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Kansas State OT Scott Frantz is gay. Does it even matter?

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MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Scott Frantz trembled, then felt tears welling in his eyes. He tried to listen intently as his Kansas State teammates talked about their own traumas -- growing up in poverty, losing loved ones, desperately fighting to be the first members of their families to attend college -- and he kept wondering if this really could be the time when he announced his sexual orientation to the entire Wildcats football team.

The setting seemed safe enough: Roughly 120 football players had gathered on the club level of the press box at the Bill Snyder Family Stadium to hear motivational speaker Dr. Derek Greenfield talk. Greenfield had implored the players to recognize that being part of a family meant more than just playing together. It meant being able to trust one another with some serious secrets.

Frantz watched an assortment of teammates agree to Greenfield's challenge to come forward and talk about what made them unique. He then felt a queasy sensation in his stomach, as if he was riding a roller coaster that suddenly had flipped upside down at breakneck speed. The tears flowed down his cheeks faster. Beads of sweat quickly pooled on his forehead. At one point, he looked like such an emotional wreck that his friend, offensive tackle Dalton Risner, glanced over and asked, "Are you OK, man?"

Frantz nodded. He'd known he was gay since the fifth grade. He'd hidden it from his parents, his two brothers, his teachers, his coaches, and every friend he'd ever known. When he grew into a standout offensive tackle at Free State High School in Lawrence, Kansas, he made sure all the college recruiters who came calling for his services didn't have any idea, either. Frantz had watched with admiration when former Missouri star Michael Sam came out before the 2014 NFL Draft -- when Frantz was in the 11th grade -- but living in the shadows seemed like a much safer road to follow in football back then.

Now, at 19 years old and having just finished his redshirt freshman season, he started to feel differently. "In that moment when my teammates were telling personal things, I just had this urge growing inside me," Frantz said. "I kept feeling, This is your time. This is the best time you'll ever have to share what's been weighing me down for my entire life."

Finally, the session neared its end. Greenfield scanned the room, then announced there was time for one last player to talk. The coaches had scheduled a workout right after that meeting, so whomever was about to speak next had to hustle. Frantz slowly stood. His teammates had formed a circle to support everyone who spoke, so he trudged toward the middle of it, moving so cautiously that Risner thought his pal might faint. Once Frantz found himself in a position where he could see every face in the room, he sat down and took a few more minutes to collect himself.

When he eventually spoke, the words spilled out in an almost unintelligible mumble. A couple teammates instinctively reached out and held him, just so he knew he had their support. Once Frantz started talking clearly, he made two comments that struck Risner like thunderbolts. The first was that the deeply religious Frantz had hated himself for the last 10 years of his life. The other was that he'd prayed every night as to why God had made him like that.

Frantz recently recounted that story as he sat inside the team meeting room at the Vanier Family Football Complex at Kansas State. Instead of looking frightened and reticent, he had the confident feel of someone who's grown quite comfortable in his own skin over the last four years. He'd turned 23 only a couple months earlier -- on June 7 -- and he was savoring the opportunity to play his senior season for the Wildcats. Everything he'd feared before he came out to his teammates had vanished the moment he broke that news.

Frantz felt so good about that decision in March 2016 that he publicly announced his sexual orientation on ESPN a year later. He's also started every game in his career and earned a degree in secondary education and social sciences (he's currently pursuing a master's in special education). About the only question he hasn't been able to answer thus far is the one that will come when his college career ends: Will he find just as rewarding an experience when he tries to build a career in the NFL?

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Michael Sam was the first openly gay athlete to try to make it in the league, but the most he accomplished was a two-month stint on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad. When Frantz gets his opportunity next year, the hope is that he's entering an environment that will be as accepting as the one he's enjoyed in college.

"Can he ball?" said Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller when asked how an openly gay player would be treated. "That's the only thing that matters to me. Can you play football? That's first and foremost. Gay, male, female ... that's all I care about: If you can produce."

"We have a league where a lot of these young players have grown up in a very different world," added one AFC personnel director. "It's way more liberal now and a lot of (the discussion about the culture toward same-sex relationships) is way overrated. What's the difference between taking somebody who has a drug addiction or someone who beats his wife or somebody who has committed a felony? We take those guys in this league all the time. Having a gay man on the roster would be the least of my worries."

