Michael Sam Jr. doesn’t talk to his father, who has been caricatured in the press as an anti-gay man who abandoned his family. But there’s a lot more to the story.
In a yellow-walled room in a Texas nursing home this July, a man in a wheelchair watched a flat-screen TV. He saw Michael Sam Jr. kiss his boyfriend and hug his small team of supporters — agents, coaches, and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown. The first out gay player drafted into the National Football League strode to the stage to receive ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Award, an honor previously bestowed on Muhammad Ali, Pat Tillman, and Nelson Mandela. It was the climax of a star-studded evening in Los Angeles meant to announce Michael Jr.’s arrival as a national icon.
Michael Jr. thanked his agents, his publicist, the couple who welcomed him into their home in high school, supporters from the University of Missouri, and top officials with the St. Louis Rams, the team that had drafted him only two months earlier.
Finally, he gave a brief nod to his roots. “To my mother, a single mother who somehow raised eight kids. I love you dearly.”
Back in his cramped room at the nursing home, Michael Sam Sr. picked up his battered, flip-style phone and found his son’s number. He left a message.
“So that’s what you’re going to do?” he recalled telling his son. “After all I’ve done for you?”
Since Michael Jr. publicly announced he was gay in February — just days after he let his father know by text message — Michael Sr. has been vilified in the press. In the New York Times, Michael Sr. came off as a callous homophobe when he said, “I don’t want my grandkids raised in that kind of environment. … I’m old school. I’m a man-and-a-woman type of guy.” When the ESPN documentary declared that Michael Sr. had “abandoned the family” and left his mother to raise Michael Jr. and his seven siblings on her own, Michael Sr. seemed the archetype of the intolerant and absent black father.
In none of these accounts did Michael Jr. come to his father’s defense. “I’m closer to my friends than I am to my family,” Michael Jr. told the Times.
But the father-son story of Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. is more than a conflict over whether Michael Sr. loved and supported his son. It’s the tale of man who’s been reduced to a caricature but whose actual life was shaped by the loss of child after child, some to death and some to crime. The rift between Michael Sr. and his youngest son started long before Michael Jr. came out and stems in no small part from those family tragedies.
Of course, those losses shaped Michael Jr. too, but he isn’t saying how. Through his agent and publicist, he declined numerous requests for an interview. But it’s not hard to see how, in order to succeed and perhaps just to survive, he might blame his father, fairly or not, for what happened to his family.
Michael Sr. spends most of his days at the DeSoto Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, about 15 miles southwest of Dallas. His electric hospital-style bed and almost all of his few belongings — a mini-fridge and a rolling dinner tray, mostly — are crammed into a corner of the room he shares with another patient. He locks his drawers because someone has been stealing his snacks.
He gets around in a wheelchair, having lost his ability to walk almost three years ago. He wears a gold chain around his broad neck, which bears a deep and long surgical scar that runs from the bottom of his hairline to somewhere past the neckline of his white undershirt. It’s not clear he knows exactly what ailment has left him in a wheelchair. “I have a hole in my neck,” he said. “But I ain’t gonna die in this motherfucker. I’m getting out of here.”
At 55, he’s one of the youngest and most vibrant residents at the nursing home. He has a paunch and false teeth, but he still possesses the thickly muscled shoulders and arms of someone nicknamed “Hammer,” a handle he got on the football field and in the streets. His hands still make large fists; kicking ass was a family pastime.
“Maaaannnn, I used to hit hard,” he said. “I taught all my sons to play football.”
He often rolls his wheelchair to a shaded patio, where he goes through Kool cigarettes like some people do cups of coffee. He banters with almost everyone. Especially the women. “Better quit bending that ass over like that,” he tells one of the women staffers, a smile creasing his fleshy face. The woman smiles back. If she or other women staffers are offended by his behavior, they don’t show it. At least a couple jokingly call him their boyfriend.
His phone rings throughout the day, bearing calls from his children or friends named ”Frank Tha Cook” or “Little Leroy.” The conversations usually cover his health, upcoming casino trips to Louisiana, and football, particularly the Cowboys, his favorite team since he was a boy.
