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Top NFL prospect Michael Sam says he's gay (w/video)

  • SEC Defensive Player of the Year and AP All-American Michael Sam, from the University of Missouri, could become the NFL's first openly gay player. (DARRON CUMMINGS / Associated Press)

Coaches at the University of Missouri divided players into small groups at a preseason football practice last year for a team-building exercise. One by one, players were asked to talk about themselves — where they grew up, why they chose Missouri and what others might not know about them.

As Michael Sam, a defensive lineman, began to speak, he balled up a piece of paper in his hands.

“I'm gay,” he said.

With that, Sam set himself on a path to become the first publicly gay player in the National Football League.

“I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out,” Sam said Sunday in an interview with the New York Times, the first time he has spoken publicly about his sexual orientation.

Sam, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound senior, went on to a stellar season for Missouri, which finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He was named a first-team All-American. He was the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered the top league in college football. Teammates voted him Missouri's most valuable player.

Now Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.

As the pace of the gay rights movement has accelerated drastically in recent years, the sports industry has seen relatively little change, with no publicly gay male athletes in the NFL, the NBA, the NHL or MLB. Against this backdrop, Sam could become a symbol for the country's gay rights movement or a flashpoint in a football culture war — or both.

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