As encouraging as those statements might sound -- that fretting over adding a gay athlete to a roster is ridiculous when considering all the players with actual baggage who find jobs in the league every year -- the reality is Sam is the only gay man who ever felt comfortable pursuing an NFL career while being open about his sexuality. To date, there have been eight gay men who played in the league but didn't acknowledge their sexual orientation until after their playing careers were finished. One of them, Ryan O'Callaghan, who played six seasons in the NFL with the Patriots and Chiefs, estimates the league is filled with dozens of players facing a similar dilemma.

"There is at least one gay player on every team," said O'Callaghan, who recently authored a memoir entitled, "My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life." "I know of multiple players on one team, guys who were drafted last year and former Pro Bowl players. The LGBTQ community is pretty tight. We all try to help one another."

Those players likely haven't come out for the same reasons O'Callaghan didn't during his career and why Frantz remained closeted for most of his own life: It's frightening to think about what your life would be like when the world knows your biggest secret. It's even scarier when that secret comes out in a sport that is the epitome of masculine behavior.

"We have a misconception out there," said Jeff Fisher, who was the head coach of the St. Louis Rams when the team selected Sam in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. "The perception is that the gay male has a feminine soul, that there's nothing macho about being gay. And football is a bad-ass sport."

The ultra-masculine aura surrounding football stands at the entire center of the conversation about whether gay men can feel comfortable in the NFL. Free agent defensive end Ryan Russell, a three-year veteran who played with the Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, recently revealed himself as bisexual in a first-person essay that appeared on ESPN.com. Speaking about that admission, Russell said, "The whole process has been extremely positive. I'm really surprised that I haven't had a negative experience. Nobody has fallen out of my life." At 27 years old and in the prime of his career, he's also still hoping to find another job in the league.

Former NFL running back Larry Johnson made his own headlines shortly after the news about Russell broke. A two-time All-Pro with the Kansas City Chiefs, Johnson wrote on Twitter that "There is an Effeminate Agenda going on amongst the NFL & NBA Elite, peddled by high ranking Masons/handlers to indoctrinate the heterosexual sports world without them knowing, for the buying power of the LGBTQ community ��� But we not ready to have that conversation yet."

Johnson also suggested that Sam's presence in the league was a "planned" attempt to gauge public reaction and that players suspiciously wear pink uniform items in October, which happens to be LGBT History Month. (The players have typically worn such apparel in support of breast cancer awareness, which is also highlighted in October.) Johnson has had his own personal issues -- he was arrested five times in his career because of allegations of violence against women and now believes he suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- but it would be foolish to assume he's the only person thinking this way.

When asked how an openly gay football player would be treated in the NFL today, former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said, "There would be some apprehension from some players, but it would go away quickly." A veteran player, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was more pessimistic, saying it's likely that "50 percent of the league wouldn't be into it." That same player also was a member of the Cowboys when Sam was on that team's practice squad. As the player said, "I can tell you that one dude had his locker moved to the other side of the room when they heard he was coming to that team."

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When O'Callaghan played for New England from 2006 through '08, he became accomplished at protecting himself from the more archaic views about the place sexual orientation could have in pro football. He instinctively knew how to offer certain cues that kept his teammates from questioning him. One year he brought a woman to an annual anniversary party thrown by team owner Bob Kraft and Kraft's now deceased wife, Myra. O'Callaghan figured his teammates wouldn't think twice about his sexuality if he had an attractive woman on his arm.

As a bisexual, Russell said he didn't have to "parade" around with women because he actually liked dating them. What he did do was keep his more creative interests, such as writing poetry, hidden from his teammates, explaining that "it wasn't a narrative that played well with football." Said Russell: "I'm far more aware of and protective of myself now, whereas before I was in competition with myself."

Wade Davis wasn't good enough to make an NFL roster as a cornerback in the early 2000s. However, he also was determined to keep his sexual orientation a secret during his playing days, so much so that little moments made him ponder how hard his life had become. When he was trying to make the Washington Redskins during the 2003 season, he found himself watching film with Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey and a couple other teammates. When Bailey mentioned that too many young defensive backs create problems on the field by relying on "wasted motion" -- Bailey was referring to a habit of taking an extra step when breaking on a ball -- Davis immediately thought about how much wasted motion was involved in his own attempt to sell the world on his being a heterosexual.

As Davis stressed, it's not just enough for people to talk about their willingness to accept gay men in the NFL. The conversation is far more nuanced than that and filled with issues that go far deeper than just the question of whether a straight football player can be cool with a gay teammate. O'Callaghan recognizes this every time he's invited to talk to a team. He often starts his discussions by asking players how they would respond if a teammate came out to them. If the room stays silent, he cuts deeper.

