Don Sumada highlights Michael Sam's confidence for People Magazine
When Jason Collins came out as gay on the cover of Sports Illustrated he became the first out player in an American Major League sport. It was a huge moment for the LGBT community, but they were still looking for a win. At the time Collins came out, he had already been playing in the NBA for more than a decade. He was an inside man. Drafted as closeted man, he came out after more than ten years of play, having proven himself on NBA courts in more than 700 games.
The real marker for the LGBT community would be when a league took an openly gay player in a draft. In early 2014 it looked like Michael Sam would be that player, as he was expected to be a third or fourth round pick in the 2014 NFL draft. But, after a disappointing Scouting Combine, his future was uncertain.
That period of uncertainty, before the draft, was the week that People Magazine shot him as a part of a feature on gay professional athletes. At the time of the photoshoot, Michael was not a professional athlete, just a celebrated college graduate with high hopes. Nothing was for sure. By the time the story ran there would be an answer, but on set they didn’t know.
Don Sumada was tasked with styling the NFL hopeful, without tying him to a particular team, and preparing for any possible outcome. As styling jobs go, it wasn’t difficult to source the apparel. When looking for clothes, Don said “Whoever I contacted said, ‘you can have whatever you want.’” Everyone knew who Michael was and wanted to be a part of the story. “As soon as I mentioned Michael Sam people overwhelmingly wanted to give me things.”
In the photos you can’t see the weight on his shoulders, carrying the hope of a community. “He was very friendly, wasn’t guarded at all,” says Don about working with Michael on set. But it was a charged set. They only had a few hours with Michael before he was whisked off to his next interview, and the following event, and the photoshoot following that. It was a frenzied week, all shadowed by the question: Would he be drafted?
To capture the moment, People and Don chose navy blue and blacks for a timeless, teamless look. B&A groomer, Sylvester Castellano, kept Michael looking untouched. We see a football player stripped down. Beyond the pads, beyond the uniform: just the vulnerable person. Confident, secure, but in the moment he was unsure.
Of course now we know Michael was drafted to the St Louis Rams. He was the 249th pick, which was later than originally anticipated, but an overwhelming relief after a trying few weeks. And it was a moment of victory for a whole community who had been marginalized in the arena of professional sports for generations. As the gates opened to Michael Sam they opened to people who had been left behind, forgotten, ignored, and sidelined. But as Michael gets suited up for his first game this Fall we all see that you will be judged on the your abilities and nothing else.