One person who doesn’t call is Michael Jr., who kept his distance as he ascended to fame and more recently when he tumbled out of big-time football.
After Michael Jr. publicly came out in February, even President Obama praised the announcement. On May 10, the St. Louis Rams drafted him, generating more praise. But despite the fact that he had been a star at the University of Missouri, where he became Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the powerful Southeastern Conference, he was chosen late. Only seven players were selected after him. He performed well during training camp and the preseason — but was still cut from the final roster on Aug. 30, touching off a debate about whether homophobia played a role in his release. The Cowboys signed him three days later to their practice squad, then dropped him on Oct. 21. He is now a free agent.
For the nearly two months that Michael Jr. was with the Cowboys, he lived a half hour away from his father. It was the closest they’ve lived to each other in about 15 years. A family friend, Sean Woods, hoped it would finally bring the men together. “Now,” he said, Michael Jr. “has to deal with his daddy.”
Yet the Michaels have exchanged only a few text messages and haven’t spoken a word to each other, a quiet that has now lasted at least several months with no end in sight. Michael Sr. has mostly kept up with the vicissitudes of his son’s career through updates on ESPN and phone calls from friends and family members.
Shortly after Michael Jr. was released from the Cowboys’ practice squad, Michael Sr. sent a text to BuzzFeed News: “Hey they cut Mike.” Asked if he’d heard from his son recently, Michael Sr. texted back that Michael Jr. “wouldn’t say a word to me honer [sic] thy father.”
“It’s like he was looking for an excuse to separate from us,” Michael Sr. said. “Now we’re just letting him have his limelight. We’re tired of begging him to stay in the family.”
On the room’s walls, Michael Sr. has pinned Father’s Day cards, a corkboard with a calendar and pictures of his family, and, over his bed, a lengthy poem about angels. On a special spot on the wall — right over his flat-screen TV — are two pictures of Michael Jr. in his University of Missouri football uniform. Pointing at the pictures, Michael Sr. said he knew from the start that Michael Jr. would be special.
“That boy, he had some big nuts,” Michael Sr. said. “He was big when he was born. That boy had some big-ass balls.”
Wesley Sam, Michael Sr.’s father, was also pretty ballsy. In 1947, he was living in Opelousas, Louisiana, when he heard on the radio about what’s generally considered the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, an explosion at the Monsanto plant near Galveston, Texas. He headed right to the scene, figuring he could get work there.
He loaded cotton at the Galveston wharves for a few months before landing a job at the Monsanto plant. Yes, it had blown up, killing nearly 600 people, but he could make more money there than a black man could expect almost anywhere else.
He married Alberta, a fellow Opelousas native who spoke Creole, little English, and who couldn’t read or write. With their 10 children, they moved into a three-bedroom, one-bathroom home at 1732 Thompson St. in La Marque: Wesley and Alberta had a bedroom, the girls had one, and the boys had the room at the back of the house. “I had a white boy type of life at home,” Michael Sr. said. “There wasn’t nothing I couldn’t have wanted and gotten.”
Alberta died at 46 following “a brief illness,” according to her obituary in the La Marque Times. Wesley Sam was a loving man, a capable cook, and obsessive about cleanliness — he would dust off his car every day, his surviving children said. But he wasn’t quite up to the challenge of corralling all of those children. Who could? Instead he set his example through his work ethic, putting in a full day at Monsanto then mowing lawns with his sons in the evening. They’d do 18 yards a day, Wednesday through Sunday.
“My dad was a workaholic before anyone called it that,” Michael Sr. said. “He’d think you were sorry if you didn’t have that work mentality in you.”
Michael Sr.’s siblings went off to college, joined the military, and found middle-class jobs. His sister Geraldine would become La Marque’s first black mayor.
Michael Sr., meanwhile, dropped out of school over the protests of his father but earned a GED. He wasn’t much of a student anyway, and finding work in the area was a cinch for anyone who didn’t mind getting a few smudges on their shirt. He worked in construction, at a chemical plant, and as a crane operator and a forklift operator.
