Nadia Mata asked the first openly gay man drafted into the NFL when he truly accepted himself.
Mata, a University of New Mexico freshman, also told Michael Sam that she has been out as a lesbian for a few years, but sometimes feels shame, embarrassment and regret.
Her words touched Sam so much that he stepped off the stage to hug Mata during a heartfelt, poignant moment at the UNM Student Union Ballroom on Tuesday night.
Sam was there to tell his story of coming out before he was drafted in the seventh round by the then-St. Louis Rams in 2014. He stressed resiliency and also inspired many, especially Mata.
Sam told Mata that he accepted himself after a relationship failed because he said he was ashamed of being gay. He said he didn’t want to lose another relationship or miss an opportunity for love because he didn’t accept himself.
“It felt like acceptance,” Mata said of how she felt to be hugged by Sam. “It felt reassuring that it really is OK to be who you are.”
Sam spoke candidly throughout his program, at times using profanity to express the adversity he experienced and his desire for normalcy being attached to living a gay lifestyle.
He also shared two instances when a teammate called him a derogatory name during practice, while at the University of Missouri and with the Rams.
Sam said he told his Missouri teammates he was gay before his senior season and that they protected him and supported him save for that one instance when he said he felt betrayed. With the Rams, Sam said he stood up for himself when a teammate used a negative name.
The 29-year-old Sam said he felt regret for coming out as gay before the NFL draft. He believes it hurt his draft status.
He experienced anger and depression after he did not play in a regular-season game in the NFL. He led the Rams in sacks during the 2014 preseason and was later a practice-squad player for the Dallas Cowboys. He also had a stint with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
To overcome, what he labeled as mental illness, he said had to forgive himself, forgive the father who abandoned his family, forgive his brothers who abused him and forgive the NFL, which he felt did him wrong.
Sam said he was just one of two to be named Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and not be drafted in the NFL’s first round and the only to be drafted in the seventh round.
“The NFL gave me a raw deal,” said Sam, who is planning to write an autobiography. “It was tough to forgive them. I love football. Football gave me an education and gave me the opportunity I so desperately needed at the time. I really am grateful for the sport.”
Sam said football was the perfect outlet while growing up in Hitchcock, Texas, where he lived a troubled life at home. He described it as a place that was sometimes a “crackhouse,” as his brothers turned to drugs after their father left the family. He said his mother and father still do not accept his sexual preference.
He said he became aware that he was attracted to males during high school, but did not have his first relationship until college, where he met Vito Cammisano, the same man who Sam kissed upon celebrating the Rams draft pick of Sam.
“There were no places to express myself,” Sam said of growing up in Texas. “I was alone.”
Sam encouraged those in attendance, the majority being UNM students, to talk to someone if something like sexual preference is negatively affecting your health and well being.
He told Mata to surround herself with people who love her.
“This was very encouraging for people who just wanted to come here, it was just another outlet that they can have, especially hearing somebody like him, Michael Sam,” said Daevon Vigilant, a running back for the UNM football team and a senator for the Associated Students of UNM. “He was in the SEC and he was great.”
Sam took several questions from the audience in addition to Mata’s. Someone asked who is the better NFL coach, Jeff Fisher, formerly of the Rams, or Jason Garrett of the Cowboys.
Sam said he preferred Fisher because he actually spoke to Sam and made an effort to get to know him. Garrett only spoke to Sam when he arrived to the Cowboys and to let him know that he was cut.
“I have no respect for him whatsoever,” Sam said of Garrett. “I was at Dallas just to be at Dallas.”