By Ben Tinsley/TJP staff
DALLAS — No regrets.
That is the mantra of Michael Sam, who in 2014 was the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL.
Sam was the featured speaker Thursday, March 26 during the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance’s first Upstander Series presentation of 2015.
As many as 300 people attended the event at Communities Foundation, 5500 Caruth Haven Lane. It was sponsored by the Dallas Holocaust Museum, Congregation Beth El Binah, and The Dallas Morning News.
Sam’s discussion topics revolved around his life, his love for football, his brush with fame, and the mission that lies ahead.
“I am no longer doing this for myself to make my own dreams come true — I’m doing this for the youth, the kids,” he said.
Sam, 25, is a defensive end who played college football at the University of Missouri and publicly came out as gay after finishing his college football career.
He was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. However, the Rams cut him at the end of training camp.
Sam later spent time on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad before he was waived. As of press deadline, he remains a free agent.
But coming out the way he did gained him much attention. He received ESPY’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award and the Human Rights Campaign’s Upstander Award and was nominated as a finalist for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. Additionally, his newfound fame landed him a gig as a dancer in ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars.”
WFAA sportscaster Dale Hansen introduced Sam to the audience, explaining that the young player had a very tough childhood, growing up gay and black in Hitchcock, Texas.
When he was around 7 years old, Sam saw his brother die from a gunshot wound, Hansen said.
Later, Sam saw two brothers go to prison. Another brother simply “disappeared” in 1998. Then, an older sister died. These tragedies were further complicated by his parents’ split-up early in his life, Hansen said.
“He came from that environment to play for the University of Missouri to become the best defensive player in the Southeastern Conference — the best football conference in America,” Hansen said. “And he gets a chance to play in the National Football League. … This man is changing America. I don’t know if he’s wearing that crown happily but he has the chance to change America.”
Hansen said Michael Sam is building a better future “for our kids, our children, our gay friends in America who have had to hide in the shadows for too long. He has been able to shine a light on the path he travels.”
Steve Waldman, board chairman of the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance, compared Sam’s coming out to the societal accomplishments of Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Nelson Mandela.
“What a courageous young man,” Waldman said.
During his comments, Sam noted the contributions of another frontrunner — Kenneth S. Washington, a contemporary of Jackie Robinson’s who was the first African American to sign a contract with an NFL team.
“He paved the way for thousands of black players,” Sam said.
Unfortunately, Sam said, there still is anger and hate against gays in America — sometimes in eye-opening fashion.
The so-called “Sodomite Suppression Act” a proposed California anti-gay ballot measure that calls for executing gays with “bullets to the head.” The measure was submitted to the state by a nonelected attorney Feb. 26.
“In 2015, someone is really looking to pass a ballot to kill a group of people,” Sam said. “ … The moment we let hatred and violence exist in our society we become weaker as a people.”
A tough, risky decision
Sam also discussed his new fiancé Vito Cammisano, the relationship with whom he initially tried to conceal from others when he was keeping his sexuality a secret in college.
“We couldn’t do the same thing as my teammates who brought their girlfriends to dinner,” he said. “We had to do everything privately or not at all.”
Ultimately, Vito Cammisano refused to be treated like a dirty little secret, which led directly to Sam’s decision to come out.
“He told me, ‘I will not hide in your shadows ever again — I will not live a lie in my life,’” Sam said.
Touching on the subject of his family, Sam said his father made some remarks about him in The New York Times that he found offensive. He said it compelled him to put some distance between them.
“I still love him but I can love him from afar,” he said.
Sam’s brothers in jail tried to reach out to him when hearing of his success at football, but he was wary because he still has bad memories about being physically beaten by them as a child.
Also, he had trouble coming to terms with his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, about his football playing. She didn’t approve of it because of her faith.
After Sam concluded his written speech, he took several questions from the audience.
Max Glauben, a Holocaust survivor and member of the Dallas Holocaust museum board, praised the young football player’s courage in coming forward.
“Does the audience even realize what a brave act this was?” Glauben asked. “I want to thank God we live in a country where it is possible. Holocaust survivors had to live in the closet and do things without letting anybody know we were Jewish because it was a death sentence. I’m really proud I do live in a country that allows freedom of speech, assembly and religion — that we can act this way or any other way we want to act and still be able to survive.”
One audience member asked Sam if he would disclose how many NFL players are “in the closet.”
Sam declined to speculate, but also responded he is not the only gay person in the NFL.
“There are a lot of us,” he said. “I respect the players who did reach out to me and have the courtesy to tell me that they are also gay.”
Sam said coming out before he had even “played one down in the NFL” was certainly risky, but he didn’t think it was that big a deal at the time.
“Maybe I was naive,” he said. “There are players who have reached out to me and told me about their sexual orientation; I would never tell anything about who they are or what teams the play for, but there are some famous people; I’m not the only one.”
When Sam came out while in college, his teammates pretty much already knew he was gay because they had been around him so much for so long and knew him better than he realized, he said.
Questions from audience
Ultimately, one audience member asked Sam point-blank if he didn’t get drafted in the NFL because team owners were colluding against him.
“Am I not in the NFL because I’m gay?” Sam responded. “I don’t like to think that way.”
Sam touched on his current employer, the ABC program “Dancing With The Stars” and his dancing partner/drill instructor, Peta Murgatroyd.
“She is tougher than any of my coaches,” he said with a sly grin.
Having Sam as a featured speaker attracted quite a bit of attention, said Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance.
“A few people have written letters or posted things on Facebook to ask us how this fits in our mission,” she said “It’s a really easy question to answer: The mission of the museum is to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and to teach the moral and ethical response to hatred and indifference for the benefit of all humanity. Where else would you expect this talk?”
The next featured person during the Upstander Speaker Series installment June 4 will be Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich.