A season of significance at Missouri

Michael Sam

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 3 Analytics Issue. Subscribe.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- In the days before he came out to his teammates last fall, Michael Sam had been both inspired and heartbroken. He'd told Marvin Foster, a 6-foot-1, 300-pound defensive lineman, that he is gay during a talk about relationships over cigars and Al Green. "Tell me more," Foster said, and they talked forever on one of the last summer days before their senior season at the University of Missouri.

"It was awkward at first," Foster said. "It was really awkward. There was no point for us to be awkward about something I already knew. Once he realized I didn't care about him being gay, he could talk to me."

But not everything was rainbows and sunshine for Michael Sam, because this is football, and these are young, testosterone-charged men. This past summer, he asked three of his teammates to accompany him on a trip to St. Louis. Missouri tight end Eric Waters said yes; the other two said no because, Waters said, they suspected Sam was gay and they were apprehensive about being alone with him.

Sam knew this, but didn't let any heartache show. What his teammates didn't know was that Sam was going to a gay pride parade in St. Louis, and he wanted them there to help celebrate who he was. Sam came out to Waters in a text message. "Dude," Waters replied, "it really doesn't matter who you are ... I will be there for you."

Soon, Sam would tell his team he is gay, and six months later, he would tell the world. Shortly after his announcement on ESPN and in The New York Times on Sunday night, teammates responded with a flurry of support through social media. They said they were proud of his courage.

Halfway through the platitudes, Waters couldn't take it anymore.

He took to Twitter. "Half of y'all posting these pics saying how proud you are," Waters wrote. "But most of y'all was the ones talkin s--- behind his back in the locker room."

Waters, who is currently training in St. Louis for the NFL combine, said repeatedly in an interview Monday that he did not want to draw attention away from Sam, his roommate and a man he feels so comfortable with that he occasionally turns to him for dating advice about women. Waters also doesn't want the story to be about him.

But eventually, some NFL team is expected to pick Sam in the draft in May, and another football player probably will come out, and perhaps the league will look at Missouri as the blueprint on how to handle a situation that some front-office types are anonymously saying will be dicey, if not impossible.

What happened at Missouri proved that it's not impossible. But it wasn't perfect, either.

"I want everybody to understand what it's been like for Mike," Waters said. "I want everyone else to understand that yes, it is an amazing thing, and it takes a strong individual to come out and be proud about who he is and tell the world about it.

"But now that this is so great, and everybody is jumping on his coattail, I want people to understand it hasn't always been like that."

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