Before his final football season at the University of Missouri, defensive lineman Michael Sam made the decision to privately tell his teammates that he is gay. On Sunday, Sam went public with it. And if he is selected in May’s NFL draft, Sam will be pro football’s first openly gay player. The first men’s college basketball player to openly declare he’s gay also plays nearby, but Jallen Messersmith took a slightly different approach.
Messersmith announced last spring after his sophomore season at Benedictine College in Atchison that he’s gay. That’s a first for men’s college basketball. Unlike Michael Sam, Messersmith knew there would be more competition ahead on the college slate.
But Benedictine isn’t an NCAA school. As an NAIA institution, Benedictine plays under less scrutiny. Plus, as a non-starter, Messersmith plays more anonymously.
The Ravens are having a good season so far. They’re 16-6 overall, ranked 20th in the latest NAIA national coaches poll and battling for first place in the Heart of America Conference. While the Ravens strive to reach the NAIA playoffs, Messersmith is like Michael Sam in one regard: He doesn’t want the attention diverted from the team.
But Messersmith didn’t mind sharing his reaction when the news broke on Michael Sam.
“I was really excited. I thought it was one of the coolest things I’d heard in awhile,” he said. “I was watching the Olympics, then one of my roommates said, ‘Hey, did you hear about this?’ I got the ESPN notification, then I went on Facebook, looked it up and read a couple of stories and I thought it was really neat.”
Messersmith’s teammates and coach Ryan Moody won’t talk about Messersmith’s personal decision. But Moody said this about Messersmith,the basketball player, “He is clearly a difference-maker for us on the floor.”
In a recent road game at Graceland College, the 6-foot-8-inch Messersmith spent most of the first half on the bench with foul trouble, but sparked the team in a second half surge and scored 11 points for a Ravens victory. Moody said Messersmith has stepped up his play since his high school career at Blue Springs.
“Smarter is the biggest word. He’s come a long way,” said Moody. “Physically he’s a bigger kid and he understands how to...he’s getting there, I’ll say that. He’s getting there to use that physicality and his length without getting into a lot of foul trouble because we need him on the floor.”
So far, Messersmith appears to be doing just fine. It starts with blending in with teammates. Trust from teammates, according to Messersmith, is everything. He said it allows players like Michael Sam to play with some comfort.
“Oh yeah, I’ve dealt with the comfort level,” said Messersmith. “Once you know that your teammates know everything about you and you’re not hiding anything, you can be the most comfortable that you can be.”
Messersmith entered an unexplored arena when he chose to publicly disclose that he’s gay. He knows, even if the lights are brighter, Michael Sam faces a similar situation in the locker room of an NFL stadium.