But last week Sam left Montreal with virtually no warning, and Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report believes he knows why: the relentless pressure of history was simply too much to shoulder.
This is Michael Sam's last fight, and it doesn't look good.
I believe I know what happened to Sam—why he suddenly bolted from his last, great chance to be a professional football player.
Some of you, holding a predisposition to dislike Sam because he's gay, won't understand what I'm about to say. Some of you, who understand nuance and human frailty, will get it.
I believe that Sam has reached this point—where he left the CFL's Montreal Alouettes last week with little explanation to the team—because the pressure of being the first finally got to him. In this case, the pressure that came from becoming the first openly gay NFL player.
Sam will always be a hero to me, but I also know he is made of flesh and blood. Like other pioneers in sports, he carried the weight of many people on his shoulders.
My belief is that that weight, increased by the anvil of social media, is far too heavy for Sam—for the moment at least. I think he just got tired…and so he left.
He may come back to Montreal. But for now, he's gone. The truth is, I'm surprised it took this long for the pressure to build and for Sam to finally succumb to it.
None of this is an excuse for Sam. Some people are built to be the first. They have layers of armor under already thick skin. Insults and slurs are deflected like bullets off Superman's chest.
Jackie Robinson was like this. Roberto Clemente was like this. James Harris, one of the pioneering black quarterbacks in the NFL and a longtime team executive, was like this. Amy Trask, the sport's first woman team executive, working for the Raiders, remained an exemplary human being in the face of bigotry. Same with Art Shell, the first black head coach in the NFL, and the first Latino coach in the league, Tom Flores.
But not everyone is superhuman, and not every story has a perfect Hollywood ending.
Sometimes, understandably, the hero doesn't say to the bad guys "Yippee ki-yay" and walk off into the sunset.
Michael Sam is a human being like the rest of us, and none of us are perfect. I hope he finds the peace he is looking for in his life, and a place to showcase his obvious talent. But for now, like the rest of us, he's still looking for where he fits in, in a sport where he is notably different from everyone else. The pressure coming from both those who despise him -- and from those who have the highest hopes for him -- seems to be too much.
I do not and cannot blame him for that. His decisions are his own.
I only hope he finds a way.