The most poignant moment of Michael Sam’s introductory chin-wag arrived when he responded to, of all things, a query about late-autumn climes in Montreal.
“I’m used to cold weather,” he said. “My fiance, he hates it.”
Did you catch that? He said “he.” As in male. A dude. A dude engaged to be married to a dude.
Okay, I know, it happens every day in Canada. The true north strong and diverse, indeed. Guys marry guys. Girls marry girls.
But on Planet Pigskin? A professional football player betrothed to another man? Never in the story-studded history of the Canadian Football League has a large lad whose quest it is to become a fully carded member of the macho, frat-boy, alpha male, hetero brotherhood that is the three-down game put forth such a declaration.
That’s why, when I heard the words “fiance” and “he,” the reality of the situation became suspended. I actually held my breath. It was one of those “Did he really say that?” moments that become frozen in time.
Perhaps the weight of Sam’s remark escaped the notice of the majority of news scavengers assembled Tuesday at the Trudeau International Marriott in Montreal because, well…because they are not gay. But for those of us under the rainbow umbrella of the LGBT community, it was a watershed moment.
Here we had a gay football player, freshly minted as the newest recruit of the Montreal Alouettes—feel free to call them the Out-louettes, if you like—making reference to his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano.
And it was done so matter-of-factly. As if Sam was talking about the price of petrol.
But, as much as Sam tried to suggest otherwise—“I’m not trying to do anything historic”—there is nothing matter-of-fact about his signing a two-year contract with the Larks. If his universe unfolds as it should, he will be adorned in the blue and red of the Alouettes this CFL season, lining up as a rush end and toiling on special teams. He will become our lunar landing, the first openly gay man to plant his footprints on the professional sporting landscape in the True North.
That’s why many of the questions tossed Sam’s way on Tuesday had little to do with football and everything to do with life (it’s worth noting that the best queries were served up by two women, both of whom identified themselves as non-jock journalists).
Dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, with a light lavender shirt, Sam seemed somewhat discomforted when the proceedings began, but he quickly warmed to the moment and endeared himself to Quebecois on his second day in Canada.
“I forgot to say bonjour, by the way,” he said with a wide, toothy smile. “I’ve gotta work on my French. By the time I leave here I’ll probably be fluent just like you guys.”
Until such time as Sam and the Als part company, he is a beacon of hope for gay youth, despite his insistence that his arrival in the Great White North is about winning football games.
“I’m not here to inspire people to come out,” he said. “If it happens, it happens, but it’s not my first thought.”
Therein lies Sam’s catch-22.
The former Southeastern Conference defensive player-of-the-year with the Missouri Tigers can pooh-pooh any notion that he is a role model for LGBT youth, but reality provides a potent counterpoint, in that his position as a gay pioneer is inescapable. And he seems to know it, even as he attempts to make his sexual orientation the sidebar rather than the main story.
When asked about being gay in the most macho of sporting worlds, Sam delivered a clear, comforting message to gay youth, one that bore to the heart of the matter and one to which every gay man, woman or child can relate—fear. Fear of be outed. Fear of coming out. Fear of being ostracized. Fear of discrimination. Fear of hate. Fear of physical abuse. Fear of losing everything you hold near and dear.
“Is it a scary environment?” the 25-year-old native of Galveston, Texas, said. “Ya, it was. But if you’re afraid of what family or friends might think—you’ll be disowned—come to me. I’ll be your family.”
Sam is not the first openly gay man to participate in one of the five major men’s team sports in North America. Jason Collins had a brief whirl with the Brooklyn Nets of the National Basketball Association, while Robbie Rogers proved a team can be successful with a gay man on the roster when he helped the Los Angeles Galaxy win the Major League Soccer title last season.
He is, however, the first north of the 49th parallel. Alouettes general manager Jim Popp was accurate in introducing his newest charge as a “trailblazing athlete.” That’s why it cannot be just “about football” for Michael Sam. Not yet.