Missouri football All-American Michael Sam says he is gay, and because he is projected to be a mid-round NFL draft pick, the defensive end could become the league's first openly gay player.
In interviews published Sunday with ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports, Sam says he came out to his teammates and coaches at Missouri in August.
"I am an openly, proud gay man," he said.
The 255-pound Sam participated in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month after leading the Southeastern Conference in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19) and has attracted the attention of National Football League scouts.
"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," he said in the interviews.
"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," the NFL said in statement. "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."
There have been several NFL players who have come out after their playing days, including Kwame Harris and Dave Kopay. And there are well-known players in other sports who have come out. Last year, NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay after the season and Major League Soccer star and U.S. national team player Robbie Rogers also came out a year ago.
Sam said many people at the Jan. 25 Senior Bowl all-star game for NFL prospects seemed to know that he's gay.
"I didn't realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me," he told ESPN. "I want to own my truth ... No one else should tell my story but me."
Before coming out to all his teammates and coaches, Sam said he told a few close friends and dated another Missouri athlete who was not a football player.
"Coaches just wanted to know a little about ourselves, our majors, where we're from and something that no one knows about you," Sam said. "And I used that opportunity just to tell them that I was gay. And their reaction was like, 'Michael Sam finally told us.'"
Posted to Sam's Twitter account Sunday night were expressions of gratitude to the news outlets that published his story as well as his teammates.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement Sunday night he was proud of Sam and how he represented the program.
"Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others. He's taught a lot of people here firsthand 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," Pinkel said. "If Michael doesn't have the support of his teammates like he did this past year, I don't think there's any way he has the type of season he put together."
Missouri linebacker Donovan Bonner has been a teammate of Sam's for five years.
"We knew of his status for five years, and not one team member, coach or staff member said anything says a lot about our family atmosphere," Bonner tweeted.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press