IT'S A LITTLE after 7 a.m. in North Texas, and the sun is just starting to rise.
I've been up for a bit and am getting my things together to head to the Michael Johnson Performance Center in McKinney for another three hours of intense, NFL-caliber training. I've been eating right and pushing myself physically every day since October, when I was last in an NFL locker room. When my phone rings with an opportunity from one of the 32 NFL teams, I'll be ready to come right in and contribute.
Around me this morning are guys in their early 20s preparing for the combine or upcoming pro days. Watching them work out, I remember the process, and their emotions are very familiar to me. Their journeys, though, will ultimately be very different.
JUST OVER a year ago I told the world what I had known about myself and what my teammates at Mizzou had known for some time: I am a gay man.
I didn't make this announcement for the sake of making history or because I relished the attention that came along with it. Before the start of my senior year I had stood up in front of my teammates and coaches and told them face-to-face who I was. I felt that those guys were my family. I wanted to be myself with them, and I knew I could trust them. My trust was justified, as I not only remained a teammate and friend but was also a defensive leader during a 12--2 season that ended with a Cotton Bowl win.
If I had it my way, I would have done it the same way with whatever NFL team decided to draft me, but that didn't seem to be possible. Immediately after my senior season, national reporters started asking to tell "my story." I knew what they meant; they knew what they meant. These requests intensified after the Senior Bowl in January 2014, and it was becoming obvious that what was kept in the family at Mizzou was about to get out in a big way before the biggest moment of my football career—the NFL draft.
Deciding to publicly come out is a major moment in every gay person's life, and nobody wants to be outed. The reason I came out in a nationally televised interview was to ensure that I would have a chance to tell my story on my own terms.
I wasn't prepared, nor could I have been, for what happened next. People called me courageous, some even called me a hero, while others told me my announcement gave them inspiration and helped them in their personal journeys. I don't consider myself a hero or courageous. I was just being true to myself, but if that was enough to help some people through a difficult time, then I am very grateful to have been able to do so.
My journey over the last year has had its ups and downs, steps forward and back, but at this time a year ago there was one thing that was very clear in my mind: I was ready to play football.
GROWING UP in Hitchcock, Texas, was damn hard. There were times when I didn't want to go home, or didn't have a place to go to.
Playing sports was my salvation during my childhood. I was always a big kid, and I was born with a natural desire to compete. Trust me when I say that I'm not a good loser. There's a reason I was unofficially voted Least Liked on Game Day while I was at Missouri.
As I grew older, I became fascinated by football. Captivated by it. I wanted nothing more than to play. My mother forbade me from playing. It was against her religion. But I made the decision to strike out on my own path and defy my mom to play this game, and it was the best decision I have ever made. Football has always been a constant, positive force in my life, and many of the greatest experiences of my life have come from the game. Football has been there for me at times when few others have. It's pure and it's good, and it's what I do. I love football.
BY THE time I was drafted by coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams, I was ready to dive in and make an impact for my new team. I didn't know what to expect when I arrived at training camp, but my new teammates ended up being just as supportive as my family at Mizzou. A lot of the veterans welcomed me to the team personally and made me feel like I was just another football player—another rookie, in fact—and that I had better be prepared to be treated like one in the coming weeks.
I never doubted my teammates had my back, but if I needed evidence, it came toward the end of camp in August when a television network ran a questionable segment about my showering habits. My teammates and coaches spoke up for me, but when Chris Long sent his famous tweet informing the network that "everyone but you is over it," that meant a lot. To see a veteran like Chris publicly get my back is something I will never forget and will always be grateful for.
When I was cut by the Rams at the end of camp, I was devastated but grateful. They made a business decision that I understood, but they also had given me an opportunity to show I could play at the pro level. In four preseason games against guys who ended up playing on Sundays, I had 11 tackles and three sacks.
Not long after I was released by the Rams, the Cowboys gave me the chance to return home to Texas. The life of a practice-squad player is hard. You're expected to learn not only your team's playbook but also the opposing squad's as well, every week. I put my head down and worked hard for the Cowboys, doing everything I was asked—even at times playing offense in practices to simulate opposing teams' formations.
Because I didn't have the benefit of spending all of training camp with the Cowboys, I thought my arrival might be tough. But once again I found a welcoming locker room full of guys who respected me and treated me as part of the team. I learned a lot in Dallas from some of the best in the NFL, such as All-Pro tight end Jason Witten, who used his years of experience blocking pass rushers to teach me some tips on how to get to the quarterback faster.
Unfortunately, as in St. Louis, my time in Dallas ended more quickly than I wanted. There's a reason many veterans say that NFL stands for Not For Long.
THE LAST few months have been difficult for me as a football player. For the first time since I was a kid, I watched a season end from my living room instead of on the field.
Through all the ups and downs, though, I'm focused on getting back on an NFL roster. It's why I get up early every morning and push myself at the gym and why I'm looking to participate in the first-ever veterans combine next month.
As I train with the guys in McKinney, I know they know who I am. I played against some of them in the SEC in the fall of 2013, when I was co--Defensive Player of the Year. I know that when they see me doing sprints or putting up the weight I do, they wonder why I'm not on an NFL roster. Some even say as much.
I don't believe being gay has kept me off an NFL roster, but I will challenge anyone who says I don't have the talent to make it in the league and will continue to push myself every day and do whatever it takes until I can earn another roster spot.
Recently I've been approached by networks about participating in pregame shows or being a guest analyst. I've been asked point-blank why I don't quit football to explore other career opportunities.
I tell them the same thing every time: I'll give up the game when my legs are broken.
I'm a football player and will keep fighting for my dream to play in the NFL.
I'VE BEEN EATING RIGHT AND PUSHING MYSELF PHYSICALLY EVERY DAY SINCE I WAS LAST IN AN NFL LOCKER ROOM.
NBA Dunking Height
Faces in The Crowd
Career hat tricks in La Liga play for Barcelona's Lionel Messi, tying the record set earlier this season by Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid. Messi scored three times on Sunday in a 5--0 win over Levante, his 300th career La Liga match.
Win this season for Florida A&M, which became the last Division I men's team to pick up a victory when it beat North Carolina A&T 57--50 last Saturday. The Rattlers started the season 0--23.
Score of a Feb. 8 rugby match in Belgium in which Soignies lost to Kituro. Soignies planned to protest the result because the referee showed up late for the game, by which time some of its players had gone home.
Three-pointers attempted in the NBA All-Star Game, breaking by 33 the record set last year. The East and West combined to make 48 threes, 18 more than last season.
Two-pointers attempted in the West's 163--158 win over the East, the highest-scoring All-Star Game ever.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DAVID RAMOS/GETTY IMAGES (MESSI)
IAN MCKINNELL/GETTY IMAGES (BALL)
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ALL-STAR GAME)