HITCHCOCK – In an interview Sunday night with ESPN, Michael Sam, a former star for the Hitchcock Bulldogs and an All-American defensive lineman for the Missouri Tigers, said he is gay.
“I’m here to tell the world I’m an openly, proud, gay man,” Sam said in an interview with ESPN’s Chris Connelly that was aired on the network’s “Outside the Lines” program.
With his announcement Sam, who is projected to be drafted in the later rounds of the draft, would become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
“I understand how big this is,” Sam said the interview with ESPN. “It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL.”
Sam, who graduated from Hitchcock High School in 2009, also gave an interview with The New York Times.
He told ESPN that he decided to come out because during the Senior Bowl recently it appeared that many people already knew.
In his interview with The New York Times’ John Branch, Sam said his Missouri teammates already knew he was gay.
Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel, in a statement from the university, said Sam told his teammates in August, but chose to not come out publicly.
“I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out,” Sam told The New York Times.
“I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me,” he said in the ESPN interview. “I want to own my truth. ... No one else should tell my story but me.”
Craig Smith, Hitchcock’s athletic director and head football coach, was an assistant coach and Sam’s mentor when he played high school football. Sam was a member of The Daily News’ All-County team his senior year.
“As football coaches, we really don’t get involved with (players’) personal lives,” Smith said Sunday night. “I know for me and the coaching staff, we love and care about Michael Sam and are proud of his accomplishments.”
Smith said his phone “was ringing off the wall” soon after Sam’s interview aired on ESPN.
He said he was unaware of Sam’s decision to come out publicly before seeing the interview.
“Michael has always been a standup guy,” Smith said.
The coach said he would prefer to stick with talking about Sam’s football accomplishments and not comment on his personal life.
“We are proud of Michael for all his accomplishments and proud of his upcoming NFL career.”
Sam said he found plenty of support from his college coach.
“We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents Mizzou,” Pinkel said. “Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others. He’s taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other.”
Pinkel praised Sam for how he handled the announcement to his teammates before the start of the 2013 season.
“Michael was very direct with the team when he decided to let everyone know that he is gay,” Pinkel said. “We discussed how to deal with that from a public standpoint, and ultimately, Michael decided that he didn’t want that to be the focal point of the season... We’re very proud of Michael and the courage he has displayed for coming out. We look forward to following his career, and the success he’s going to have.”
Sam was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year as well as winner of the Mizzou MVP award.
Geraldine Sam, the former mayor of La Marque, is Sam’s aunt.
“I’m a proud aunt and I support him,” she said Sunday night.
The NFL also welcomed the announcement.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the League said in a statement. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
In its statement, the NFL said that Commissioner Roger Goodell sent teams the league’s sexual orientation anti-discrimination and harassment policy.
In a post on his newly-created Twitter account on Sunday night, Sam wrote: “I want to thank everybody for their support and encouragement, especially @espn, @nytimes and @nfl. I am proud to tell my story to the world!”
Former Daily News Sports Editor Brandon Williams contributed to this report.