On Sunday morning, August 7th, ESPN’s Sportscenter aired “Michael Sam: The Unfinished Story,” a piece by veteran reporter Chris Connelly documenting the life of Tiger great Michael Sam. Sam was an All-American defensive end on the excellent Tigers 2013 football squad, and made national news when he came out as gay before the 2014 NFL Draft.
Sam was drafted by the St Louis Rams with one of the very last picks in the draft, and released before the season began, never playing a regular-season snap of NFL football. On ESPN he opened up about his difficult journey after college, playing in the Canadian Football League, and struggling with alcohol and depression.
The story ends as a happy one, as Sam has found a stable football career with the Barcelona Dragons of the European League of Football. The piece details how Sam was received warmly first as an assistant coach, and later as a player. (The ELF limits teams to only four American players per roster, so Sam had to wait for a spot to open up.)
Connelly never talks about Sam’s performance on the field in Barcelona, instead focusing on the team’s camaraderie with Sam and the value of his teaching and leadership. One can’t help but wonder how a former SEC Defensive Player of the Year is producing against this lower level of competition, but Connelly knows that statistics are not Sam’s story. Sam would certainly prefer his story to be simply about football – he calls his role as a trailblazer and inspiration “a burden” – but he is so much more than that.
Forces of intolerance and cruelty in our society in general, and the close-minded leaders of football and the NFL in particular, created a world where Sam became a hero for many by simply living his truth and pursuing his career. It’s important for his story that he found a place of stability and peace, escaping the pain of poverty and addiction, not just for Sam the individual, but for the many people who look up to him.
In addition to those who admire Sam from the distance of a public figure, he has also been an inspiration and a positive influence for those closest to him. When Sam was the focus of national news in 2014, his teammates never failed to sing his praises as a friend, leader, and mentor. Connelly’s piece also spends some time focusing on Sam’s value in the Barcelona clubhouse, and the way he has been embraced as a leader and a teammate.
The story wraps up with a look to Sam’s future, as he plans to continue coaching football, and has some offers to do so in the ELF. It remains to be seen in what league or even which continent he will pursue coaching, but all indications are that Sam is a natural leader and teacher. Sam’s playing journey was circuitous and at times painful, but the piece – and even its title, “The Unfinished Story” – indicates a promising career in leadership.
Michael Sam is one of my favorite Tigers of all time, thanks to his stellar play on my favorite Mizzou team and his historic role in advancing LGBTQ inclusion. I am proud of his courage and the way our campus rallied around him and showed an outpouring of love and support. Thanks to Connelly and ESPN, I am happy to see him find peace and stability in the game he loves so dearly, and hope he can touch many more lives in the future.