THE BLOG
02/18/2014 12:01 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Coming Out on the Gridiron: A Reflection on My Own Story After Michael Sam's Brave Announcement

Last week, I started receiving messages from friends alerting me to a momentous story that had just gone public. Michael Sam, the top-notch University of Missouri football player who is expected to be a top NFL prospect, acknowledged publicly that he is gay. It immediately took me back to the moment I decided to make the same decision and reveal that I was gay, and I realized how much things have changed in some ways, but haven't in others.

Nearly 15 years ago, I came out to my high school football team in a small town about 30 miles north of Boston, Mass. I had just turned 17-years-old and had just been elected as the team's co-captain.

I had known that I was gay since I was 12-years-old, but when I fully comprehended what that meant a couple of years later, I fell into a deep depression. I went from being a high achieving student to nearly failing my classes. I isolated myself from my friends and family, hiding in my bedroom after school each day, except for when football season came around.

I was always a stand out athlete. I felt like I belonged on the field, strengthened by my teammates and confident in my abilities. I played basketball, baseball, lacrosse, wrestling and football. But it was football that became my passion and my safety net.

I had never seriously considered coming out to my family, my teammates or the 1500 kids that attended my high school. There were no openly gay students at Masconomet Regional High School. A year before I made my decision, the nation had mourned the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.

I was sick of hiding and of the despondent state I was in. While sitting in class one day, on a whim, I decided that I was going to tell my mother when I got home from school. She had always told me she loved me unconditionally and that I could tell her anything. I still relive that cold winter day when I asked her if we could go for a ride. She looked puzzled because that wasn't something we would normally do. I came out to her while we were driving down the highway. We both cried and she reiterated that she loved me unconditionally. I said, "But mom, I was just elected captain of the football team," to which she replied, "So what Corey, that doesn't matter, you can still be gay and be a great football player."

My family's acceptance gave me some self-confidence. I decided to attend a conference for LGBT youth at Tufts University near Boston.

That day changed the rest of my life. I saw young people my own age who were openly gay, happy, smiling, laughing and not afraid to live their lives as they were. On the bus ride home, I decided that I didn't have to hide anymore and that I wanted to live my life without shame.

My family was loving, but scared for my well-being, as was my guidance counselor, my teachers and the administrators at my school. They advised me against coming out. But there was no turning back. I had made my decision and I told them I needed them to be optimistic because I needed their help and in the end, they all stepped up and supported me.

Like Michael Sam, I was scared to come out to my teammates and was surprised at their reaction. My teammates, like Michael's, just wanted to play football and win, as did I.

And like Michael, I enjoyed my senior year as an openly gay co-captain of the team. I did not expect any fanfare to come of it; I just wanted to be honest about who I was and be accepted.

Michael Sam knew that his story would be significant, given the increased media focus on having a professional athlete be out and in his case, coming out before he was drafted by an NFL team.

On my 18th birthday, the New York Times ran a front-page story profiling my story. A couple of months later, Anderson Cooper told my story to the nation on ABC News' 20/20, and after that, Rick Reilly used his back page column in Sports Illustrated to praise my teammates and coach for their acceptance of me.

After a year-and-a-half spent traveling the country and sharing my experience, I decided I didn't want to be known as the gay football player. I moved to New York City and got in involved in politics, hoping to shed that label.

I've always said that homophobia would not be solved in sports by one silver bullet, by one respected professional athlete coming out. It was and still is my belief that change will come from the bottom up, from high school and college players being open about who they are.

My story and Michael's are similar in many ways, but starkly different in others. Michael is an African-American man who grew up in the South and was raised in a difficult family situation. I grew up in closely-knit Irish-Catholic family in a progressive state where strides were already underway for gays and lesbians. And Michael is about to become a NFL player, a tremendously larger spotlight than a high school football player in a small town.

Michael Sam's story and coming out marks a seminal moment in professional sports and in gay and lesbian history. Much has changed since 1999 -- marriage equality exists in 18 states, LGBT people can now serve openly and with honor in the United States military, and now it appears that the NFL will have its first openly gay professional athlete, who amazingly came out before the draft.

But LGBT Americans still face obstacles: parental rejection, a tragically high rate of LGBT teenage suicide, and bullying in schools across America. Today even LGBT adults live without job protection in 29 states -- they can be fired simply because of who they love.

Michael's courage in announcing to the world who he is doesn't change who he's always been to his teammates, his family and his friends. The successes he's had and will have on the field are not affected by his sexual orientation. One day, I hope that a story like his or mine won't be such headline news, but instead will be accepted for what it is. Michael's bravery is game changing win for all who are not sleeping tonight because they are afraid to be who they are.

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Corey Johnson is a New York City Council Member representing the Lower West Side of Manhattan.