Michael Sam's safe havens

Michael Sam

HITCHCOCK, Texas -- From inside Galveston County Jail, where he's awaited trial since his January arrest, Josh Sam caught clips of the interview, rebroadcast on local news. It surprised him to hear his brother was gay. It surprised him to hear it in such a public forum. But as he watched, Josh Sam knew something clearly.

The fact that his brother was on television, the fact that the world cared about his announcement, the fact that Michael Sam might soon become the first openly gay player in the NFL meant something good. It meant his little brother didn't follow his wayward example.

"If I was talking to him now, I would tell him I don't judge him," Josh Sam said, his voice heard through a television monitor by which he can speak with visitors. "I'm proud of him for not becoming like me. I still love him, whatever his lifestyle is. He's still my brother and I love him."

Following a path like that of his brothers, Josh and Chris, both in Galveston County Jail, would have been easy for Michael. He spent his childhood watching his older brothers struggle with family tragedies and peer pressure. The kid they called Mikey at home didn't want any part of that life.

"Growing up was very hard, very hard to see the things that I saw," Michael Sam said in the interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines," during which he first announced his sexual orientation. "Police coming in our homes, for my brothers, arresting them. I accidentally got maced before as a kid. ... It was hard. It was scary. No kid should ever have to see that or go through that. Being who I am now, I knew that I didn't want to go down that road like my brothers. I wanted to make a name for myself, and so I surrounded myself with good people, and I played sports, and football was my safe haven."

Some greeted Sam's announcement awkwardly in his hometown of Hitchcock, Texas. The school district hesitated to grant interviews, eventually and reluctantly making football coach Craig Smith available to several outlets. The day after Sam's announcement, the district released a statement saying how proud it was of Sam's football accomplishments and that he called Hitchcock home, never mentioning anything about his being gay. All day reporters and cameras had descended upon the normally quiet town.

But those who knew Michael Sam best barely even reacted. To them, the hubbub was far more perplexing.

They saw him survive and thrive despite an environment that could have meant an early death or imprisonment. They saw the gregarious kid who was always singing something or another succeed where even some in Hitchcock didn't think he would. They saw him develop the kind of strength he needed to become a pioneer.

Hitchcock, with approximately 7,000 residents, is a town in which it's not uncommon to see a horse or a cow in a yard or hear a rooster crowing as you pass. The median income is about $29,000, and homes average $128,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. City Hall is a small, brown building on Highway 6, one of two major roads that cross through a town that's part of a heavily conservative region.

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