Earlier this year, Michael Sam became the first openly gay player ever drafted into the NFL. He announced he was gay before, not after, being drafted by the St. Louis Rams. While it's true that it's 2014 and this shouldn't be a huge deal, it is also true that we're talking about one of the most macho sports.
The 24-year-old from Texas showed up to the event holding partner Vito Cammisano's hand. He was emotional from the start of his speech, and the audience quickly seemed equally as moved.
He tearfully described how a friend's sister planned to kill herself rather than come out to loved ones. By taking cues from his example, she told Sam she would never consider hurting herself again.
Sam quoted from the award's namesake: "Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." Ashe, of course, was a top tennis player who contracted HIV (through blood transfusion) and subsequently advocated for AIDS research and urban health before his death in 1993.
Ashe's words spoke to him because Sam says he himself didn't start at the top but worked hard using his passion and his talents, and now wanted to use his position to stand up for others.
"My responsibility at this moment in history is to stand up for everybody out there who wants nothing more than to be themselves openly," he said. He ended with: "To anyone out there, especially young people, who are feeling like they don't fit in and will never be accepted, please know this: Great things can happen if you have the courage to be yourself."
The audience response was as moving as the speech. From what was caught on camera anyway, fellow athletes seemed largely supportive. Before and after Sam took the stage, audience members were standing, clapping, visibly touched. Does this mean Sam won't ever get jeered? Let's hope not. But the visible support in the room felt like a sea change.
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