From the outside he has all the ruggedness you could want, as does anyone standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 260 and reigning as Defensive Player of the Year in the unforgiving Southeastern Conference.
Yet it's the inside that shines out of Michael Sam, and it's an inside conspicuously laced with a ruggedness even rarer, one found occasionally in guys labeled masculine but constantly in guys labeled "effeminate" who put up with as much crud and nonsense as anyone in society.
He has both. He has the ruggedness of one who can attack quarterbacks, yet the bigger ruggedness of one who can ignore derision. It's something that finds its way out of him looking unmistakably like fearlessness before turning into charisma, something that smacks of considerable fiber. Even as it was inevitable that some football player would venture out as he has, it still seems exhilarating that the person could be 24 and Texan and eyeballing this much uncertainty with that much aplomb.
Even when you consider America's whoosh on the gay issue across the last decade; even when you consider that those who condemn homosexuality as a "choice" fade ever more into the margins with each generation; and even when you know that Sam's Missouri teammates just spent a whole season loving him enough to vote him MVP; he still just chucked aside a lot of rational and irrational fear.
With fear a daily enemy in so much of life, here's a great big bravo to him on that.
From the time last August when he told his teammates about himself, thus set in motion the open living that would lead to the open secret that would get around the NFL, he stared down a good heap of scorn from the cranky margins. He stood up to the nervousness that should accompany him to the upcoming NFL Scouting Combine, the American holiday known as the NFL draft process, the potential of the first training camp, the prospect of the first NFL preseason, the first NFL team, the regular gauntlet of fans and the serial blobs of media. Further, according to early reports, he risked his NFL career by narrowing the number of teams apt to hire him, and he did this all in the gumption of doing something right. He operated not from a position of probable stardom, which would have been sturdier, but from a position of probable doubt, which would be the middle of the draft board. He clambered right on over that anyway.
The Missouri players on Sam's 12-2 team last season belong to the generation that's coming, a generation often unrecognized by its predecessors, a generation that has settled this matter overwhelmingly, deciding that not only can it coexist with it but can embrace it as a part of living. The NFL will bring another paradigm, a fresh set of issues more complex than just the steady drone of those who'll say they're tired of this issue. (It's a free society; we're all tired of some issue.) It will bring a fresh web of delicacies and insecurities and contracts. Last May after the Jason Collins announcement, the flow of support for Collins fooled me into thinking a similar NFL transition would be almost seamless, a guess I found too simplistic after about 15 minutes of further thinking. With regard to borderline players, much of the NFL might be way ahead of where it was, yet way behind where it will be, even if the gay-supportive Vince Lombardi did embody it long, long ago.
Sam subdued all of the above plus who-knows-what of the great unknown. Already he had done something unheard-of, owning his truth with his Division I college football teammates. Already he had lived his life in a college town without any undue concern for what others might think, and almost nobody does that. Already he proved durable enough of spirit that it's hard to believe he was born in 1990; the toughness of his innards suggests it could have been 1950. As a gay person from a long struggle through a different era, I find that just watching him talk leaves me floored by the depth of his pluck.
If the family tragedies he detailed in his ESPN and New York Times interviews wound up bolstering the strength that glows outward by now, then he certainly has honored the fallen. As much as people knew such a man would come along, we might not have expected one this young and this indomitable. He might not live his NFL dream, what with his size so enigmatic to the average NFL personnel sort even while imposing to the average human, but he obviously has mastered something much, much larger. In his capacity to hurl aside fear, he already does know how to live a life.