I have been looking forward to the Phoenix 2016 HRC Gala for quite some time now. When it was announced that the keynote speaker would be the one and only Mr. Michael Sam, I got so excited I just wanted to just spit. As much as I admire him for his courage and his tenacity for coming out prior to the NFL draft, my heart goes out to him. Since his coming out announcement and his draft to the Missouri Rams, he has lived his life under a microscope. His accomplishments, as well as all of his downfalls, disappointments, and failures would be available for all the public to witness, chastise, and vilify.
The entire LGBT community longed for him to be successful with the Rams. He was literally going to “change the game” as it relates to same-gender loving folks. We needed him to play not just well, but exceptionally well. We were ready to hold him up as an example for what all LGBT athletes could do – live your life authentically and honestly and still be able to make it as a professional in whatever sport you chose.
And then he was cut from the Rams. You could almost hear the collective gasp from the gay community. And then came the announcement that he would be playing with the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League. Though it’s not the NFL, we were still excited just to hear that he would still be playing the sport he loved. And then we heard that he would be leaving the league and the reason cited was “concerns with his mental health.”
It was at that moment that I realized the tremendous pressure being placed on his shoulders. Michael Sam was carrying the hopes and dreams of the entire LGBT community. And let’s be real, this kind of pressure can be exhausting. When you carry the weight of an entire community, it can become too much of a burden to bear.
Although he may not be playing professionally anymore, I was still excited to meet the man that wanted to live his life authentically. I know many that attended the event were there for the same reason as me. They wanted to meet the man that told his truth.
I assumed Sam would be kept out of sight until it was time for him to take the stage. However, early in the evening, during the silent auction, he made his entrance. He marched into the room with a smile and charm that made him easily approachable. Everyone’s cell phones came out and there were selfies abound. You could tell Sam did not mind the attention. He took time to greet everyone with firm hand shakes, hugs, kisses on the cheek, and for several ladies - the distinguished kiss to the back of the hand.
When he eventually took the stage, he shared a very powerful story about his youth. He grew up as part of a very big family. He talked about how most of his siblings did NOT like him. He was either picked on or totally ignored by most of his family. He grew up not feeling at home in his own home. Most of brothers had a reputation for being rowdy and for constantly being in trouble. When many in his hometown saw him and his siblings, it was commonplace for them to hear, “there goes those damn Sams!” For others in his family that wore this like a badge of honor, but for Michael, it was a source of embarrassment.
Michael talked candidly about his upbringing, about that night of the draft and that infamous kiss, and about living his life as an out gay man playing professional football. He has quite the story to tell, even though his time on the field was short lived.
I’m a black gay man and I sit in awe at other black men that pursue their passions while living their lives out and proud. So my night with Michael Sam was exceptional. I thanked him for his honesty. We hugged. I noticed how nice he smelled. And then I enjoyed an evening of great food, fun music, and amazing people. For me, this was my first HRC Gala. Thanks to Michael Sam, it was a night I won’t soon forget.