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IT BEARS mentioning, now that Michael Sam has revealed himself as the most intriguing challenge the NFL has ever faced, that sports used to serve as America's proving ground for social change—not vice-versa. Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King fought their battles and made their marks on field and court, providing the nation with both proxy and playbook for issues like race, religion, apartheid and sexual politics. All that was long ago, though.

Maybe the athletes' bank accounts got too big. Maybe the need to protect sponsors, sneaker contracts, personal fortunes became too pressing. But at some point society raced ahead of pro sports. A black president was elected and reelected, women took over boardrooms and congressional seats, gay marriage became widely accepted. Sports, meanwhile, still waits for its first black commissioner, and Washington's favorite team still labels itself with a racial slur. Now, a 24-year-old openly gay man from Hitchcock, Texas, is poised to enter a league—the richest, most popular and most powerful league, no less—that has no choice but to make up all that lost ground, fast.

On Sunday the 6'2", 260-pound Sam, a senior Missouri defensive end, the SEC co--defensive player of the year and hero of this year's Cotton Bowl, came out to The New York Times and ESPN. The timing was both inevitable and strategic: Sam, who had told his Mizzou teammates and coaches last August, knew that NFL scouts were doing their usual due diligence. One leak, and the narrative would be out of his hands. "I wanted to just hurry up and get it over with," Sam told SI. "You know, I didn't want anyone to tell my story or even try to trick me and ask about rumors of being gay. So I took the opportunity just to do it my way."

While some scouts are skeptical about Sam's pro prospects, each of the previous 10 SEC defensive players of the year was drafted, eight of them going in the first round (page 36). Sam's openness about his sexuality during his senior season had no negative impact on the Tigers, who finished 12--2 and No. 5 in the nation, their highest ranking in five years. But in joining the hyperscrutinized NFL, Sam's status—when he gets drafted, whether he plays, how he fits into the locker room—figures to become a sort of national Rorschach test on the acceptance of homosexuality.

"Everyone knows that the NFL is the bully on the block," says Wade Davis, a gay former NFL cornerback who is executive director of the You Can Play Project, an organization devoted to ensuring equality in sports. "It really is the one league that shapes the idea of manhood in athletics. To have a guy who plays defensive end raising his hand and saying, I'm going to play on Sunday, and by the way, I'm gay: Deal with it? Seeing a gay athlete makes you interrogate your own understandings of masculinity. It is going to be big, just because it's football."

And few images scream football more than a rampaging D-lineman. "We shouldn't still be stuck in a place where we go, 'Look how big and macho he is,' " says Patrick Burke, the NHL's director of player safety and founder of the You Can Play Project. "But, unfortunately, it does matter. This isn't a walk-on. This is a star who dominated in one of the toughest leagues—and if you ask anybody from the SEC, the toughest league. This is a big deal."

Whether the NFL is fully prepared for this moment is another question. Some teams will surely pass on Sam, but "you only need one team in the NFL to love you," says former punter Chris Kluwe, an outspoken advocate for gay marriage. "There definitely will be players, front office, coaches across the board who won't get it. But there are enough people now to counteract that negative influence to where a player can feel comfortable coming out and know that he will have support."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has an openly gay brother, has publicly welcomed the prospect of a gay player and has made sure his top lieutenants live his words. In December, player engagement executives Troy Vincent and Dwight Hollier met with a group of LGBT youth at New York City's Hetrick-Martin Institute. "Then the NFL partnered with us to do the second annual LGBT sports football camp," Davis said. "It didn't have to be run up the ladder to Roger Goodell. They just said yes." When Vincent learned about Sam's intentions a month ago, he instantly called Davis to start laying the groundwork. The day before the story broke, Davis flew out to meet with Sam in Los Angeles.

"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," the NFL said in a statement released on Sunday night. "Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."

"That sends the message to coaches, administrators or players, that, Hey, this is something that we're watching, so don't screw it up," Kluwe says.

But sending messages, declaring one's identity, is the easy part. For league and players, the real work begins now.

WE HAVE been here before, of course. In the May 6, 2013, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, free-agent NBA center Jason Collins took a historic step by becoming the first openly gay male athlete in one of America's four major sports. Acclaim filled the air. Former and perhaps future peers tweeted, emailed and voiced praise; President Obama said he "couldn't be prouder." Old-school barometer Charles Barkley declared that the long struggle of African-Americans made black support for Collins a no-brainer because "we got to always be for tolerance and acceptance."

