect; he could become the first openly gay NFL player in history. He was also named the SEC defensive player of the year for the past season.
According to Tigers coach Gary Pinkel, Sam officially came out to his team in August 2013, ahead of his senior year season, and the team decided not to say anything about the news out of respect.
Pinkel said at a news conference Monday afternoon that Sam revealed his sexuality to his team during a team dinner at a coach’s house, where all team members were sharing information about their backgrounds.
Pinkel called the team’s handling of the news “remarkable” and attributed it a culture of family and respect they have worked to instill in the players.
“This past August, Michael was very direct with the team when he decided to let everyone know that he is gay,” Pinkel said in a statement on the school’s website Monday.
“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,” Pinkel said. ”He wanted to focus on football and not do anything to add pressure for him or for his teammates, and I think that’s a great example of the kind of person he is. We left it that whenever he felt the time was right, however he wanted to make the announcement, that we had his back and we’d be right there with him.”
Pinkel said Monday that the players were never told not to say anything. Instead, they collectively decided to not say anything to anyone outside of the team about Sam’s news.
Sam told ESPN that his team fully supported him when he told them the news.
“They took it great. They rallied around me, they supported me, and I couldn’t have asked for better teammates,” he said.
Sports Illustrated reported that many other students at the university also knew Sam was gay, and when he made his announcement this weekend students burst into cheers at local bars in Columbia, Mo.
Sam acknowledged in his ESPN interview that part of his decision to come out publicly was the realization that many other people already knew.
“I want to own my truth,” he told Connelly. “Two weeks ago at The Senior Bowl I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me or tell my story. I just wanted to control the situation and tell my story.”
The University of Missouri declined interview requests with Sam’s teammates Monday.
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