Away from work, Michael Sr. and his brothers drank, chased women, and kept up the family tradition of fisticuffs. “We’d be out in the front yard fighting,” Michael Sr. said, grinning at the memory. “Real fighting. Not no slapboxing.”
One night in 1978, Michael Sr. met a woman named JoAnn Turner at a local nightclub. “She was fine and good-looking,” Michael Sr. said. “And I walked her out.”
Little more than a year later, JoAnn gave birth to a boy they named Russell. A year later, they had daughter Chanel. Julian was born in June 1982. They were young and in love, with three kids and jobs that paid middle-class wages. It didn’t take long for Michael Sr. to settle into life as a family man, or long for it to be destroyed.
Here’s a news brief from the Associated Press on Sept. 23, 1982, with a dateline from Texas City: “The body of Chanel Roshaun Sam was found Monday night in about eight feet of water near a pier on which she had been playing. Her parents and neighbors searched for three hours before finding the body.” The little girl, 2 years old, had apparently drowned.
After several days of grief, and desperate to rescue JoAnn from her despair, Michael Sr. suggested they go to the courthouse. And so, six days after their daughter died, they were married.
“I felt like she needed some support,” Michael Sr. said. “It was the right thing to do, to bring something positive from it.”
It wasn’t enough. JoAnn turned to religion and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Her conversion deepened the fissure in her marriage, because Michael Sr. was raised as a Baptist and felt his wife’s new religion was too restrictive. She insisted the family not celebrate Christmas. “I celebrated it,” he said. “But she didn’t celebrate it with me. I still bought the kids gifts.” (JoAnn didn’t respond to requests for an interview.)
Michael Sr. found his solace shooting dice. On Friday and Saturday evenings, he would take his paycheck to a little wooden shack in Texas City and gamble away the family’s money. JoAnn suspected the absences were because of another woman, Michael Sr. said. But a mutual friend of the couple gave her the scoop. In Michael Sr.’s version of the story, the woman told JoAnn that “he ain’t screwing none of us” but was just gambling.
One Friday night, Michael Sr. recalled, he won $700 and left the shack with two friends on an impromptu trip to Boy’s Town in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, an infamous red-light district just across the Texas border. He didn’t bother calling JoAnn to tell her that he was leaving town.
“Weren’t no cell phones back then, and I didn’t stop and spend the 25 cents to call,” he said. When he returned Sunday, “she bitched at my ass. But it was pretty funny. I had a blast.”
The marriage continued to spiral, though Joshua was born in 1984 and Christopher in 1985. Michael Sr. finally filed for divorce in February 1986. A brief attempt at reconciliation resulted in the birth of Michelle in 1987. But the divorce was granted in 1988.
JoAnn was awarded primary parental responsibilities. Michael Sr. would have access to the children two weekends each month, and they divided up the holidays.
Michael Sr. was also ordered to pay JoAnn $250 each month for child support. Within a few months, JoAnn returned to court to complain that Michael Sr. wasn’t meeting his obligation. Thus started a four-year battle over child support. Michael Sr. was charged with contempt of court at least 10 times stemming from his failure to pay, according to court records. Twice he was sent to county jail.
“It was because I was running around and spending money and shooting dice,” Michael Sr. said. JoAnn “needed more money, and I was doing the very minimum. I should’ve been doing more.”
Typical of their on-again, off-again relationship, JoAnn gave birth in 1990 to Michael Jr. — right in the middle of their child support dispute — and the next year to Ashley, the eighth and last child they would have together. “Man, I had some phases with JoAnn,” Michael Sr. said.
In July 1992, JoAnn went to court to sign off on an agreement to release Michael Sr. from county jail and to clarify the terms of the support payments. At that point, according to court documents, Michael Sr. was behind nearly $4,000 in payments.
During the Christmas holidays that year, Michael Sr. said, JoAnn made a surprise visit to his house. “She wore one of those Mormon dresses — she knows that I like dresses,” he said, laughing. This time, he said, she demanded more than a night together.
On May 3, 1993, Michael Sr. and JoAnn went to the county courthouse once again — to get remarried.
