Each week throughout the month of October, we will be profiling two people from the Equality Forum LGBT History Month icons list who have made a positive impact in their chosen professions. To see Equality Forum’s 2015 icons list, visit lgbthistorymonth.com.
Jason Collins was born in Los Angeles, California on December 2, 1978. He made headlines around the world on April 29, 2013 when a cover story with Sports Illustrated was published, detailing his coming out of the closet. Collins became the first professional men’s basketball player in North America to come out and live openly as a gay man.
Collins grew up in the neighborhood of Northridge with his twin brother Jarron. Both Jason and Jarron would end up playing in the NBA. They graduated together from the Harvard-Westlake School; a classmate of theirs was “How I Met Your Mother” actor Jason Segel. Both brothers attended Stanford University and played on the basketball team together as they had in high school. In 2001, his final year at Stanford, Jason Collins was an All-Pac-10 and an All-American team athlete.
Jason Collins was a first-round pick in the 2001 NBA draft, and played eight seasons for the New Jersey Nets. Collins played a key role in the Nets making it to the NBA Finals for the first time ever (the 2001-02 season). He would return to the Finals with the Nets the next year as well.
In 2008, Collins was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. Among the many squads he played on over the next five years, he spent the longest time with the Atlanta Hawks (three seasons, 2009-12). When he came out, he was playing for the Washington Wizards, but he became a free agent in July 2013.
He played the entire 2014 season with the Brooklyn Nets, whose coach, Jason Kidd, played with Collins back when the Nets were based in New Jersey; Kidd was a big advocate for signing Collins to the Nets. On November 19, 2014, after one season with the Brooklyn Nets, he announced that he would be retiring from professional football after 13 seasons playing for various teams.
Collins had previously been in a relationship for many years to a woman, WNBA player Carolyn Moos. At one time engaged to be married, Collins was the one to call off the wedding. Moos had only learned of Collins’ sexuality shortly before the Sports Illustrated cover story came out in 2013. In the Sports Illustrated story, he revealed that he chose his jersey number, 98, in honor of Matthew Shepard, who died after a brutal anti-gay beating in 1998.
Michael Sam was born on January 7, 1990 in Galveston, Texas. His childhood was unconventional and troubling. He dealt with homelessness at a point, he saw one of his brothers die from a gunshot wound, and two of his brothers are currently serving prison sentences. His parents were separated, and he lived with his mother until high school, which he attended in Hitchcock, Texas. Sam’s mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, did not agree with his decision to play football, so he lived with the parents of another teammate. He earned a scholarship to the University of Missouri, becoming the first person in his family to attend college.
While at Missouri, he majored in parks, recreation and tourism, and played the position of defensive end. Sam led the SEC in quarterback sacks and tackles for a loss (the 2013 season). In the 2013 season, which was his final year, he was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press. He was also named a Walter Camp Football Foundation First-Team All-American. He became one of 33 consensus All-Americans in University of Missouri history, and the first defensive end picked from Missouri in 13 years. The 2013 Missouri team went 11-1, rising as high as #5 in the AP Top 25 college football rankings, only losing in overtime against South Carolina.
Sam graduated with a bachelor’s degree in December 2013, and prepared for the 2014 NFL draft. He made headlines on February 9 when he came out during a telecast of the ESPN program Outside the Lines. When he came out, he said that he wanted to control the manner in which he came out, denying tabloids or other press to make a “scandal” out of something that isn’t one; he is out and unashamed and wanted to let the public know.
The St. Louis Rams chose Sam to be a part of their team in the 2014 NFL draft, as the 249th player out of 256 (in the seventh and final round). With that, he became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. Sam played with the Rams during the preseason, but was let go afterwards. The Dallas Cowboys picked him up and placed him on the practice squad for seven weeks. In 2015, he signed a two-year contract with the Montreal Alouettes, making him the first openly gay player in the Canadian Football League. In August 2015, he left the team, citing mental health concerns, and went back to Texas.
Read more LGBT History Month profiles all month long in the pages of Hotspots!