"I'll ask them how they would respond if they were in the shower and they thought a gay teammate was checking them out," O'Callaghan said. "That's when they'll start grumbling and it's also when we can really start talking."

Davis faced similar reactions when he became the league's first diversity and inclusion consultant in 2014. He spent the last five years talking to teams on a regular basis and taking the approach that everything was inbounds. His sessions usually last 90 minutes, but he had one memorable interaction with a team that went nearly two and a half hours. It was the kind of discussion that Davis feels is vital to moving the ball forward on gay players feeling more included in today's NFL.

Davis started that event in a typical fashion -- by waiting until he was 45 minutes into his talk before acknowledging that he was gay. As soon as that happened, one player in the crowd said, "Damn, I thought you were like me!" A few moments later, another player raised his hand and said, "Hey, homie -- I don't mean no disrespect, but I don't want to play with a gay player." Instead, of taking offense, Davis had a different response: His eyes lit up with obvious interest.

"I was excited to hear that," said Davis, who just recently left the NFL for a new job. "I said, 'Tell me more.' And he was shocked that I was curious. But when it was over, he gave me his number and told me to give him a call to talk more about this. He said that nobody had ever given him the openness to talk about this stuff. He thought being gay meant being a pedophile. But that's also why it's so important to get to 'zero' (the bottom line) when discussing this. You have to get to 'zero' before you can have a real conversation."

Frantz found his truth in that motivational seminar with his teammates. As soon as he told them he was gay, the players swarmed him instinctively. Some gave him high-fives and fist-bumps. Others hugged him joyfully, as if he'd just emerged as the hero in the national championship game. Frantz already had told head coach Bill Snyder about his sexuality a few days earlier. Now he was seeing the full impact of Snyder's advice to him after their meeting -- that he would benefit greatly from informing his teammates about who he really was.

The celebration lasted long enough that the coaches started wondering why the players were running so late for their scheduled workout. Once they arrived, Frantz described himself as "floating" through the rigorous drills after receiving such instant support.

"I did have fears of coming out," Frantz said. "But the bottom line was that no matter what would've happened, it would've been better than living with that weight on my shoulders. Obviously, I feared relationships changing. We had such a great group of guys that I knew it wasn't going to change drastically. I wasn't worried about the locker room or losing my friends. Ultimately, I was most worried about telling my family."

Frantz returned home to his family's house in Lawrence a week later. His parents, Kim and Stan, were sitting around when he walked in and told them he wanted to talk about something. There wasn't the same stifling anxiety this time around. Frantz just told them straight up that their youngest son was gay. Kim and Stan responded in much the same way as Scott's teammates, as they hugged him and emphasized how much they loved him.

The parents also acknowledged how much that news jolted them. In fact, Kim cried when Scott left the room after the conversation. "It was hard," Stan said. "It was a shock. You start worrying about how other people will treat him and perceive him without knowing him. That was my worry."

Added Kim: "You could tell he felt so much better after telling us. Scott is an authentic person and not being authentic was hard for him. One of the toughest things for us was just thinking about how he went through all of this on his own. It made you feel really sad."

Frantz did something during that conversation with his parents that spoke to his maturity at the time. He told them he appreciated their love and support but that he also understood they needed time to process everything that was changing in their lives. Both of his parents grew up in small, conservative towns. Raised as a Mennonite, Stan had been taught that being gay was a sin.

The one thing Scott realized was that he'd been trying to accept his sexual orientation since he was in the fifth grade. What he couldn't do was think his parents were going to accept it in a couple hours.

"I knew they loved me so much that nothing would change that," Frantz said. "I just needed to give them time to think and reflect and hopefully understand. Going in, I knew it would be ignorant of me to say something like, 'Your son is gay and I expect you to understand right away.' I told them and then I gave them some space."

Frantz spent the next year of his life reveling in all the acceptance he received. Shortly after he came out to the football team, Risner texted him and invited him to dinner. They went to a Longhorn Steakhouse and spent the next three hours talking about what Frantz had been through while living a double life. Risner already had great respect for Frantz, both as a player and as a young man with a deep religious faith. That admiration increased as they talked more about Frantz's journey.

Frantz appreciated that initial gesture by Risner, as well as the treatment he received from his teammates in the year that followed. As was the case with Sam when he played at Missouri, not one player on the 2016 Kansas State football team allowed the news of Frantz's sexuality to become public. He never asked his teammates to keep it a secret. They just decided that was how they would show their support.

