We were looking at it the wrong way.
We assumed the first openly gay NFL player would be someone with serious job security -- the star quarterback or the veteran linebacker with a Super Bowl ring. Someone with the desire to rewrite his legacy. Someone with enough influence and team support to weather the publicity storm. Maybe even a group of guys banded together in solidarity, strength in numbers.
But Michael Sam saw it differently. Instead of bracing himself for what might happen someday, he decided to embrace what's in front of him right now.
And on Sunday, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound defensive end from the University of Missouri took an unprecedented step for a male athlete in a major sport, publicly acknowledging he is gay before embarking on his professional career.
During his four seasons with the Tigers, Sam compiled 123 tackles and 21 sacks in 52 games. He was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, and he is projected as a middle-round pick in the NFL draft. If a team selects Sam when May rolls around, he could become the first openly gay player in league history.
Pretty heady stuff for a guy who grew up in little Hitchcock, Texas, about 40 miles south of Houston. Sam says his hobbies are hunting and fishing, but he is about to get a crash course in mass communications. He launched his Twitter account on Sunday night, and within two hours he had 35,000 followers. (The number had jumped to 46,000 by early Monday morning.)
Maybe we were betting on the big-name quarterback or point guard, the Cy Young winner or NHL All-Star, because we imagined that the effect would be akin to watching a large rock smash through glass. We wanted all the old stereotypes -- you know, the ones about what kind of guy and what kind of player can be gay -- shattered all at once.
But in retrospect, it was never going to happen that way. Instead, Sam is showing us how the majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender change will occur within sports: a gradual but steady flow starting at the high school and college levels, eventually rising up to the pros.
Yes, veteran male athletes will continue stepping out of the closet, too, just like their female counterparts. NBA player Jason Collins came out last spring, while still hoping for one more contract offer that has yet to materialize. And soccer player Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay man to compete in a top North American pro sports league when he joined the L.A. Galaxy last May, after coming out -- and temporarily retiring -- a few months earlier.
Sam's announcement, though, offers us another important look into the hearts and minds that are changing the social landscape of pro sports.
"I want to own my truth," he said on Sunday.
His reason for stepping forward now, at the age of 24, before ever pulling on a pro uniform, sounded very similar to that of basketball star Brittney Griner, who publicly acknowledged her sexuality before last year's WNBA draft. Griner wanted to live authentically, and she saw no reason to allow others to control her narrative.
Both Griner and Sam seem to understand intuitively a lesson that many others often struggle to grasp: Being in the closet makes you more vulnerable, not less, because there is so little room to move. Sam sensed the truth was his for only so long, and he wanted to hold onto it in a meaningful way, first sharing it with his teammates last season, and now with the rest of us as he eyes his football future.
It is often said that renovating a house is more stressful than building a new one, because changing something while preserving its original structure creates a number of complicated, and sometimes unexpected, challenges. In much the same way, it can be hard to change a culture -- in this case, the NFL -- when you've already established yourself inside it, when you're caught up in doing things a certain way and in following the cues of those around you.
There are perhaps dozens of gay NFL players (along with dozens more in the NBA, NHL and MLB) who have already built the houses in which they live, already spent years shaping their own stories. They have stayed quiet about their sexuality, or lied about it, and now their silence has become part of the structure around them.
But Sam understands that it's easier to tell his story truthfully, once, from the beginning, than to figure out how to reshape it later and tell it again.
Let others debate the timing of his announcement and how it might affect his draft stock. Anyone who thinks he should have waited doesn't understand what Michael Sam already knows.
His truth is now.