But since then Collins, 35, hasn't played an NBA minute. Did teams not sign him because they believed his advanced age and limited production wouldn't justify the distractions he would cause? No one knows for sure. The chill that he's felt from NBA teams, though, was certainly noted by anyone thinking of following his lead; among male pro athletes in U.S. team sports, only midfielder Robbie Rogers of MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy has come out. "I thought he'd be signed, to be honest," says Burke of Collins. "Part of the reason that there hasn't been more of a floodgate-type reaction is that Jason hasn't played a game yet."

Rumors last spring that four gay NFL players would declare themselves faded. The narrative calmed. That's partly because social movements advance of their own volition, not the media's. Partly it's that membership in a sexual minority—unlike race or gender—is concealable. Choosing the time and place to reveal oneself can be a torturous luxury: Each coming-out is personal, and there can be plenty to lose.

Instead, even as gay marriage gained momentum, state-by-state, the greater sports world reverted to its former stance of wait-and-see, prepping for what seemed inevitable. Goodell said last May that he expected that a gay player would be widely "accepted" in the NFL. In July baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced a revision to the sport's code of conduct that would protect "current and future MLB players from discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation." Last month the NHL became the first league to have every team make a public statement in support of gay rights.

Yet while Goodell and Vincent have been sending down a message of tolerance from on high, it has often felt like an exercise in damage control. At Super Bowl XLVII, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver brushed off the idea of a gay teammate by saying, "We don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.... Can't be with that sweet stuff." Later that month, Colorado tight end Nick Kasa said he was asked, by team officials at the NFL scouting combine, "Do you have a girlfriend? Do you like girls?"

Although two of the most famous members of the NFL's new generation, quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, joined nearly five dozen other players to publicly declare support for an openly gay teammate, their comments never gained the public traction of those more wary ones made by Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who last week worried about the presence of gays in the shower and locker room. The limits of tolerance—and the NFL's conflicted feelings about homosexuality—became even clearer last month, after Chris Kluwe began typing.

The Vikings' alltime leading punter published a column on Deadspin asserting that he is "pretty confident" that he was released by Minnesota in May 2013 because of his outspoken support for gay marriage. Kluwe alleged that, even as team owner Zygi Wilf and other Vikings supported his stand, general manager Rick Spielman and then coach Leslie Frazier tried to silence him on the issue. (Neither has commented publicly.) Kluwe also wrote that during a meeting in November '12, special teams coach Mike Priefer said, "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island and then nuke it until it glows."

Priefer denied the remarks, and the team launched a still-ongoing investigation. Last Thursday the team announced it was retaining Priefer for the 2014 season. Kluwe did not take that as a slap in the face: Until the inquiry is complete, he says, Priefer doesn't deserve to lose his job. But if Kluwe's resigned at age 32 to the idea that he will not punt in the NFL again, he also says that if he feels the investigation isn't thorough, he will consider litigation.

No doubt, Sam will be met with both support and hostility in his new workplace. Every milestone that Collins expected to reach in basketball now looms on the football field. "There's still a lot of firsts left," says Hudson Taylor, an advocate for the acceptance of gay athletes. "We still haven't had the first game. We still haven't had the fans' reaction. The climate, I think, is better now, and it will be better tomorrow than it is today. But until that player steps into the limelight and shoulders that burden, we're not going to know what the climate really is like."

IN INTERVIEWS after the news broke on Sunday evening, Sam declared his intention to switch mental gears and focus on getting ready for the scouting combine that begins on Feb. 22 and for the NFL draft—held at an out-of-the-way place called Radio City Music Hall—starting on May 8. "I see myself as an individual who is trying to train for the NFL," he told SI. "Jason Collins is an activist; Wade Davis is an activist; [gay former NFL running back] David Kopay is an activist. I see myself as a football player."

The sooner, the better. Already, scouts wonder if Sam's too small to play defensive end in the NFL, and they were hardly impressed by his initial foray at outside linebacker at January's Senior Bowl: An NFL assistant coach says Sam was such a nonfactor that he hardly recalls him playing. One scout projected him as a fifth-round pick and a backup; another said much of his best work during the season came against "garbage competition."

But those who saw Sam day to day last season, collecting 10 sacks in his first eight games, forcing the decisive fumble in Mizzou's 41--31 win over Oklahoma State in last month's Cotton Bowl, don't think he'll have trouble transitioning to the next level. "He'll play in the NFL," says former Arkansas State offensive line coach Brad Bedell, whose charges surrendered three sacks to Sam last season. "He could have a lot of success. I think he can line up and play defensive end for years. Knowing his motor, it would be shocking to see if he doesn't have a great work ethic."

Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel got a glimpse of what Sam could do in 2009—not on a football field, but in a rodeo contest before the Texas Bowl. A redshirt that season, Sam sprang across the dirt, tackled a calf and tied it up seemingly in one move.