"When I encouraged Scott to share his thoughts with his teammates in an open forum, I had great confidence that our players would accept it appropriately and then move on," said Snyder, who retired from coaching following the 2018 season. "Our players didn't share it with anybody. From that point on, nobody even thought about it. It was business as usual."

The difference in Frantz before and after his announcement was pronounced. He talked more around his teammates. He didn't seem as stressed about daily issues. He also played like the highly touted recruit Snyder had expected him to become when Frantz committed to Kansas State.

Frantz became the first Kansas State freshman to start every game at left tackle since 1988. He was named to the first-team Academic All-Big 12 team and he played so well in the Texas Bowl -- helping to hold Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, a player who would become the top overall pick in the 2017 draft, to one tackle -- that he received All-Bowl honors from the Associated Press. Frantz was living exactly the kind of life he hoped to have. He was having such a good time that he decided it was time to take another bold step: He wanted to let the entire world in on the secret he'd buried for most of his life.

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The NFL started to think about taking a proactive approach toward addressing LGBTQ issues in 2014. Troy Vincent, the league's executive vice president of football operations, connected with Davis and began the process of scheduling various seminars for educating teams on the importance of inclusion.

"At that time, we weren't hearing from the people this affected the most," Vincent said. "Wade had the chance to speak to football personnel about his experiences and how to communicate, both internally and externally, when the topic arose. Our thinking was, 'Let's hear from the men and women who are gay.' It was about bridge-building."

It's been an honorable mission, but it also hasn't addressed the own stigma some players feel by the time they reach the NFL. O'Callaghan knew he was gay when he hit puberty. When his friends started to develop crushes on girls, he wondered why he didn't have the same attraction to the opposite sex. Once he became a local football standout in Redding, California, he saw the game as an ideal way to hide his true nature.

"Everybody saw me as this masculine guy," O'Callaghan said. "I thought this is a great cover. I can use this."

By the time O'Callaghan left the University of California and entered the NFL in 2006, he said, "I was so deeply closeted and blind to the outside world that I never recognized my options. I just got to a point where I was really miserable. I knew I was gay. I just didn't see any potential positives in being an openly gay man."

Davis experienced similar feelings. A self-described "scrub" who tried to make the roster of three different NFL teams between 2000 and 2004 (Tennessee, Seattle, Washington), he remembers being "hyper-vigilant about nobody every reading me as gay. The one benefit that came from being able to play for Coach Fisher (in Tennessee) was that he was a player's coach and knew what the locker room was like. He knew what should be allowed to go on in there. Some coaches weren't that way."

When former players like O'Callaghan and Davis talk about the NFL environment toward same-sex relations, they emphasize that it is a two-way street. On one hand, there are players very much like themselves who have spent years living double lives. The longer those players live those lives, the more threatened they feel to come out. In fact, Russell talked about how the pressure to provide for the single mother who raised him played a pivotal role in keeping his sexuality a secret.

"I didn't want to do anything that would jeopardize that," Russell said. "I put my sexuality in the same box as I wouldn't drink during the season or spend six hours a day playing video games. It became a routine sacrifice that you made to play at the highest level."

The other aspect of this dynamic is the world these players must live in every day. As often as heterosexual athletes will say they don't have an issue with gay players, the reality is that there are often subtle cues inside locker rooms that can convey a more threatening vibe. For example, Davis said he heard the word "faggot" uttered regularly when he was playing high school football. He rarely heard that slur in the NFL, but the word "bitch" -- which is common, according to Davis -- could have a similarly negative impact on a gay man.

What could be perceived as guys having typical locker room fun -- Marvin Lewis said he's had players who suspected some teammates were gay because those players would admire their own physiques while lifting weights -- might also make a gay athlete wonder if he'd be ostracized because of certain actions.

When Davis had his first opportunity to speak to coaches at the 2014 NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando, he spent a good amount of time stressing the importance of straight players, executives and owners openly reinforcing their beliefs about wanting to include gay athletes in pro football. It was the first indication of Davis' potential to teach the league about LGBTQ people and their lives. "Because of Wade's experience, expertise and education, he's able to speak in a way that engages (people)," Vincent said. "He normalized this discussion with that audience."

"I talked about the idea that just because you're gay, that doesn't mean you haven't been here before," Davis said. "We've been in locker rooms since little league, so we know how to comport ourselves. I talked about the idea of wasted motion -- how if you don't create the environment for players to come out, you'll have guys spending a lot of time living double lives. I then told them the ask is not that you're perfect but that you stay in it. That when (heterosexuals) make a mistake (in dealing with a gay person), that they recognized it and wanted to continue to grow. I don't use the language of changing hearts and minds. We only say that about people that we think need to grow, when the truth is we all do."

