Michael Sam in the Cotton Bowl last month. (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

The man who may well be the NFL’s first openly gay draft pick in May says that coming out in an occupation that hasn’t always been welcoming to gay athletes isn’t the most stressful thing he’s ever been through.

Michael Sam, an all-American player at Missouri, told his teammates last summer that he is gay — and has told ESPN, the New York Times and the world now, too. A 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive lineman for one of the best teams in the best conferences in  the country, Sam was raised in Hitchcock, Texas, a town of a little over 6,000 people that lies just outside Houston and Galveston.

“I knew from a young age that I was attracted to guys,” Sam, 24, told ESPN, “I didn’t know if it was a phase … I didn’t want to say, ‘Hey, I might be gay. I might be bi.’ I just didn’t know … I wanted to find who I was and make sure I knew what was comfortable. So I didn’t tell anyone growing up.”

As Sam, the seventh of eight children, was growing up, three of his siblings died and two brothers are in prison, he told the New York Times’ John Branch. His mother, JoAnn, mostly raised him and he spent some years with another family.

“I endured so much in my past: seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound, not knowing that my oldest sister died when she was a baby and I never got the chance to meet her,” he said. “My second oldest brother went missing in 1998, and me and my little sister were the last ones to see him … my other two brothers have been in and out of jail since eighth grade, currently both in jail.

“Telling the world I’m gay is nothing compared to that.”

Sam told his teammates last summer and led the SEC last season with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss. Missouri was 7-1 in the SEC East and beat Oklahoma State 41-31 in the Cotton Bowl. He was the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year. “Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was,” Sam said. “I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay. I was so proud of myself and I just didn’t care who knew. If someone on the street would have asked me, ‘Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay; is that true?’ I would have said yes.”

Ready or not, the NFL may be getting its first openly gay player and immediate public reaction on Sunday night was supportive. With a brand-new Twitter account and three tweets, he has nearly 48,000 followers.

Jason Collins, the former NBA player who announced last April that he is gay, has been supportive of Sam, as has Dave Kopay, the former NFL player who came out in 1975.

American soccer player Robbie Rogers came out a year ago and has spoken with Sam. So, too, have former NFLers Dave Kopay, who came out in 1975, and Wade Davis, who came out in 2012.