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On February 8, sports publicist Howard Bragman threw a party at his house in Los Angeles, a private affair with a selective guest list of sports media, agents and retired athletes, all of whom shared a common mission: to help a gay pro athlete come out publicly.
Among those in attendance were Chris Kluwe, the recently retired Vikings punter and outspoken gay-marriage advocate; former Packers defenseman David Kopay, who came out as gay after retiring in the '70s; Billy Bean, a gay former MLB outfielder; former Ravens linebacker and same-sex marriage proponent Brendon Ayanbadejo; retired NFL cornerback Wade Davis, who also came out after retirement; and Cyd Zeigler, cofounder of Outsports, a website that covers LGBT issues in sports.
Dressed casually in jeans and a blue plaid shirt, Sam sipped on whiskey and showed the others pictures of his boyfriend. He appeared collected and in good spirits, despite the fact that tomorrow would be perhaps the most important day of his life.
"Michael's not the kind of guy who gets nervous," says Bragman.
They sat around Bragman's dining-room table eating Chinese food and Southern-style peach cobbler, which Zeigler had baked at Sam's request. Kopay punched Sam in the arm over and over, maybe a little harder than the 71-year-old realized, trying to psych him up for the hard road tomorrow would bring.
"You've gotta play," he recalls telling Sam. "Not only for yourself, but for other people."
Bragman silenced the room to make a toast. He first raised his glass to Kopay, his long-time friend, whom he called a pioneer for gay rights in the NFL. He then turned to Sam, who would be picking up what Kopay began almost 40 years ago. Kopay teared up.
After dinner, Sam, Zeigler and a couple of others continued the festivities at a karaoke bar, where Sam sang "My Girl" by the Temptations with Davis, Ayanbadejo and Zeigler on backup vocals, and then to the Abbey, a gay bar in West Hollywood.
The next day, the New York Times, ESPN and Outsports would run in-depth stories outing Sam as gay, and the story would ripple across the national news media. But on this February night in Los Angeles, Sam was still just another face in the crowd of a karaoke bar.
"It was just interesting," recalls Zeigler, "being with somebody who 24 hours later would be the biggest news story in the country, and no one — I mean no one — had any idea who he was."
The timing of Sam's announcement was not arbitrary. He had just finished his senior season playing for the Mizzou Tigers, where he was named 2013's SEC Defensive Player of the Year. In two weeks he would enter the NFL combine, a precursor to the draft where coaches and scouts observe prospects performing a series of mental and physical challenges.
"It was important for us that we come out before the draft," says Bragman. "We wanted teams to know what they were getting with Michael."
If, as is expected, an NFL team drafts Sam this week, he will be the first out athlete to ever play in the league. For other gay players who spent their careers in the closet, Sam's announcement marks a moment of hope and evidence that even in the hyper-machismo world of professional sports, attitudes toward gay people have evolved.
2014 is shaping up to be a historic year for gay rights in sports. Shortly after Sam's announcement, the Brooklyn Nets signed veteran NBA center Jason Collins, who came out in a Sports Illustrated cover story a year prior. Collins is now the first openly gay man to play in any of the four major U.S. sports leagues — NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB — earning him a spot on TIME's "100 Most Influential People" list. Just last month, University of Massachusetts sophomore Derrick Gordon became the first Division 1 basketball player to come out publicly.
"I think the takeaway is: Change has come pretty quickly," says Dan Woog, author of Jocks: True Stories of America's Gay Male Athletes. "And it's continuing. There's no turning back."
Outside of the four major U.S. leagues, many more athletes have been coming out in the past two years. Among the most notable are WNBA star Brittney Griner, British soccer player Robbie Rogers and boxer Orlando Cruz.
"We're just waiting for the next domino to fall," says Dave Pallone, a gay former baseball umpire and author of Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball. "I'm hoping it's going to be baseball. I'm really hoping."
But even with social change, there are still questions as to what lies ahead for these pioneering athletes in a culture where homophobia is far from extinct. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Vikings hired a team of investigators to examine Kluwe's claims that a special-teams coach regularly spewed homophobic speech on the field. Among Kluwe's allegations is that the coach once said in a special-teams meeting: "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island and nuke it until it glows."
@RiverfrontTimes only matters how he performs on the field; his sexual preference doesn't matter & shouldn't have to be publicly known
I look forward to the day he is called an athlete. Does he have a gay meal or gay cook or gay? Must we put labels on everyone?