Embrace adversity if you want to thrive, Michael Sam told Emory’s undergraduate Class of 2016 on Thursday night.
It was not a platitude. At just 26, the man who became the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL simply shared his story.
A sister died before he was born. Of seven siblings, one brother was killed and another disappeared and hasn’t been seen since 1998. Two other brothers are in prison.
Sam insisted he would do better, despite naysayers in his small Texas hometown. He studied in high school while his friends partied. He played Division I football at the University of Missouri after being told he was too small.
And in December 2013, he graduated from college as these students will do on Monday, earning his sports management degree while carrying the title of SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
“All I can say is, if you let adversity take control of your life, it will destroy you,” Sam said. “You have to keep moving. You have to believe in yourself.”
Before this week, Sam was last in Georgia during the 2013 SEC Championship game between Mizzou and Auburn (don’t ask him who won).
His speech at Class Day was his first address of this kind, and he was the youngest speaker in the pre-Commencement event’s 14 years.
Students selected him for his ability to resonate with graduating students and relevance to the Emory community, said Max Mayblum, Class Day chair, who will graduate with a business degree on Monday.
“Sam stayed true to himself and broke ground in the NFL,” Mayblum said. “We hope he inspires graduates to do the same in their respective fields.”
Sam: "Do not be afraid to fail"
Addressing the audience without notes, Sam spoke casually and to plenty of laughter, trying to convey that message of inspiration.
Struggling in childhood helped him prepare for the unexpected hurdles that popped up after he came out. He expected the news to fade after a week or so and was surprised to see it stay a topic of conversation as the NFL draft neared.
And when the then-St. Louis Rams announced his name in the 2014 draft and he kissed his then-fiancé in celebration, he was shocked again.
“I thought everyone knew I was gay, so if I did something gay like kiss my boyfriend, it would be no big deal,” he said to laughs. “Guess not. But you need some type of adversity in your life to be successful. You really do.”
The Rams cut Sam before the regular season, and a stint with the Dallas Cowboys only lasted six weeks. He sat out the 2014 season and played one game in the Canadian Football League last year before deciding to try again with the NFL this year.
He promised students he wouldn’t quit trying this year, though he did say he will “move on” from the NFL if he doesn’t make it this season.
Other plans are in the works, including potential TV work and setting up a scholarship fund for LGBT athletes.
Students should likewise not quit on what they believe in, because life will undoubtedly throw things in their way, he advised.
“How you handle it is what defines you,” Sam said. “Do not be afraid to fail. Accept what you’ve learned, from your family and from these last four years, and continue on.”
The crowd responded with a standing ovation after Sam’s remarks. They gave him high marks for going off script and making himself vulnerable to make his points.
“He was interesting because he shows you adversity is really an opportunity to be strong,” said Molly Talman, a neuroscience and behavioral biology major from Chicago.
“Exactly,” added her friend Molly Teplitzky, a history major from Connecticut. “He’s proof how a challenge is what creates your strength to show who you really are.”