Michael Sr. took no small pride in raising sons who were every bit the hell-raiser that he was. People around the neighborhood called him a man’s man. “My dad didn’t take no shit off nobody, and I didn’t take no shit off nobody,” Michael Sr. said. “I wasn’t a bad guy. But I was a ‘I’ll kick your ass’ kind of guy.”
“All of his kids were muscular and some bad dudes,” said Charles Sam, Michael Sr.’s brother.
The toughest of the bunch was also the oldest: Russell. As a freshman, he was pegged as a future football star at La Marque High School. Michael Sr. fondly remembers how Russell would walk around the neighborhood, “always ready to slap a motherfucker.”
But, he said, “I kept telling him to get out of that gang shit.”
Here’s a clipping from the Galveston County Daily News. It reports that on Feb. 27, 1995, Russell was sent home early from La Marque High School for “creating a disturbance.” A school administrator allowed Russell to walk home since his mother couldn’t leave work to pick him up.
Instead of heading straight home, the newspaper said, Russell stopped at a house about a half mile from the school. He was breaking into the back door when the homeowner fired at him three times through a metal door. Russell was clutching a screwdriver when his body was found. No charges were filed against the homeowner (who was also black).
The anger welled up within Michael Sr., who casually knew the man who had killed his son. There weren’t many strangers on that side of town. Michael Sr. got himself a handgun. “I was going to kill him,” Michael Sr. said. “I was going to go over there and end him. But my daddy saved me. He wouldn’t let me go over there.”
His father saved him. But Michael Sr. couldn’t save his own sons.
At 5 feet 4 inches and 125 pounds, second-oldest son Julian had an unusually slight build for a Sam boy. He went by the nickname “Ice Pick.” But he had a left arm that was made for pitching. “That boy could throw,” Michael Sr. said. “He used to strike Russell out all the time. Those were the funnest days.”
But, Michael Sr. said, “he wanted his own money” and begged his father to let him work. Michael Sr. eventually gave in, and Julian took a job with a local cable company.
Here’s another headline from The Daily News, this one from Oct. 22, 1998: “La Marque mother looks for clues into son’s disappearance.”
Julian was last seen outside La Marque’s high school football stadium, where he had gone to buy tickets to the homecoming game. JoAnn told the newspaper, “What has me afraid is that he had just gotten paid, and had $200 on him.”
“I should just not have let him work,” Michael Sr. told BuzzFeed News. “I should have let him throw that ball. He would’ve been a left-handed pitcher.”
Julian hasn’t been seen since that homecoming game, and 16 years later the police maintain his disappearance is still an open case.
When Michael Jr. was born, his parents were scarred by the drowning of their daughter and were feuding over child support. When he was 5, his oldest brother was gunned down. When he was 8, his second-oldest brother vanished.
His remaining brothers, Josh and Chris, tormented him constantly. “His brothers picked on him,” said Michael Sr., who also grew up as the youngest brother in his family. “I’d have to go in there and tell them to quit that shit and leave him alone.” Michael Jr. told Outsports he was a “punching bag” for his older brothers.
Josh was also showing a precocious ability to find trouble in the streets of La Marque. “No one had reached 18 yet,” Michael Sr. said of his children. “I didn’t think [Josh] was going to reach it either.”
Michael Sr. and JoAnn decided that Hitchcock, a town only four miles away, might do them all some good.
Population 7,000, Hitchcock was founded in 1873 as a railroad station between Houston and Galveston. Today, it’s a quiet two-stoplight town that sits along a state highway. By most socioeconomic markers — home ownership, median income, residents with college degrees (just 8.2%) — Hitchcock ranks below the Texas average.
The Sams settled into a well-kept rose-colored wood-frame house that sat along the railroad tracks and unkempt ditches on the black side of town. It seemed isolated enough from the troubles that La Marque had visited upon their family, but it wasn’t.
La Marque police reopened the investigation into Julian’s disappearance after getting reports that people had seen him in the area. “We think he left on his own free will and we feel strongly he is alive,” the police chief told the Texas City Sun in October 2000.
