The NYT profile is quite something. And what you glean from it is that, for Sam growing up, his sexual orientation was the least of his troubles:
Life had hardly been kind to him or his family. Michael Sr. and his mother, JoAnn Sam, were separated after having eight children. He went to North Texas to work as a trucker. She tried to keep what was left of her family together. A sister drowned when she was 2, before Michael was born, when another child accidentally knocked her off a fishing pier. Another brother, Russell, was 15 when he was shot and killed trying to break into a home, in what his father said was part of a gang initiation. Another brother, Julian, has not been heard from since he left for work one day in 1998; his family believes he is dead. Two others are in jail.
One of the more frustrating things about being gay can be the assumption that your sexual orientation must have been the toughest thing about your childhood or adolescence. And so the gay identity – attached with every good intention – can erase the complicated identities of actual gay people, whose lives are shaped, like those of straight people, by all the slings and arrows of general fortune. For some of us, being gay was a minor variation in the symphony of our childhood and adolescence, compared with all the other things going on. And for some of us, being gay wasn’t a trap, it was also a form of liberation. It wasn’t the problem we had to solve; it was the solace that made those problems surmountable.
You see that in Sam’s life – the clear importance of his friendships in sustaining him, the camaraderie of his fellow gays at the local gay bar, and the overwhelming role of football in giving him a way out of his deeply challenging background. It seems to me that Sam’s real breakthrough is therefore not just in being a gay potential NFL player, but in showing how, for a new generation, being gay need not be the defining issue of life, and yet can also be a liberating gift.
This is not a life made tragic by homosexuality. It is a life empowered by it.