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Michael Sam could be first openly gay player in NFL

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Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman from Missouri, could soon become the first openly gay NFL player, and he took to Twitter on Sunday night "to thank everybody for their support and encouragement."

Sam, the co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, came out to his Missouri Tigers teammates in August but did not go public with his sexual orientation until interviews published Sunday by the New York Times and ESPN's "Outside the Lines."

"I didn't realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me," Sam told ESPN. "I want to own my truth. ... No one else should tell my story but me."

Sam, 6 feet 2, 260 pounds, led the SEC last season with 11 1/2 quarterback sacks. He is projected to be a middle-to-late-round NFL prospect by most estimates. It is unclear whether, or how much, his pronouncement might affect his draft status.

The NFL draft is in April.

The NFL released a statement that read: "We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."

Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel also released a statement. It read: "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.

"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."

In his thank-you on Twitter, Sam highlighted the support he'd received from his family and the Missouri football team. "I am proud to tell my story to the world!" he wrote.

LGBT groups joined fans and other pro athletes in Internet posts supporting Sam.

"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 LGBT sports organization You Can Play, said in a statement issued through the activist group GLAAD.

Davis said he experienced support from fans, teammates and the NFL when he came out after his football playing days were over, and he predicted Sam would "be embraced and continue and inspire."

Davis added: "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." 

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