College, obviously, is different. After practices at Missouri, players don't retreat home to their waterfront condos or wife and kids; they live together, in dorms or crowded houses with broken-down furniture ill-equipped to handle their ever-growing girth. The Tigers carried 127 men on their 2013 roster, which is bigger than some towns in Missouri and more than twice the size of an NFL team. They are not yet old enough to be jaded over contracts, escalators and bonuses. They throw around words like "brotherhood" and "family" as if they're not clichés, as if they didn't know that those words have been used a thousand times, as if they're real. Here, they have to get along. For most of them, this is the last football they'll ever play, the best four or five years of their lives.
Their story has been front and center since Sunday night, and the narrative is endearing: Sam tells his secret in August, during a team-building exercise, and 126 teammates proceed to keep their mouths shut for one magical 12-2 season. The Tigers win the SEC East, come within a quarter of the national championship game and beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. And Sam plays the season of his life, becoming a unanimous All-American and co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
"We actually became closer as a team probably because of it," said senior defensive lineman Brayden Burnett . "It's the same as if you get to better know a friend or a family member. You just have a feeling of closeness."
As NFL teams carefully ponder and analyze how they'd navigate having an openly gay player, they should consider this: That Michael Sam's sexual orientation probably wasn't the most pressing thing weighing on coach Gary Pinkel's mind at the start of the 2013 season. He was close to losing his job after going 5-7 in an injury-plagued 2012, a year in which his team looked as if it had no business playing in the SEC. That Pinkel, who is 61, from Akron, Ohio, and widely known as being an old-school coach, had no experience on how to handle an openly gay player when Sam came out in August.
But Pinkel knows players. He knew that Sam was widely respected, popular and one of the best players on the team. He knew he had a strong senior class full of leaders. He told the Tigers that if they wanted to be successful, they had to come together and protect their family members, everybody from the freshmen to the coaches to the video staff.
He leaned on his captains, and in the days after Sam came out to the team, he met with them daily, asking, "How's the team doing? What's going on?"
Pinkel changed, too. Faced with so much pressure, he let it go and loosened up. The most noticeable difference was at practice. At the urging of the seniors, Pinkel allowed the team to play music during warm-ups. In all of the years that any of them had known Pinkel, he'd never had music during warm-ups. The change allowed the players to be more relaxed and comfortable.
Pinkel trusted his team. He never asked them to keep Sam's announcement a secret, even though he knew if the news had leaked, it would've been a big distraction. He just told them to respect each other and protect each other. "Coach Pinkel didn't have separate meetings pointing out how we should handle it," senior offensive lineman Justin Britt said. "I think he kind of let us learn as we went along.