JoAnn told the Sun that she also believed he was still alive. “He was at that age of rebellion,” she said, suggesting he had run away from home. She told the newspaper that she wanted him to come home or at least call someone in the family to let them know he was OK.
In grief, Michael Sr. had quit his job at the post office. “I had always had a steady job, but I couldn’t handle it no more,” he said. “I felt closed in. Just thinking of it.” He found work as a crane operator but was laid off soon after. He got a job working for a local pipe company and was let go again. Finally, in the fall of 1999, a family friend told him he should consider truck driving. Michael Sr. went to school in Dallas, and four months later was on the road, coming back to Hitchcock when he could, mostly on weekends.
“It was a steady job,” he said, and one that answered a deeper need: “I had to get away. I wanted to get away.”
The marriage crumbled. Michael Sr. and JoAnn remain legally married but haven’t lived as a couple since he moved to Dallas in 2000.
Michael Jr. was 10 when his father started his life on the road. With JoAnn working late hours and taking extra shifts to provide for the children, Michael Jr.’s older brothers had their run of the house — and the streets. “It was bad,” Michael Jr. said in an ESPN documentary about his life. “I’m a kid and I’m seeing some hardcore drugs in my house. My mother didn’t know about it. If I told her anything, my brothers said they would kill me.”
Craig Smith, one of his high school football coaches, saw it for himself. “Sometimes I’d drive over to pick him up and honk the horn and one of his brothers would come out to see if I wanted to buy” drugs, he told a crowd at the school’s annual football reunion dinner in late July.
The criminal records of Michael Jr.’s brothers support these accounts: Josh has been arrested more than 40 times, including four convictions for drug possession, and Chris has tallied nearly 20 arrests.
In April, Chris was sentenced to 30 years in state prison for breaking into a woman’s home, choking her into unconsciousness twice, then using her credit card at a nearby restaurant. Josh was put in the Galveston County Jail in July on a minor offense and was released last month.
“I got caught up in them streets,” Josh admitted during a June interview with BuzzFeed News, a rare evening this year when he wasn’t locked up.
Little of this came as a surprise to family members. Cousins remember being warned to keep their distance. “We knew it wasn’t the ideal upbringing,” said Joseph Sam, a nephew of Michael Sr. “They were always in trouble.”
With his childhood saturated with grief and his older brothers descending into crime, Michael Jr. would have had to be a saint not to look for someone to blame. Conveniently, his father was already blaming himself.
Out on the road, far away from home, Michael Sr. remained tormented by the loss of his boys. Teaching them toughness had backfired; he’d armed them with tools for survival in one world that wouldn’t work in almost any other.
“Life was going to be tough on them,” he said. “Your skin had to be tougher than the others. But I also wanted them to make the right decisions.”
Somewhere in these years, Michael Sr. began to lose the last of his sons — not to death or crime, but to rejection.
On his first day of third grade, in a new town and new school, Michael Jr. was seated next to a chubby, snowy-haired boy. Michael Jr. wasn’t saying much to his new seatmate. The silence went on for so long and got so awkward that eventually the boy spoke up.
“I told the teacher that I didn’t want to sit next to him because he was too quiet,” said Robert Dohman. “He turns around and goes, ‘Hey, blondie boy, I’m not quiet!’ And that’s the way me and Michael get along now.”
Michael Jr. was voted “friendliest” by his sixth-grade classmates and elected homecoming king in eighth grade. His popularity was a testament to his ability to navigate the unspoken color line of a small Southern town; most of his close friends were white.
“My grandma,” said Dohman, “was very old-school and wasn’t into all that racial mixing. But when I had Michael over, he’d always be the first one to come over and give everybody a hug. Even her. He really changed the way my grandmother looked at black people. She would even smile when he came around.”
Michael Sr. said he saw little of the outgoing side of his son, saying he was quiet at home. But coaches and teachers remember him as a precociously self-assured teenager who could start a conversation with anyone. After football games, Michael Jr. was known for going into the bleachers — uniform and pads still on — to introduce himself to parents.
Michael could “talk to a group of 15-year-olds and then set there and talk to a group of 55-year-olds and not feel out of place either,” said Smith, now head football coach at Hitchcock. “I just never had a student that could just go and talk to a group of people. He would make friends all the time.”
