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February 10, 2014

Mizzou reaction to Sam's story

For those at Missouri, Sunday night was not the revelation of a bombshell. Michael Sam's statements to ESPN and the New York Times that he was gay were, rather, the culmination of a story that has been known around the Tiger football team for months.

"I had no idea when it was going to happen," Gary Pinkel said. "From talking to him last week when he was here, he was down at the Senior Bowl and it was known by most people that he was gay. He wanted to tell his story. I think it's a great statement about Michael Sam. He wanted to tell his story and it came from him.

"Last night when he said on ESPN 'I'm a college graduate, I'm African-American, I'm gay, it was awesome. That was very important to me to see that."

One word was used more than any other at Monday afternoon's gathering of Missouri officials.

"I've used this term a lot," Director of Athletics Mike Alden said. "I was just really proud. I was really proud of Michael. I was very proud of Mizzou."

"To the point of tears, I'm proud," Struby Struble, Mizzou's LGBTQ Resource Center Coordinator said. "I'm just thrilled with how it's happening. I'm so proud to hear that he was out to his team and coaches for so long and they didn't out him, they didn't make it a controversy, they kept it focused on football. He's a football player. He's also gay, but that's not the only thing about him. He's a first generation college student. He's an African-American man. I just think it's amazing."

"I've met Michael and I'm very proud of him," basketball coach Frank Haith said. "I'm proud of our University. What it says is that we have tremendous leadership, also, within our football program. What Gary has done with that locker room, keeping that locker room the way he held that locker room, it says a lot about him. The way our University's handled it, I'm very proud to be a part of this University."

"I had tears in my eyes," Pinkel said. "It was very special. It took a remarkable amount of courage to do that and I'm very, very proud of him."

Everyone present said that Sam had the support of the school, the athletic department and the football program to make his announcement when he wanted to make it. Had that been before the football season, or in the middle of it, Missouri coaches say they would have been on board.

"He came in and I told him, 'Michael, I'm really proud of you and I love you' and I hugged him," Pinkel said. "What do you want to do? You want to announce this? What are you thinking? We kind of discussed scenarios with him. Ultimately, without question, it's your decision and you think about it tonight and let us know tomorrow. He came in the next morning, as I recall, and he said, 'Coach, I don't want a distraction here. I want to focus on winning football games and for the team to have their best year and me to have my best year.'

"We honored that and I said, 'Whenever you decide to do it, whenever it is, you just let me know and you have 100 percent support."

"Obviously it's such a big story that it now would not be about the team," defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. "I think that's why he waited as long as he waited. We would have done it any way, I mean, there was gonna be a splash whenever it happened. This is what he chose to do."

That Sam waited, though, may have given Sunday's declaration even more weight. This was not Michael Sam, two-star defensive end, known to Missouri fans and a few other die-hards. This was the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous all-American telling the world he was homosexual.

"The stereotype about gay men is that they couldn't even hold a football. It would just fall out of their hands," Struble said. "There are such negative stereotypes about gay men and their ability to be athletes. This really just blows this out of the water. He is Defensive Player of the Year and he's gay. That doesn't affect his ability to play."

"We lived it," Pat Ivey, Missouri's Director of Strength and Conditioning said. "Fear drives a lot of the conversations that are out there right now. The fear of the unknown. For us, we don't have any fear. We know Mike, Mike knows us. For the next athlete that comes out at Mizzou, good for them.

"It's inspirational to a lot of people."

"That's an interesting twist of fate," defensive line coach Kuligowski said. ""He told me personally he did not want to be a distraction to our team. He didn't know when he was going to make an announcement. He knew it would be big. Then to have such a great year after that, wow."

The question now becomes, what happens going forward? Do the last 24 hours impact Sam's draft status and his future in the National Football League?

"I think there's a lot of misunderstanding of what really goes on in locker rooms," Ivey, who played for the Broncos and Chargers, said. "There are people assuming that Michael Sam is not a tough person. That would be a mistake. He is mentally tough, he is physically tough. There are people assuming that he would not be able to handle himself in an NFL locker room. No one can tell you the NFL locker room and an SEC locker room. No one can tell you that difference. It's the same guys. They're just really good football players.

"People are making assumptions about locker room culture and they don't really know. They've never been in an NFL locker room or a college locker room and so they don't know how Mike is gonna do. He's gonna do well."

"I think in today's society that the NFL is a business. The bottom line is what can you do for this business, what can you do for our team?" Kuligowski said. "I think it's almost a non-issue to be honest with you. People are making it an issue. I've gone through it and, yeah, it ended up being a non-issue. Once the initial splash is made, it's over."

"I'm sure the next conversation I have with a scout, it will be filled with a lot of that," Ivey said. "All I've talked about up until now is Michael's character as a person, Michael's work ethic, Michael's tangibles. His speed, his quickness, his athleticism.

"He has a way to win people over...Once they get past the notion of what's it gonna be like in the shower, once they get past all of that, I think guys in the locker room are understanding. Like I said, when I was in an NFL locker room, it was talked about. So it is not as taboo as it may be perceived."

Maybe a little bit less so today than it was on Sunday morning.

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