The Magic of Michael Sam
Talking strength, vulnerability, and service with the advocate and football star.
The word trailblazer gets thrown around a lot these days. And no offense to those who’ve been given the moniker for everyday affairs, but Michael Sam is truly the real deal. After an impressive stint as one of the most accomplished and beloved football stars at the University of Missouri, in 2014 Sam became the first openly gay player to be selected in the NFL draft. And one year later in 2015, he blazed a new trail for athletes by announcing he was stepping back from professional football altogether to prioritize his mental health.
Courageous acts aside, it’s easy to see why Sam is so enamored both in and out of the world of sports. In a time when most of us communicate with technology as much as we connect with each other, Sam is refreshingly human. He is vulnerable, strong, honest, charming, and down to earth all at the same time. On set for Girlfriend, he showed off an impressive pose repertoire that ranged from superhuman athleticism to the soft smize of Instagram dreams. Then, as the cameras stopped rolling, he laughed with the team and did the unthinkable in the world of celebrity photo shoots: he offered to help clean up. Whoever said “Don’t meet your heroes” obviously never met Michael Sam.
Photographer: Olivia Malone
Stylist: Jake Sammis
Groomer: Michelle Mungcal
Creative Producer: Janae Kennedy
Writer: Sue Williamson
“I like the book The Four Agreements: Always do your best, don’t make any assumptions, don’t take anything personal, and be impeccable with your word.”
Good therapists often recommend replacing “but”s with “and”s, and Sam epitomizes this in the realistic-yet-optimistic way he speaks. He is positive and he’s struggled. He is proud of the way he handled himself in 2014 and he might do things a little differently looking back. He’s a sports icon, a recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, and a GQ Man of the Year — and, he says, he’s still figuring it out.
“I think I've been battling this for a very long time,” he says of his mental health struggles. “My time at Mizzou was awesome, we were literally a family. We laughed, we cried, we got angry, we broke bread. And my time in the professional league was good — it was a business — but, man I just never felt so alone. And for so long I lived in depression and I just didn't know what was next for me. It was a struggle. It is a struggle. And, you know, I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Tuning out external noise was, and still is, key for Sam. “For me, it’s not buying too much into what the public thinks,” he says. “A lot of my teammates told me, Mike, I don’t think no one could’ve done what you’ve done at this early of a stage. And what I think they meant by that is that I wasn’t perfect, but at the time I was the right person for this because I didn't care what people thought of me. And there was a lot of derogatory words, a lot of hate thrown at me, and still is. But I didn’t care, I focused on what I had to do. Because, you know, I fell in love with a guy.”
Sam’s story went viral again earlier this summer when NFL player Carl Nassib came out as gay. Sam’s fans and the media were quick to bring up his story and remind people of his legacy. “When Carl came out, there were a lot of people saying, well what about Michael Sam? But they forget the bigger picture which is: at least it’s happening,” he says. “Yes, Carl took the baton and now he’s carrying that and it’s a weight off my shoulders. I feel like I did my part and now I just have to stand on the side lines and cheer him on.” Soon after Carl’s announcement, Sam did just that, tweeting a heartfelt thanks to Carl for “owning [his] truth” and donating to The Trevor Project. And then, a few moments later, he sent out a more broad message: “To anyone young or old, black or white, straight or gay are being bullied by others please know this, I stand with you in your time of need and in your hour of triumph. I am your friend and your brother. Even though I may never see you, hug you, or even kiss you, I love you.”
“You give your love to the wrong people and people who don’t deserve it, but the person who deserves it the most is yourself.”
Loving kindness is at the core of Sam’s character. He finds joy in seeing strangers smile and hold hands in the street, regularly encourages his followers to take care of themselves, and practices community care by working with the Dallas Resource Center, an LGBTQ+ non-profit that, among other impactful services, raises money for HIV and STI awareness and prevention. “I’ve been a part of that for some time now, but really got involved recently this past summer,” he explains. “The work they do is to empower the community. We have dental, we have a food bank, we have programs like FUSE [an HIV prevention program for young gay and bisexual men], and UBE to empower our Black citizens. It’s a great organization and we do need more help so if anybody wants to volunteer or donate, we can surely appreciate it.”
As for his own self-care, Sam employs a thoughtful mix of mental and physical exercises like stretching, working out, yoga, and meditation. “I try to meditate everyday,” he says. “Just sitting down for 10 or 20 minutes and taking a break from everything really helps. You gotta find some time for yourself to do things just for you. Even when other people are doing one thing, you can say, ‘No I’m going to do this. This is a reward for me.’” For Sam, those rewards include reading. He counts fantasy series like George R.R. Martin’sA Song of Ice and Fireas favorites and quotes Don Miguel Ruiz’sThe Four Agreementsas a stand-in for a life motto. (“Always do your best, don’t make any assumptions, and be impeccable with your word.”) Currently, he’s diving intoA Promised Landby personal hero Barack Obama. “I just read the part where he was in California for the 2000 Democratic National Convention,” he says. “He didn’t have enough money to get from LAX to his hotel and once he got to the convention center they didn't have his credentials. The whole trip was bad. He was basically broke and on his way back to Chicago and he was just like, this isn’t for me. He was thinking he should end his career in politics at this time. And just reading a man like him being so vulnerable, so open in this book, I’m almost falling in love with him again as a human being.”
Thanks in no small part to Sam’s own vulnerability, more and more athletes are choosing to take a step back to prioritize their mental health, setting a new stage for their sports and creating a powerful example for us all. Sam’s advice? “When you’re trying to find balance, especially nowadays, just take it day by day. You gotta make sure that you’re in a good place mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. And love yourself! It’s so easy to say that, but it’s actually hard to do. You give your love to the wrong people and people who don’t deserve it, but the person who deserves it the most is yourself. You gotta love yourself.”