Even in what was ostensibly enemy territory. Smith recalled a track meet at Danbury, a nearby town that is 90% white, less than 1% black, and had developed a reputation for being unfriendly to minorities. Except, apparently, Michael Jr.
“I can remember some Danbury parents cheering and rooting for Michael running the 100-meter” dash, Coach Smith said. “You just didn’t see that, if you know anything about Danbury.”
Maybe the biggest benefit of playing sports is that it kept Michael Jr. away from his brothers. The coaches, who also worked as teachers in the district, knew all about Josh and Chris: Their obvious athleticism had never proven to be worth the trouble. But Michael Jr. was charting a path different from the men in his family. Michael Jr. greeted people with hugs, not fists. He was going to be the first to graduate.
“Michael was a good kid,” Michael Sr. said. “He said he didn’t want to be like his brothers.” Left unsaid was that Michael Jr. clearly felt the same about his father.
On fall Friday nights, Michael Sr. said he would find a seat somewhere in Hitchcock’s football stadium, away from the crowd and sometimes with his father, Wesley. After nearly 30 years as a father, he said, he could finally engage in the autumn ritual familiar across Texas.
“I didn’t miss [any] home game his senior year,” Michael Sr. insisted.
There isn’t anyone who can corroborate his perfect attendance. Family and friends say they’re sure he went to some games but don’t know about all of them. The coaches at Hitchcock High can remember seeing or, rather, hearing, Michael Sr. only once in four years: a game in Michael Jr.’s sophomore year.
“I heard this guy yelling at Michael and I turned to Michael and asked him, ‘Who the hell is that guy?’” Smith recalled. “Michael said it was his father. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen him.”
Those stadiums can be hubs of activity on Friday nights, and coaches are notoriously focused on the events unfolding well away from the stands. It would be easy to miss someone on game night, right?
“Let me say this in a nice way,” Smith said. “I didn’t know him, and I know a lot of people in town. I can look up in those stands and know who’s there.”
Michael Sr. said he didn’t make it a priority to spend any time with the parents of Michael Jr.’s friends or the alums and other regulars who would show up at school events — most of them white. “I never did know them,” Michael Sr. said. “And I never tried to go out of my way.”
Michael Sr. said he took a job with a trucking company based out of Ada, Oklahoma, so that he could arrive in Hitchcock by the start of kickoff Friday night. He assumed his son appreciated what he considered a significant sacrifice of time and money; coming back to Texas without a load meant he wouldn’t get paid for the drive home.
It wasn’t until earlier this year, when media outlets began saying that he had abandoned his son, that Michael Sr. learned he was being phased out of the story of his son’s childhood. He never thought all those years on the road would mean that he wasn’t there.
“Michael’s family was the city of Hitchcock,” said Dohman, Michael Jr.’s childhood friend.
Told what Dohman said, Michael Sr. looked straight ahead, the anger washing over him. Sitting on that patio at the nursing home, he was, for a few moments, that angry Sam boy ready to fight.
“The city of Hitchcock didn’t buy his goddamn clothes, a roof over his head, or the bed that he slept in,” Michael Sr. said. “The city of Hitchcock can kiss my ass.” He paused. “I should have kept those gas receipts.”
Of course, Michael Sr. never thought he would need them. He also never thought the family of a high school teammate — a white one — would get so much credit.
Once Michael Jr. revealed in February his plans to become the NFL’s first out gay player, the two media outlets with which his publicists coordinated the announcement wrote this:
The New York Times: Sam found a comfortable place off the field as well, in large part because of Ethan Purl, a classmate and the son of Ron Purl, the president of the local branch of Prosperity Bank. Ron’s wife, Candy, made sure their house was part recreation center and part counseling hub for their children and their friends. By Sam’s senior year, he had his own bedroom in the Purls’ house, along with chores like cleaning the pool and carrying the grocery bags. “I look at our house as a kind of safe haven,” said Ron Purl, who keeps a photograph of Sam in his Missouri football uniform in his office. “He is just another son. If he did something wrong, he got yelled at just like the others did.”