Davis' words were moving enough that John Fox, the head coach of the Denver Broncos at that time, approached him afterward and told him it was the best talk he had heard at an owners meeting. Fisher was impressed in a different way. When Davis first took the stage, the Rams head coach kept studying him quizzically, trying to recall how he knew this guy. The face looked familiar, but Fisher also had spent nearly two decades as an NFL head coach by that point. There was no way he easily could've remembered a player who wasn't good enough to survive final cuts with the Titans in two separate seasons.

As Fisher recalled, "When Wade took the stage, I kept asking myself where I knew this guy from. Then he just tore me apart (for not keeping Davis with the Titans). But when he talked about keeping a girlfriend just so he could fit in, I thought about how difficult that must have been for him. That's what isn't fair. When somebody has to hide like that, that's not living a freedom of life."

Fisher wound up talking with Davis after the session, as well. He didn't know exactly how he wanted to utilize all the information Davis had offered but the coach did see substantial value in it. The world was changing rapidly. Fisher wanted to stay ahead of the curve when it came to social issues.

A little over a month later, Fisher sat in the Rams war room with general manager Les Snead as the 2014 draft neared its conclusion. The seventh round had started, and the Rams were weighing the remaining options on their board. There were two players they liked, but only one was still the highest-rated player in their mind: Michael Sam. So, Fisher and Snead chatted. Then Fisher called Rams owner Stan Kroenke to explain their thinking.

Sam had attracted major media attention ever since he came out in a televised interview two months before the draft. He had enjoyed plenty of success as a collegian -- along with being named an All-American, he was the Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 -- but the bigger story revolved around whether any NFL team would make him the first openly gay man drafted into the NFL.

"There really were two guys we liked," Fisher said. "And ultimately we decided on Mike."

The first call Fisher made after the conversation with Kroenke was to Sam. The second one was far more telling. It was to Wade Davis.

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Frantz was having such a good time finally living as an openly gay man during his second year at Kansas State that he pondered a bold idea: Maybe it was time to tell everyone about his sexuality. That thought eventually led to him sitting down for a nationally televised interview with ESPN reporter Holly Rowe in July 2017. It wasn't an easy move to make, either. As his mother, Kim, recalled, "He basically kept us out of the loop for a while. But we had heard a couple things. (The news about Scott's sexual orientation) was starting to get out. He wound up telling us six weeks before (the ESPN interview) happened."

"Coming out publicly was a difficult thing for me," Frantz said. "If you know me, I'm not one who likes the attention. As an offensive lineman, I thrive on going under the radar. Part of me wanted to say, 'This is my life and people on the outside don't need to know about my life.' But then the other part of me was saying I can use this platform to help other people."

Frantz didn't know what to expect before the interview. When he talked to staffers at the school's sports information department, he acknowledged it could either turn into a major story or it could end up flying under the radar. Privately, Frantz hoped for the latter. His main concern was connecting with people who felt the same fears and frustrations that had haunted him when he kept his life a secret.

Frantz didn't see himself as the flag bearer for gay football players. He simply wanted to educate people on what he'd experienced.

"I prayed that my coming out publicly -- although it wasn't a national thing or gained a lot of traction -- I felt like the people searching for it found it," Frantz said. "When I came out publicly, I got hundreds of social media DMs, emails, people saying how much that meant to them. That's ultimately why I did that. I wanted to reach out to the people who needed to hear it -- to say it's all right. You can live openly as a gay person even in a masculine, football setting. It's not a big deal."

It certainly wasn't a big deal in the world Frantz lived in at Kansas State. Fellow students offered the same kind of support he received from teammates. Opponents respected him enough to not pepper him with gay slurs. For all the concerns gay players felt about coming out in the NFL, Frantz experienced something altogether different. He learned that his environment was more than ready to handle the reality of his personal life.

That didn't mean Frantz wasn't completely immune to the potential burdens that came with being openly gay. He admitted that he felt more pressure to prove himself on the field, as if there might be a greater need to succeed because of his sexual orientation.

"I think he was definitely aware of it," Risner. "He also was aware that people on the other side knew about his situation and that was also uncomfortable. But I'm sure he wanted to go out and say, 'I know I came out and I'm gay, but I'm still going to whoop your ass on the field.' That was a big difference. He started talking trash on the field. I was like, 'Where did this come from?' "

"I felt like I did have to prove more," Frantz said. "Being gay, football is probably the last sport that people would think stereotypically that gay men would play. There was that extra nudge of 'I want to show people I can play, that I'm not soft.' There was definitely an extra desire to play great and do well and make it to the NFL."

