The first-team All-American defensive lineman from the University of Missouri announced that he was gay in February, just three months before hearing his name called by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the NFL draft. When the 2014 season opens in September, the 24-year-old Texan will become the first openly gay player in the league.
Following ESPN’s broadcast of a video reel about Sam’s life, he kissed his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, and walked onto the stage at the Nokia Theater to accept the award from former wrestler and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“This year I had a lot of experience being part of something bigger than myself,” Sam said. “At times, I’ve felt like I’ve been living in a massive storm, without knowing when the storm will end. But I’m here tonight to tell you that the lessons I learned about love, respect, being true to yourself will never leave me.”
At times overwhelmed with emotion, Sam discussed his love of football and how Ashe had inspired him. He also shared a moving story about helping a young woman who considered committing suicide because she was gay.
“When we spoke, she told me she would never consider hurting herself again, and that somehow my example helped her,” Sam said. “It’s amazing to think that, by just doing what we can, we can all touch, change and even save lives.”
The Arthur Ashe Courage Award is named in honor of the first black player on the U.S. Davis Cup team and the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. A civil rights activist, Ashe was arrested several times for protesting the treatment of Haitian refugees and apartheid in South Africa.
After publicly announcing that he had HIV in 1992, Ashe founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS as well as the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. The tennis champ died a year later from AIDS-related pneumonia.
Clearly humbled by such an honor, Sam ended his speech with thanks to friends, family, teammates and mentors, and offered advice to others who were struggling.
“To anyone out there — especially young people — feeling like they don’t fit in and will never be accepted, please know this: …Great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself,” Sam said.