ESPN: The relationship started when Candy Purl, Ronnie’s wife, invited Michael to dinner during his freshman year of high school. Ronnie, a man with a personality much bigger than he is, discovered a kid he didn’t recognize and demanded to know, “And who are you?”
“Without skipping a beat, my brother replied, ‘I’m Michael Alan Sam Jr.!,’” said Ethan Purl, Ronnie’s son. “And after that, he never left.”
“That’s a bunch of shit,” Michael Sr. said. Sure, he said, his son went to the Purls’ on weekends, but “Michael lived at home to the day he graduated.”
“He lived with the rest of us,” agreed Michael Jr.’s sister Michelle.
“The Purls only helped [him] in [his] senior year,” his aunt Geraldine said. “If the Purls were really good people, they’d tell Michael that he was wrong. That he should acknowledge his mother and daddy.”
After a brief phone conversation in which he said he didn’t have time to speak, Ethan Purl did not return repeated phone calls. Ronnie Purl declined a number of interview requests. “Without Michael’s approval I will not be able to speak with you,” he said in an email. “Being in banking, I am very aware of privacy issues.”
Michael Sr. said he met the Purls at least once, when he accompanied Michael Jr. on one of his visits over there.
“I just wanted to see where Michael was going, to make sure where he was going was the right environment,” Michael Sr. said.
In fact, Michael Sr. liked that his youngest son had white friends. He was convinced his association with them might mean better grades, a high school diploma, and maybe even college — the chance at success that his other sons never had.
“He wasn’t messing with the black guys trying to sell drugs and doing drugs — I thought that was a good thing,” Michael Sr. said. “As long as he wasn’t doing nothing crazy, wasn’t in no cult, I was all right with it.”
When Michael Jr. was at the University of Missouri, Michael Sr. began noticing some changes in his son, he recalled. There was that road trip from Dallas to Houston with Michael Jr. and one of his college friends, Vito Cammisano, a member of the men’s swim team. What struck Michael Sr. was his son’s taste in music.
“He knew all of them white songs,” Michael Sr. said. “He knew country, Taylor Swift, all that stuff. I’m like, What brother knows all of them white songs? That tripped me out.”
On another one of Michael Jr.’s trips home with Vito, Michael Sr. noticed their relationship seemed much closer than a simple friendship. How else to explain Vito coming home for the holidays? Michael Sr. waited until they returned to Missouri to broach his suspicions to his wife. “I told JoAnn, ‘You know, Mike ain’t bring his girlfriend but he brought this dude. That’s kinda funny,’” Michael Sr. said. “But she swore up and down” that he wasn’t gay. “I kept asking Mike was this boy funny? ‘No, Daddy, no. Ain’t nothing wrong with Vito,’ he’d say.”
“He didn’t act gay then either,” Michael Sr. said of Vito.
But during a visit to Missouri for one of Michael Jr.’s games last fall, Michael Sr. became certain about Vito.
“I shook that boy’s hand, and that boy’s hand felt like a woman’s,” Michael Sr. said. “And the boy looked different. I told my brother that that boy right there is gay.”
When they went out for dinner later that night, Michael Jr. showed them a picture of a woman he said he was dating; Michael Jr.’s Instagram account has lots of pictures of him in college posing with young women.
“I still had some suspicions,” Michael Sr. said. But other family members “didn’t wanna believe it. I had intuition about that boy.”
That intuition was finally confirmed this year. On Feb. 4, Michael Sr.’s birthday, he received a text message from his son. “I could tell his PR guy wrote that message because Mike don’t talk like that,” Michael Sr. said. “It was some bullshit. ‘I wanted to inform you that I’m gay.’”
“That’s all you’ve got to say?” Michael Sr. remembered texting Michael Jr. in response. “He texted me back, ‘Happy birthday.’ So I went out and got drunk.”
Five months later, in his room at the nursing home watching the red carpet show before his son would receive the Arthur Ashe Award, Michael Sr. grew wildly upset. He started calling and texting family members and friends.
