A season of significance at Missouri

"We got to know Mike before anybody really had a clue and before he came out. We got to know him as a person rather than judge him on what he claims to be. He produced on the field, which we all loved. I never had a problem with it, and it didn't change the way I looked at him."

It doesn't have to be an issue. That's what former NFL safety Bubba McDowell thought as he watched the Sam coverage from a distance this week in Texas. McDowell was surprised that the story was such a big deal.

Twenty years ago, his Oilers team was somewhat like the Tigers: talented, close and adept at hiding secrets. The Houston Chronicle reported in December that the 1993 Oilers had at least two gay players on their team. The players were not out, but, according to the article, it was widely known that these unnamed men were gay, and they were accepted by their teammates.

"You don't have time to think about it," McDowell said. "We were winning. Those guys were helping us get to the next level. At the end of the day, it's all about leadership. We were successful, and we didn't want that type of distraction.

"The majority of the friends I played with just blew it off, like, 'Heck, so what? Let's go play football.'"

When Sam arrived in Columbia in 2009, his teammates didn't know what to make of him. He wore a cowboy hat and carried a knife. The story about the size of the knife varies depending on with whom you talk. Some say it was a Rambo knife; others called it a pocket knife. They have no idea why he had it, though.

"He was very country," Foster said of Sam, who came from Hitchcock, Texas. "Country goofy."

He used to have a short temper, used to internalize things and be on edge. But he was also known for being loud, funny and happy most of the time. He always seemed to be singing, Tigers defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said, and his teammates always knew where he was. They knew he'd give everything he had in a game. They loved him for that.

By his sophomore season, many of the people in Sam's inner circle suspected that he was gay. They'd see him with other men who were known around the gay community. They'd notice things, "mannerisms" and signs that they couldn't put into words. They never asked him about it.

"He's a grown man, and that's his life," Waters said. "It's not my place to ... ask any questions, especially if he wasn't open about it yet. So I didn't want to cross any lines or any boundaries like that."

In the months before his senior year, Sam knew it was time. He told Foster and Waters and L'Damian Washington, one of the team captains. And when he opened up to the team in August, he finally felt free.

Sam started wearing rainbow bracelets in warm-ups before games. Foster thought he took them off before games because he didn't want to be a distraction. But in pictures from the 2013 season, Sam can be seen tackling his opponents while wearing the bracelets around his giant wrists.

"I know he wanted to make that statement," Foster said, "saying, 'Hey, I'm gay, and I'm about to ball out.'

"He's more lighthearted now. He's calmer. We talked about that, too. It's like dude, ever since you came out, you're nicer. More at ease. He can be himself. He doesn't have to hide anything."

Foster and Waters said there were plenty of teammates willing to embrace Sam for who he was. But there were also a few "knuckleheads" too, guys who talked behind his back or used homophobic slurs.

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