"Holy s---," Steckel said to defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who recruited Sam.

"He's from Hitchcock, Texas," Kuligowski replied. "That's what they do."

Sitting 40 miles southeast of Houston, Hitchcock (pop. 7,186) is dotted with Baptist churches and a Jack In The Box, and would hardly seem the most hospitable place for a black man wrestling with his sexuality. "It's not," Sam told SI. The district's congressman, Randy Weber, a Republican, filed an anti-marriage-equality bill last month. On social media, a fire captain in one of Hitchcock's neighboring towns, La Marque, recently posted an altered image of President Obama with a noose around his neck. (The official was fired last week.)

"It takes a little bit of courage to step up and do what he's doing," says Jim Yarbrough, the former county judge of Galveston County, which includes Hitchcock, "because it's certainly not the accepted norm, especially in that particular community."

Yet even before walking out his front door, Sam had more than enough adversity to steel him for the days ahead. One of his sisters drowned in a lake at age two; he saw one brother shot to death; another vanished 15 years ago and has never been found. Two older brothers have been in and out of jail. Sam also had a falling out during his senior year at Hitchcock High with his mother, a Jehovah's Witness, about his playing football.

"Michael came from a tough family," says Jordan Turner, a close friend of Sam's since third grade. "He pretty much raised himself. Nobody expected Michael to make it."

But Sam had two things going for him: a body that was nearly man-sized in middle school, and a preternatural sense of confidence. As an elementary school student, he not only demanded that he be called by his full name, Michael Alan Sam Jr.—and became upset if addressed otherwise—but he also referred to himself as the son of Michael Alan Sam Sr. By middle school Sam was insisting that students call him Ice Man. On or off the field, he was happy to throw his weight around, especially when race became an issue.

Once during a party, Turner says, a white male called Sam a n-----. Sam told him to step outside, and after the two did, Sam yelled for the man to put up his hands. The man didn't. Sam punched him once in the face and knocked him out. "The hardest punch I've ever seen," Turner says.

Steckel compares Sam to Chargers seven-time Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney, now a linebacker but once one of the NFL's most feared pass rushers as an undersized defensive end. "He'll put his paw on the ground and go get the quarterback," Steckel says of Sam. "He'll play the run on the way to the passer. He's got great change of direction. If the right team gets him, he's going to be a great defensive end."

Of course, for the moment and perhaps for a long while, few are going to be able to think of Sam as merely a football talent. During the Senior Bowl, the TIMES reported, "several" scouts asked his agent whether Sam had a girlfriend or had been seen with women. Whether for the edification of a hidebound management, coaching staff or locker room, the message seems clear: Sexuality, particularly homosexuality, remains a factor in assessing personnel. And it will play a part in deciding which team chooses him.

Various NFL scouts and officials agreed that Sam's coming out will damage his stock in the draft. "It wouldn't surprise me if 90% of the teams have already dropped him far enough on their draft board hoping that somebody else would take him or have completely removed him," said one player personnel assistant, who added that taking such a player would "chemically imbalance" the team atmosphere.

"It'd be difficult in the locker room environment," he says. "It'd be difficult in the classroom setting that you get in the position meeting groups. You're certainly going to have probably half the team that doesn't give a s---. You're going to have half the team cracking jokes, whispering behind his back. I don't think football is ready for it just yet. In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a fag or a pussy is still so commonplace."

Yet maybe it doesn't have to be like that. Maybe pro football could take a page from its college counterpart. When Sam came out to his teammates—in heartland Missouri, in the old-school SEC—he experienced no slurs, no looks ... nothing. After all, he had been openly dating a man for a while. "My team already knew," Sam says. "Their reaction was, Finally, he told us." After that, Sam didn't worry: "Anyone could tell anyone. If I was walking down the street and someone asked me if I was gay, I would've told them I was gay. I wasn't afraid anymore."

Most Thursdays, the toughest guy in town would head to a Columbia gay bar called the SoCo Club, drinking water or a glass of Merlot, taking in the drag show. "Honestly, we just forgot about it," former Mizzou linebacker Donovan Bonner says. "We would go out with him to parties, bars, whatever, and he would do his thing, we would do our thing. It was just kind of normal."

Remember: Baseball wasn't "ready" when Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, running wasn't "ready" when Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966, pro tennis wasn't "ready" when King was outed in 1981. No one is ever fully ready for the new. Yet both sport and the republic survived, then thrived, in the aftermath of those advances, and the NFL will too. It has no choice. Michael Sam—and everything he represents—has arrived.

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SEC Defensive Players of the Year