Frantz began thinking that pro football was a real option for him after a couple years of starting. Fellow offensive linemen like Risner and Abdul Beecham had matured into pro prospects and Frantz had been starting alongside them ever since his freshman season. Former Kansas State offensive line coach Charlie Dickey saw the potential in Frantz, as well. As Frantz moved into his junior year, Dickey kept imploring him to work on his craft and play hard. The more he did that, the more NFL scouts would notice his talent.

Snyder was just as encouraged about Frantz's growth. He touted Frantz's intelligence, experience and durability as some of the major positives scouts should consider when evaluating his lineman's chances at the next level. Just as importantly, Snyder noticed something telling when scouts came to Kansas State to assess players in the spring prior to Frantz's junior season. They weren't grilling the coach with questions about Frantz's sexual orientation.

"Everybody who came in asked about Scott as a player," Snyder said. "They didn't go into the stuff about his sexuality. They all knew about it, but it wasn't a situation where I was having to prove that Scott was a good, quality person."

Frantz has heard plenty of encouraging news as he talks to agents -- college players can meet but not sign with prospective representatives -- and his friends who are now on NFL rosters. "We talk a lot and they tell me, 'People are asking about you. They're excited to watch you play this year.' It's really cool," Frantz said.

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Fisher didn't sense excitement in his players when the Rams gathered for a meeting in early May 2014, just a few days before the team's rookie minicamp and Sam's arrival. Ambivalence was a better way to describe the vibe in that meeting room as Wade Davis entered to speak. The players already had been grinding through the offseason workout program. Now they had to spend an hour or so listening to a lecture on working alongside a gay teammate.

"The players wanted no part of that meeting," Fisher said. "But Wade brought them to tears by the time he left."

Fisher clearly understood how delicately he had to handle the situation. The media circus surrounding Sam had been crazed ever since he had revealed his sexual orientation in the ESPN interview two months before the draft. Some league executives anonymously said the news would cause Sam to fall in the draft. When Sam returned to the Missouri campus, he found religious protesters condemning him and current students supporting him.

Sam also introduced his personal life to the world in another way. After learning of the Rams' decision to select him, he kissed his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, in front of a camera crew that was broadcasting his draft party to a national television audience. As Fisher acknowledged, "The phone call and the affection that Michael showed to his partner on national TV was uncomfortable for some guys. But I also wasn't told that until after Michael was gone."

"As a gay man, you want to see the world as being accepting, but the reality is that everybody isn't on board," O'Callaghan said. "A lot of people look at what happened with Michael as an example of that. The first time the world was introduced to him (after being drafted), he kissed his boyfriend on TV. That rubbed some people the wrong way. It was a normal reaction, but it didn't set the tone the right way. That's why I tell [gay athletes] that you have to be yourself, but you also have to understand your surroundings."

Sam wasn't concerned about those issues when he joined the Rams. His main priorities were finding a job and fitting in.

"I felt like I was on the outside looking in," he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Dallas. "It's a big club. But as time went on, I'd ask players and coaches what I could do to earn their respect. They said, 'Just be yourself.' And when I did that, they got to know me."

Fisher stressed there weren't any problems when it came to Sam. The only potential distraction was one the coach dealt with before Sam ever entered training camp. The player's agents had agreed to a documentary project that would involve a camera crew following Sam around as he made his way into the NFL. Fisher rejected that idea, but agreed to let the filmmakers use footage the team had shot.

Not that Sam needed any extra attention on himself. He vividly remembered the scrutiny he received from the media during his time with the Rams.

"There were questions about what I was like in the locker room," he said. "They wanted to ask (teammates) about what I was like in the shower. Who asks questions like that?"

The other major issue facing Sam was the depth of competition. The Rams' defensive line room had four former first-round picks in it that offseason, including veteran defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Sam wasn't nearly as athletic as those players and, at 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, he also lacked ideal size for the position. For all the success he enjoyed in college -- he had 10 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss as a senior -- he struggled with one of the worst labels a pro defender can have thrust upon him: He was the stereotypical "tweener."

What was most frustrating for Sam was that critics kept referring back to his pre-draft workouts when looking for reasons to bash him. He kept hearing about how slow his time was at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, how he didn't have the size to defend the run in the pros.

