Hundreds of University of Missouri students showed up at the school's Mizzou Arena Saturday to block members of Westboro Baptist Church from protesting Michael Sam, who played defensive end for the school during his college career and who recently announced he is gay ahead of the 2014 NFL draft.
Photos on social media show the students forming a line around the Mizzou Arena Saturday before their university tipped off their home game against Tennessee. Sam and the rest of the Mizzou team were being honored during the game's halftime for their Cotton Bowl Championship win against Oklahoma State.
After the students formed a line around the arena, they reportedly linked arms, turned their backs to the Westboro Baptist protesters, and sang the school's Alma Mater until the protesters eventually dispersed before the game began. Westboro had previously announced its plans for protesting the game due to Sam's sexuality. The controversial and extreme religious group is known for its aggressive protesting style that often involves picketing funerals of soldiers and includes vulgarity and name-calling.
While attending Saturday's game, University of Missouri students also wore pins that read "Stand With Sam." When Sam took the basketball court at halftime with the rest of his team to receive their Cotton Bowl trophy, he reportedly received a standing ovation from the student section.
Michelle Carmichael, 51, who joined the group of over 1,000 in blocking Westboro, told KDSK-TV that she is supporting the young football player because he served a loyal and proud career for the school's football program. "Because Michael Sam stood up for Mizzou his entire career and we need to stand up for him."
Sam responded to the student body's unity on Twitter, posting a photo of the human chain in front of Mizzou Arena with the caption: "Thank you for all of my Mizzou family for your support. Divided we are weak, together we are strong. #OneMizzou."
Sam, an NFL hopeful, announced last week that he is gay ahead of the upcoming 2014 NFL draft. If he is drafted, Sam will become the first openly gay player to be actively playing in the league. Although some suggested that his announcement may hurt his draft opportunities, others met the athlete's statement with positivity and support. Both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama showered Sam with praise following his announcement.
Sam told the local Columbia Tribune that he chose to reveal his sexuality before the draft because he wanted to go into the NFL without having any secrets. "I wanted to own my truth," he said. "I was just ready to get it over with. I don't know why I have to get on ESPN or The New York Times and tell people I happen to be gay. Straight people don't have to do it. I don't know why gay people have to do it."