When I was deciding between colleges, I narrowed my choices down to either Texas A&M or Mizzou. It’s funny because it seems like both school’s fates have been somewhat intertwined; both joined the SEC in 2012 and Mizzou recently chose A&M’s R. Bowen Loftin as its new chancellor after he retired last summer.
I visited the Mizzou campus in Spring 2010 with my dad, and at the time I was almost 100% committed to A&M. I still wanted to check out Mizzou though, because I was told they had an amazing journalism program. It had always been my dream to be a journalist and I wanted to see at Mizzou what I might be giving up.
When it came down it, though, I didn’t choose Mizzou to follow my dream of journalism. I chose it because I felt that I would be accepted there as a gay guy. When I visited the campus, I saw people wearing rainbow-colored Mizzou pride shirts and even a same-sex couple walking down the street holding hands. This was 2010, and I was presented a very different picture of the culture at A&M. Having been born and raised in Texas, I knew that it would be unlikely for me to see a same-sex couple holding hands anywhere, but the issues at A&M go deeper: I read sporadic news stories about hate crimes against the LGBT community going un-investigated by the police, and the ultra-conservative nature of Texas A&M had been ingrained in me since birth. Even though a lot of my politics skew conservative, I knew that this wasn’t an environment that would be predisposed to accept me for who I was. And last year when Texas A&M’s student senate voted to allow students to defund the campus LGBT center (which I was surprised they even had), it only confirmed my decision not to go there.
I’m not going to ignore the fact that Mizzou has had issues with inclusiveness in the past, including the admittance of African-Americans during the civil rights movement. What sets Mizzou apart, however, is the administration’s zero tolerance attitude for discrimination and swift response to issues of insensitivity. Over the past four years I’ve been very happy with my choice to attend Mizzou for many reasons. Day 1 of arriving here, I was completely open about my sexuality and to my knowledge I’ve never met anyone who has had a problem with it. I’ve built a diverse group of friends on campus, including people who represent every letter in “LGBT.” But it’s more than just having LGBT people at Mizzou in the first place. My school has championed its LGBT community in ways I’ve rarely seen. I have a friend who recently began a transition from female to male, and together he and the University have made an effort to positively showcase this aspect of his life. Our Greek community recently elected an NPH president who identifies as queer, in addition to having a recognized Greek Allies program.
And as you probably know, Mizzou has been blessed to have Michael Sam.
The first time I ever heard mention of a gay football player at Mizzou, I was a sophomore and sitting at a table with some friends in the Student Center. Michael Sam’s name was never mentioned because word of a gay football player on campus was only a rumor. But at this point two things seemed to be for sure:
-The gay football player was a big guy, as in not a cornerback and not a receiver
-He frequented SoCo, one of two gay bars in town
I was a sophomore when this conversation took place, and I had only been to SoCo once when my female coworkers invited me along to see the regular Thursday night drag show. At the time, almost none of my friends went to SoCo on a regular basis. It was too far away from campus and occupied a cramped, stuffy space tucked away in a strip mall that wasn’t exactly inviting. I always said that if SoCo moved downtown (where all the best bars in Columbia are located) I could envision myself going there more often. But until then it just wasn’t a place that attracted a large portion of Mizzou’s LGBT community.
Fast forward to Fall 2012, and it was announced that SoCo was moving to a two-story bar in downtown Columbia: Finally a bar that welcomed everyone, right downtown, boasting better amenities than almost every other bar in Columbia.
One of the first times I ever went to the new SoCo, Michael Sam was there. One of my friends pointed him out to me and said “that’s the gay football player.” He was surrounded by a lot of people and seemed like he was having a good time watching the drag show at the upstairs bar. Throughout the night, I saw him doing what people generally do at bars: knocking back drinks, trying to hear his friends over the loud music and dancing with both men and women. He definitely took up space on the dance floor, but he seemed a lot smaller than on TV.
Life in college is fast paced, and a year after SoCo opened downtown in Fall 2012, a lot of things had changed. I had been dating my current boyfriend who I had met at Mizzou for 8 months, had started visiting SoCo almost every Thursday night with my friends for the drag show, and Mizzou’s football team was embarking on one of its greatest seasons in its 174-year history. The 2013 season was especially great because it came after an incredibly disappointing 2012. It was our first year in the SEC and basically everything anyone had predicted about how awful we were going to be in football came true. We finished up the season 5 – 7 and failed to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2004. A&M had effectively justified their move to the SEC, but for some reason Mizzou just couldn’t pull it off.
But 2013 was completely different. We only had one loss in the regular season, put up a strong fight against Auburn in the SEC Championship game and then went on to beat Oklahoma State at the Cotton Bowl, which was played in Texas where both Michael Sam and I are from. Everyone knows how big of a year it was for him. His name became synonymous with sacks and he ended the year as Mizzou’s MVP and the SEC Defensive Player of the year.
I officially met Sam during the 2013 season at SoCo where we talked sporadically, mostly about football. Every time I ran into him he was coming off a huge win and as can be expected, he was always in a good mood. It’s strange to see the guy in SoCo and on the field, loud and having a good time, and then to see him so calm and collected during his interview with ESPN making one of the most important declarations in sports history. Most of the people at SoCo knew who he was, but some didn’t know or didn’t care. For someone with such a high profile around town, I’m sure Sam appreciated having a place where he could go where people generally treated him like anyone else. That’s not to say, however, that he probably didn’t benefit from being a football player. Considering how friendly and approachable he is, it wasn’t hard for him to make friends.
The thing about Michael Sam is that he’s just a normal guy. Sometimes I would get Snapchats from him that were usually photos of his puppy or whatever food he might be eating. On game days though, Sam would always send the same Snapchat a few hours before kickoff: just himself sitting in a chair or on a bed, with his eyes closed and the caption “thinking about the game.” It’s disappointing that something as silly as his sexuality has the potential to keep such a normal person from doing the thing he loves most, which is playing football. He’s now dropped 70 spots in CBS’ draft prospect board immediately after coming out. We all know he’ll still get drafted, but 10 years ago that might not have been the case.
For Mizzou’s part, the response from the student body has been both incredible and completely unsurprising. Yes, we already knew he was gay, but we’re so happy that the rest of the world knows and that we get to claim him as one of our own. An article in a local newspaper today said that the scene is “pretty calm,” but I don’t know what it’s talking about. Twitter and Facebook exploded last night, especially after the Westboro Baptist Church announced that they’d come on Saturday to picket a football player who doesn’t even go here anymore. Within minutes a counter protest sprang up out of nowhere, but I would expect no less from my fellow Tigers.
I can’t say that I knew Michael Sam that well during his time at Mizzou, but I’m glad that the parts of him that I did know are things that the rest of the world now knows, too. The events of the past few days remind me of why I came to this school in the first place, and I think I speak for everyone at Mizzou when I say that we’re thankful for what he did for us on the field. And I speak for the LGBT community when I say thank you for showing everyone the amazing things that this community is capable of.
Michael Sam’s coming out to the world is going to make it a better place for everyone out there who has ever felt like they weren’t welcome on the field, or anywhere else for that matter. I really, honestly believe that.
Dylan Connell is a contributor to BroBible. Follow him on Twitter.