I didn't ask you Saturday night at dinner whether you prefer to be called Mike or Michael but it was sure great to get to know you a bit, and share some of my past with you.
You are an authentic and likable young man with an enthusiasm for life that I found contagious and very appealing. If I have any real advice for you it is continue to be yourself and when it comes to the NFL Combine and then training camp: You need to bring it like you have never brought it before. Yes, I know that I am talking to someone who was Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC.
After you get though the next few days of distraction, you must get back in the training facilities and do those things that have brought you this far, with increased enthusiasm!
I'm sure you know the poem about the "man who thinks he can." My teammate, friend and love on the Washington Redskins, Jerry Smith -- who by any measure or standard belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- shared the simple poem with me that centers around just what it takes to get on with life and get where you want to go:
Out in the world we find, success begins with a fellows will, it's all in the state of mind.
Life's battles don't always go to the strongest of fastest man, BUT THE MAN WHO WINS, IS THE MAN WHO THINKS HE CAN!!!
It kind of goes hand in had with something I learned while working very hard stacking boxes of tile and selling vinyl and linoleum floors, carpet and hardwood while dealing with the public and set decorators and production designers out here in Hollywood: The only real thing you can change in this world is your attitude. And attitude is something everyone needs to pay attention to.
I can so clearly remember Coach Lombardi getting everyone's attention by yelling from the sidelines: "What the hell is going on out there!?" And he didn't do it when things were going smoothly. You have succeeded from high school to college and now must take the next step to the NFL. You know that "NFL" stands for "Not For Long." No need to say more.
Not only am I excited for you, I am excited for the NFL. I know the SEC is thanking its lucky stars that a player like you has succeeded and developed, and it would be a significant thing for the entire sports world and for you to continue on your path in the National Football League. But know that now that you are "publicly out" as a gay man you must focus on doing your job and don't let any naysayers bring you down. You are no wallflower and you can handle whatever crap comes your way. You will bring it like you never have before. For a moment, let's just remember how far we have all come.
When I first attended college in 1960, the University of Missouri was only three years into having its first black football player. It was a school where the Confederate flag was still flown for touchdowns. Many SEC schools were still years behind accepting black players. "No Negroes allowed," they said. This got my blood boiling and I can only imagine how so many of my teammates -- both black and white -- at the University of Washington reacted on seeing those words.
I entered college as a high school three-sport letterman, somewhat of a gifted athlete compared to most high school players, and got by on my natural athletic ability. Unlike you, I was not a naturally "tough" guy. I certainly had no idea the toughness it would take to really play on a team that had just won two Rose Bowls. I started my sophomore year and, as I had pledged a fraternity, got the attention of a particular pledge brother, Ray, who would become the love of my life. But in those days I was part of the invisible world. We could never talk about our love for each other let alone how we made love. As a junior, after I had not played to the standards of toughness my coaches required, I got benched. I pledged that I would rise back to the top and I did, by playing 48 minutes a game, making some league honors and getting elected co-captain of our Rose Bowl team as a senior. Ray became a Marine Captain and was killed in Vietnam. We could never talk about anything dealing with our love for each other, but at least for a moment I was to know love and what a wondrous thing it is.
I tell you this to alert to the fact that there are those out there that will get in your way to succeed or to love as you see fit. I was in Green Bay in 1972 when I got the news of Ray's death. I told coach Dan Devine that I had a friend killed in Vietnam and that I wanted to go to his funeral in Seattle. He strongly objected. We normally had Mondays off, with a light practice on Tuesday and I told him I must go, and I would be back for practice from Seattle either Tuesday or Wednesday. I couldn't believe he would object me going to honor a dear friend who had just given his life for his country. I went to Ray's funeral and I was back for practice. I was cut from the squad the next year. The point is you don't want to make too many enemies before your time is up, and always remember just how short careers can be.
You got me so jazzed and thinking about things Saturday night I want to share one last story with you.
Sometimes I'm sure you have seen that little things, seemingly trivial, can become so important, motivate you and stay with you forever. It was 1965 or 1966, on a glorious Southern California winter day when the sun was sparkling through the clouds. I was up running the beach naked as a jaybird and feeling very much alive. I came across a young man sitting up by the cliffs who I could tell was badly scarred and disfigured. Boy, did my mood change. I could see he had been writing on a paper bag and when I asked him what he was doing he said he was writing a poem, "but that it wasn't any good." He crumbled it up, threw it to me and said I can have it. I went over, picked it up and read it:
Over the valleys of lighted tree tops, the sun is the maker of all that is good.
Here at the edge where living hell stops, nature's the ruler you know that she should.
People create and now they destroy, a vast contradiction don't you agree?
Who is to blame and what is the answer, it's so close people, it's just you and me.
Love and peace with a smile guides the way, for all of us a much better day.
But thinking is all right and talking is worse. The way that is real is the way that is right!
That young man has given me more than he could ever know, and that poem has stayed with me since the day I first read the words.
I count the day I came out publicly, Dec. 9, 1975, as my real birthday, so that makes me 38. I love what you are doing in making yourself available as a real, down-to-earth man, who is open to the world, and is ready for the struggles ahead and that life will bring.
Michael Sam, you just stay that way! Now go out, STAND TALL and BE PROUD of ALL YOU ARE.
I wish you all the best,
Dave Kopay played in the NFL for nine seasons. He came out publicly in 1975 after retiring. He is the author of the "David Kopay Story: An Extraordinary Self-Revelation." He lives in Los Angeles.
- English women's soccer national team captain Casey Stoney comes out as gay
- NFL prospect Michael Sam comes out as gay
- NFL prospect Michael Sam comes out as gay
- Out speedskater Irene Wüst wins Olympic gold medal
- Norwegian Olympic speedskater shows off his giant Olympic flame
- Behind the fireworks: The Olympic opening ceremony and political implications
- Video: Get to know out lesbian Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas
- The Greeks did not wear "rainbow" gloves in protest