By Phillip Lentsch–

The University of Louisville LGBT Center capped off its annual Pride Week with an unlikely ally: a football player.

Michael Sam, former University of Missouri defensive end and the first openly gay NFL player, delivered the LGBT Center’s keynote speech to a crowd of U of L faculty and students.

The talk began with an introduction from LGBT Center Director Brian Buford, who spoke on the privilege it is to work at U of L.

“I’ve never worked with people who are so passionate, dedicated and skilled at what they do,” Buford said. “Every member of this team is dedicated to our overall mission of inclusion.”

Buford also presented Assistant to the Vice President of Diversity Diane Whitlock with the LGBT Center Award. Buford touched on how much Whitlock has done for minority communities at the university.

“She has touched so many lives on this campus, and so many students come to her for her advice and support,” Buford said.

Sam presented Whitlock the award, and then began his speech.

Sam discussed his upbringing, as well as on the realities of what it was like to grow up with an absent father figure and two abusive older brothers.

“My older brothers, Josh and Chris, basically made life a living hell for me, my mom and my sisters,” Sam said. “They got involved with gangs, drugs and crime, and went down a very dark path.”

However, Sam spent very little time lamenting on the dark side of his past. Instead, he touched on how his negative experiences helped shape him into the man he is today.

“I didn’t have much of a father figure, and my two brothers made me want to stay as far away from home as possible,” Sam said. “I used school as a safe haven.”

Sam then shifted his talk to his coming out experience while playing for Missouri, saying it as one of the most important moments in his life.

“There were so many times in college that I didn’t know who I was. I would look at myself in the mirror and see a pretender,” Sam said. “I wasn’t Michael Sam. I was just someone who was pretending to be Michael Sam.”

“When I came out to my teammates in Aug. 2013, it was such a spontaneous moment, and I truly felt comfortable with who I was,” Sam said.

That season, Missouri achieved a 12-2 record, and Sam was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

After being drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams, Sam was cut in Aug. 2014 at the end of training camp. While his days of professional football are over, Sam still travels around the country to deliver speeches on his story, and hopes to provide inspiration for others dealing with some of the tribulations he’s gone through.

“I went through life resenting a lot of people for what they had done to me, and for a long time, I resented the NFL,” Sam said. “I believed that I really did have the talent to play in that league, but God has led me down a better path, and I’m thankful for it.”