"I don't think anybody really knew what kind of player he was when he first came out (as being gay)," said Marvin Lewis. "I think people thought he was better than he was. But once you put the film on, his tape didn't match the hype."

The Rams eventually cut Sam in training camp, which crushed him.

"I was getting invited to dinners with teammates. I was hanging out with the guys. It was so awesome," he recalled. "I was thinking that I'd be in the same state where I went to school and I already had a big fan base. Even after I got cut, I felt like I'd get picked up immediately. Then after three days, I still didn't have a job."

The Cowboys eventually signed Sam to their practice squad, but the vibe in Dallas was far more corporate than what he experienced in St. Louis. After the Cowboys released him from their practice squad, Sam gave the Canadian Football League a shot, signing a deal with the Montreal Alouettes in May 2015. He eventually retired from football three months later, admitting that "I got very depressed and into my head." The legacy he left behind was one of mixed results.

The courage he displayed in revealing his sexual orientation just a few months before the draft was impossible to ignore. When asked about his treatment, Sam said, "For the most part, it was fair. It was a business and there was no special treatment. They treated me like a rookie. But because I was out (as gay), I also think that played a role in me not playing in the NFL."

Others contend Sam didn't have much impact at all.

"Michael Sam didn't help," said the AFC personnel director. "Because at the end of the day, he wasn't a good enough player."

That essential belief -- that a gay player must be a good player -- is one of the issues that clouds the entire conversation about how accepting the NFL is. It's already hard enough for a gay man to feel comfortable enough to reveal his sexual orientation in a world that is incredibly macho. Throw in the part about having to dominate to earn true respect, and the challenge becomes that much greater. So, while it's plausible that nobody would denigrate Tom Brady if he turned out to be gay, what's also valid is that not everybody is going to end up being Tom Brady.

Davis spends a lot of time trying to explain some of these inherent prejudices that exist within the conversation of same-sex relationships in sports overall, not just pro football. As he pointed out, "There's a deep component of sexism to this, as well. You can be a lesbian and be considered a great athlete, but that's because a lesbian is considered more masculine. We don't think of someone as being more feminine as being capable of being a great athlete."

Davis added that most people aren't merely looking for an openly gay man to find a place in the league. They're looking for an openly gay man they deem respectable to find that spot in pro football. To draw a comparison, he mentioned how Rosa Parks may have gained a ton of attention for her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, but she wasn't the first to fight that battle. Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl with a working-class background and darker skin than Parks, did the same thing nine months earlier. Colvin just didn't have the same appeal to folks looking for another face of the civil rights movement.

"I don't believe you need to be a Tom Brady-level athlete (to succeed as a gay football player)," Davis said. "The world thinks that. We have to question why the world thinks that person needs to be a superstar."

Sam clearly can relate to that sentiment. He actually came out before the 2014 draft because of pressure from his agents. They saw him as somebody who could represent a powerful voice for the LGBQT community, and as Sam said, "I wanted to show the world that gay people could play football, too." Instead, he learned how daunting a responsibility that really was.

Sam said he fell into such a deep depression after his career ended that he spent the last five years "healing" himself through therapy and self-help books.

"You can say I was exploited," he said. "But I made the choice to come out when I did. In the end, it was my decision."

* * * * *



Like Sam, Frantz won't be viewed as a future star when his NFL opportunity arrives. Heading into his senior year, the 6-5, 303-pounder was projected as a late-round pick or an undrafted free agent -- the kind of player who might have to fight his way onto a roster. Not that Frantz is spending too much time dwelling on pro football.

"Once you focus too much on the future, you forget to live in the here and now," he said. "But I understand the NFL is a real possibility for me. And when that time comes, it comes."

The most interesting question surrounding Frantz isn't whether he'll have a chance to make it in the league. It's whether the environment he's leaving at Kansas State -- the one where teammates embraced his sexual orientation -- will be comparable to the one he'll soon enter. There isn't a day that goes by when he isn't grateful about the way that team accepted him (and that new Wildcats head coach Chris Klieman has been just as supportive). What is harder to pin down is if that reaction had more to do with that program or how the world has evolved.

"It's a couple things," Risner said. "I'd like to attest it to how our team was -- the kind of family we had on the team and how we came together. But at the same time, when I look at where we're at in the world today, and how we're exposed to new things -- like Michael Sam -- we've had people who've stepped forward. We've seen that and we're aware of it. And at the end of the day, the bottom line is that we all love Scott. And just because he told us he was gay, that didn't change a damn thing."

