Coaches at the University of Missouri divided players into small groups at a preseason football practice last year for a team-building exercise. One by one, players were asked to talk about themselves — where they grew up, why they chose Missouri and what others might not know about them.
As Michael Sam, a defensive lineman, began to speak, he balled up a piece of paper in his hands. “I’m gay,” he said. With that, Mr. Sam set himself on a path to become the first publicly gay player in the National Football League.
“I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out,” Mr. Sam said Sunday in an interview with The New York Times, the first time he had spoken publicly about his sexual orientation.
Mr. Sam, a senior who was listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 260 pounds, had a stellar season as Missouri finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He was a first-team all-American and was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered the top league in college football. Teammates voted him Missouri’s most valuable player.
Now Mr. Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.
As the pace of the gay rights movement has accelerated in recent years, the sports industry has changed relatively little for men, with no publicly gay athletes in the N.F.L., the N.B.A., the N.H.L. or Major League Baseball. Against this backdrop, Mr. Sam could become a symbol for the country’s gay rights movement or a flash point in a football culture war — or both.
Mr. Sam, 24, is projected to be chosen in the early rounds of the N.F.L. draft in May, ordinarily a path to a prosperous pro career. He said he decided to come out publicly now because he sensed that rumors were circulating.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” said Mr. Sam, who also spoke with ESPN on Sunday. “I just want to own my truth.”
But the N.F.L. presents the potential for unusual challenges. In the past year or so, it has been embroiled in controversies ranging from antigay statements from players to reports that scouts asked at least one prospective player if he liked girls. Recently, Chris Kluwe, a punter, said that he was subject to homophobic language from coaches and pushed out of a job with the Minnesota Vikings because he vocally supported same-sex marriage laws. And last week, Jonathan Vilma, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, said in an interview with NFL Network that he did not want a gay teammate.
“I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” said Mr. Vilma, a 10-year league veteran.
In a statement Sunday night, the league said: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the N.F.L. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”