COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Michael Sam received a standing ovation when he appeared on the arena video boards during Missouri's basketball game against Tennessee on Saturday.
The All-America defensive end, who could become the first openly gay player in the NFL, later blew a kiss to the student section and shook hands with fans.
Sam and the football team were honored at halftime for their AT&T Cotton Bowl over Oklahoma State.
Wearing a shirt declaring "We Are All CoMo Sexuals," 51-year-old Michelle Carmichael joined more than a thousand others in forming a line of support for Sam. She didn't hesitate to answer why.
"Because Michael Sam stood up for Mizzou his entire career and we need to stand up for him," she said.
The shirt plays off the nickname of Columbia, Mo., where Sam announced to his teammates in August that he is gay. The NFL hopeful shared his sexuality in interviews with ESPN's "Outside The Lines" and The New York Times last Sunday.
A Facebook event created this week called for the community to stand together for Sam outside Mizzou Arena on Saturday. Nearly 5,000 people said they would attend, though not as many turned out in the 30-degree chill.
The gathering was done in part to drown out the Westboro Baptist Church, which had said earlier in the week that it planned to go to Columbia to protest Sam. According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, 15 Westboro members showed up Saturday, holding up signs with "derogatory slogans about Sam and homosexuality."
Mason Schara, the student body president who posted Monday on Twitter that he is gay, said the university always will treat Sam as one of its own.
"The majority of us knew and we just didn't think anything of it because that's just who we are here," Schara said. "The fact that there's been such a positive reaction across the nation is what sparked us to be here today."
The fervor surrounding Sam's announcement quickly died down on campus after coach Gary Pinkel and athletic director Mike Alden said Monday that they supported the 6-foot-2, 255-pound player.
Sam also had not been seen publicly this week before joining teammates and Pinkel at the basketball game.
Supporters weren't concerned that Sam's draft status might drop because of his sexuality, saying he should be judged by his numbers on the field. Others expressed hope that Sam will inspire more athletes to feel comfortable in coming out, because there will always be people who support them.
"I am hopeful that the NFL won't care about something like this," Schara said. "It doesn't matter about his sexual orientation. He's a great player and everyone would be lucky to have him."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.