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NFL's first openly gay player? Missouri draft prospect comes out

NFL DraftESPNJay NixonSoutheastern ConferenceBrendon AyanbadejoBaltimore Ravens

Three months before the NFL draft, star Missouri football player Michael Sam has publicly come out as gay, raising the possibility that the league may soon have its first openly gay player.

In interviews published Sunday, Sam -- the 2013 SEC defensive player of the year -- said he came out to University of Missouri teammates last year and  decided to go public now so he could tell his story his own way.

"I am an openly, proud, gay man," Sam, 24, told ESPN, adding: "I understand how big this is. It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL."

Gay athletes have played in major sports leagues in the past, but have done so largely while keeping their sexuality a secret.

The National Football League has been seen as potentially one of the most difficult leagues for gay athletes to break into, given the league's previous troubles over gay slurs and players saying they wouldn't want gay teammates.

The New York Times reported that at a recent promotional game, scouts asked Sam's agent, Joe Barkett, whether Sam had a girlfriend or whether Barkett had seen Sam with women. The league has been criticized over allegations of similar exchanges in the past.

"I just want to go to the team who drafts me," Sam, a defensive lineman, told ESPN, "because that team knows about me, knows that I'm gay, and also knows that I work hard. That's the team I want to go to."

As of Sunday night, the Internet was awash with messages of support from LGBT activist groups, athletes and fans alike.

“Michael has shown great courage in taking this step and not only do we support him, we are incredibly grateful," former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who has advocated for greater LGBT tolerance in the league, said in a statement Sunday. "His decision to welcome us all into his world as he embarks upon a professional NFL career is an honorable one."

"Michael is first and foremost a talented football player, and his humility and heart will reshape the way that Americans think about LGBT people and the sports world," Wade Davis, Jr., a gay former NFL player and executive director of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual sports organization You Can Play, said in a statement issued through the activist group GLAAD.

"His story sends a message to LGBT young people, especially young black men, that you are free to show up in the world as your authentic self and others will embrace you," Davis continued. "When I came out after playing in the NFL, I felt the support from fans, teammates and the league and I know he will be embraced and continue to inspire."

Outsports reported that Sam's agents had reached the decision Jan. 20 for him to come out before the NFL draft in May, although Sam had already been out to his teammates in Missouri.

Sam reportedly had a personal coming-out party Saturday night in Los Angeles with his agent and former NFL players. By then, several outlets had gotten wind that he was gay, and Sam and his representatives decided to move up his public coming-out to the media to Sunday, Outsports reported.

“We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents Mizzou," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement released to the media. "Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others. He’s taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other."

NFL: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty & courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in NFL”

— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 10, 2014

We support Tigers of all stripes at Mizzou. Proud of you @MikeSamFootball! #OneMizzou http://t.co/ueLCOJ4RFF pic.twitter.com/DvJ2vTIbgU

— Mizzou (@Mizzou) February 10, 2014

Michael Sam makes me have so much #Mizzou pride. Courage. http://t.co/quPu9fP6Ru

— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) February 10, 2014

Michael Sam is a brave young man and Missouri supports him.

— Jason Kander (@JasonKander) February 10, 2014

Dare to be different and stand for what you believe in! Congrats to my brother @MikeSamFootball

— L'Damian Washington® (@Fe_Verdadera2) February 10, 2014

Couldn't be prouder of @MikeSamFootball and my alma mater. It is an honor to share the title of Mizzou alum with this brave you man. #MIZ

— Nick Snow (@nickdsnow) February 10, 2014

You know what will be the coolest? The day when it won't matter if a Michael Sam is gay. Baby steps.

— Jeff Rosen (@jeff_rosen88) February 10, 2014

Standing strong with #Mizzou's Michael Sam. Onward to the NFL!

— Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (@GovJayNixon) February 10, 2014

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