With Vito at his side, Michael Jr. had been asked what was the most difficult part of coming out. He told the interviewer that it was telling his friends. Michael Sr. was incensed.
“If it was so hard to tell his friends, why didn’t he tell us first?” Michael Sr. said. “It was harder for him to tell us.”
And it probably was. One recent afternoon, Michael Sr.’s brother Charles asked if Michael Jr. might go back to women. Michael Sr. responded, “Women don’t really want to mess with you after doing all that gay shit.”
Michael Sr. is never going to be the spokesman for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. He’s not thrilled about his son’s sexual orientation. But he also hasn’t disowned his son. He never says his son is going to hell. He doesn’t talk about trying to cure him or make him straight. In his own rough-hewn, coarse way, Michael Sr. has accepted that his son is gay. “I love my son,” he said, “and I don’t care about what he do.”
The family rift that the ESPY Awards exposed to a national audience had been there, deep and wide, for a while.
Seven months earlier, in December 2013, Michael Jr. came to Houston as one of the nominees for the Rotary Lombardi Award, which is awarded to the best college lineman or linebacker. Instead of asking his family to attend as guests, he invited the family of Missouri football teammate Will Ebner.
“We found out Will and I were going to be part of his family representing him,” said Elaine Ebner, mother of Will Ebner. “If someone else had come from his family, I would have wanted them to be center stage. I know my place. Mainly, I just wanted to be whatever he wanted me to be.”
Michael Jr.’s aunt Geraldine managed to score tickets from a friend who was a member of the Rotary Club. She also sat in the area designated for family. “When I got there, [Michael Jr.] was glad to see me. It’s always good to have family there,” she said.
Days later, Michael Jr. graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in parks, recreation, and tourism. Everyone in the family — except Josh and Chris, who were both in jail — made the 600-mile road trip from Texas to celebrate the first of JoAnn’s and Michael Sr.’s children to graduate from college.
To commemorate the occasion, Michael Jr. posted a picture on Instagram of himself in a cap and gown, a wide smile on his face and an elbow comfortably resting on the mantle of a fireplace. “It’s been a long time coming,” read his caption. He was alone in the photo and made no mention of anyone else being there — in that or any of his other public social media posts from the time.
Later in December, during the week of the Cotton Bowl in Dallas — Michael Jr.’s final college game — Michael Sr. said his son borrowed his car and spent all of his time with Vito and teammates. Michael Sr. also said his son lied to him about the location of the team hotel and then didn’t call him, or return any of his calls, for the rest of the week.
“I had to call him to get him to bring me my car back,” Michael Sr. said. “I kept calling and calling. He didn’t bring the car until the last day, and the game was the next day. He didn’t talk to me or nothing.”
In May, on the weekend of the NFL draft, Michael Jr.’s family was conspicuously absent when TV cameras followed him around at his agent’s home in San Diego. He declined an offer from his father’s family members to attend a draft party they wanted to host in Dallas, his aunt Geraldine and Michael Sr. said. Instead, he spent the weekend in California with Vito, some friends, and his agents.
“If he’s so ashamed of us,” Geraldine remembers one of his sisters telling her, “why doesn’t he just change his name?”
The day the Rams drafted him — when he was so happy that he kissed Vito and smeared his face with celebratory cake — might end up being the pinnacle of Michael Jr.’s NFL career. Now, cut from his second team, he is learning something his father learned long ago: Life can take what you want most.
Since 2000, Outsports noted, every single Defensive Player of the Year from the five major college football conferences made it onto an NFL team — except Michael Sam Jr. And it’s not that he played poorly in preseason. Far from it. He totaled 11 tackles and three sacks, a figure that left him tied for fourth in the league. His bold announcement of his sexuality, which garnered him glamorous accolades, may have also destroyed his football career.
Disappointment and loss are feelings Michael Sr. knows well, of course, so the two Michaels have more in common now than they may have ever had. And yet Michael Jr. doesn’t come to his father — or anyone in his family — for comfort. He keeps his distance.
To Michael Sr., sitting in his wheelchair or taking a drag on one of his Kools, that distance can feel like death. He doesn’t want to lose another son.