"They look at me as Scott Frantz, the football player," Frantz said. "If you asked them for the top 10 things about me, my being gay might not even be on the list. That's what was so amazing about this locker room. I didn't want to come out and say, 'I'm gay, this is who I am, and this is all about me.' Like being gay is who I am. It's only a small part of who I am. They still look at me as Scott Frantz, the football player."

It would be wonderful to think that every gay football player could encounter what Frantz has felt during his career at Kansas State. However, both O'Callaghan and Davis stress that it really isn't that easy. O'Callaghan didn't come out to his family until 2012, when his NFL career had ended. He described himself as "a joke" by that stage of his life, largely because he was addicted to painkillers and seriously contemplating suicide.

"My whole plan was to play football until I couldn't anymore," he said, "and then I was going to kill myself."

The person most responsible for helping O'Callaghan overcome his demons was a psychologist he'd met after finishing his career. She helped him target the pain he was fighting, and he trusted her enough to start loving himself. O'Callaghan also reached out to former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, who had been an executive with the Patriots when O'Callaghan played there. When he informed Pioli of his sexual orientation, Pioli simply said, "OK, what's the big deal?"

That moment helped O'Callaghan learn the same lesson Frantz discovered at Kansas State -- that there is more compassion in the world than they might have expected. Their two experiences also are valuable because they reveal how much players like themselves must be willing to take that gamble in opening up to the world. As Davis said, "If you're not out in high school or college, you're not coming to the NFL and coming out. The higher you go, the bigger the risks are."

Those risks aren't merely financial, although O'Callaghan often points to the success of gay people in other sports, alluding to the fact that American free-style skier Gus Kenworthy received several high-profile endorsement deals heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics. There's also the risk of losing one's identity. Davis said that a man who's dreamed of being a football player his entire life doesn't grow up dreaming about being "a gay football player." That player also likely doesn't spend much time thinking about everything that comes with such a label.

Being a gay football player means having to think about a lot more things going on around you. As O'Callaghan said, "When your teammate is talking about the girl he hooked up with the night before, he's probably not going to want to hear about what you were doing."

Added Davis: "If I'm on your team and you're not in the LGBTQ community, now you have to answer questions (about sexual orientation). Now I've put my teammates in a difficult position. How many men can say they're confident enough to shower with a gay man? Can someone say that without coming across as being homophobic?"

It's a legitimate question. It's also a difficult way to live. The major takeaway from Frantz's experience at Kansas State is that a gay football player can't worry about having an answer for every potentially awkward situation. In many ways, all that person can do is take the leap of faith and hope that he lands in the kind of environment Frantz discovered in Manhattan.

At the very least, his experience can give people in the NFL a better sense of what true acceptance of gay players on a football team should look like. Troy Vincent said Frantz's experience is consistent with what he's seen during his own playing days.

"My experience in talking to gay teammates when I played was that the locker room is a safe place," Vincent said. "In some cases, it was the safest place. Some of the guys I knew weren't out at home or in the community, but they could feel safe around the team."

"I think the NFL is ready for an openly gay player," O'Callaghan said. "I would be out of line if I said every owner would want to do it. But I know somebody like Mr. Kraft would do it."

When asked about how much opinions have changed about gay men playing in the NFL, Fisher said, "It would've been more difficult back when I played (in the 1980s) because I don't think the information was available then. To me, this is about inclusion. You don't pass judgement because of ethnicity or sexuality. But you are in a competitive environment, so nobody is gaining a break because of sexuality. You'd do that for potential but not for anything else."

Sam's message to Frantz is actually the same advice he received: Stay true to yourself. He added that Frantz is traveling a tougher road then he might imagine.

"I wish I'd been more patient," Sam said. "It was too soon. I knew what I wanted to do. If I had been more patient, come into the league and planted some roots before coming out, it would've been better. It definitely affected my career."

Frantz understands there likely will be more challenges, but he's good with that. He didn't choose to be gay. He chose to be a football player, one who happens to be gay. It took him eight years to admit that to the world and now he's had three more years to enjoy the rewards of that decision.

He can't predict what the next stage of his football career will look like when he leaves Kansas State. What he does know is that he's learned some valuable lessons along the way.

"My biggest message is that we live in a society now where things have changed a lot," he said. "I think a lot of people wanted to know if I was going to be this big activist like Michael Sam. I do want to be an activist, but in my own way. I want to show people that you can be gay and that it's okay. We all don't have to agree with each other. But we can still love each other, accept each other and live our own lives."

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