Michael Sam, Dan Reilly and the Power of Backstory

For those who don’t know, I’m a Mizzou (University of Missouri) grad, and a proud one at that. I went there for the top-notch J-school, but I also was in Marching Mizzou and thus went to every home football game, a few away games and both bowl games while I was a student. And yes, I still know all the words to the fight songs.

So when Mizzou defensive end/NFL prospect Michael Sam announced to the world a few weeks ago that he was gay, I had more than average interest in the story for several reasons. Sam was one of several players with standout seasons for the Tigers and I had been hoping the Patriots might pick him up in the draft because he seemed like the type of person that fits well with the Pats. (Yes, yes, Jets fans, I hear you mocking.) Also, he’s a fellow Tiger. Finally, this was somebody who was taking a gutsy step to be true to himself, even though it might cost him come draft time. He’s not a top-10 pick, or even a first-day pick. He’s a mid-round or late-round pick who doesn’t fit neatly into a pro position.

One comment Sam made in his initial interviews that has stuck with me was when he said that after everything he’d been through growing up, coming out was nothing.

If you’re not familiar with his story, there are some great profiles out there of him. But the short version is that he’s one of eight kids. Three are dead, two are in jail. His parents are separated, and when he goes home to his small town in Texas, he stays with friends. He lived more with friends’ families than at home when he was in high school, too, which says a lot about his family life. He decided he didn’t want to go down the same route as his brothers and football would be his way out. He’s now the first person in his family to graduate from college. He’s never been in trouble with the law. And no matter what else people have said about him, everybody who knows him agrees he’s mature, poised, full of character and a strong leader.

That’s the backstory that makes who he is and what he’s accomplished resonate so much more. Most kids with the hurdles he’s faced would not have even made it to college, much less excelled the way he has. And it makes his comment about coming out ring true.

When I was first playing around in the Exeter universe, I knew what Dan Reilly was like as an adult, but I didn’t know how he got that way. One thing I did know was that for him to have been out as early as he was, given his age (mid-30s in present-day time) there had to be a good reason. There had to be something that explained that. As I poked around and got to know the characters better, the marsh story came up and I realized that it explained a lot. By the time Dan chose to come out, he’d already faced down something much scarier, and, as we learn in All That Is Necessary, he had seen the possible consequences of staying in the closet. His backstory is extreme, even if you’re used to the mob tales that permeate southern New England. But so is Michael Sam’s. Neither one relates to their sexual orientation, but their experiences influence them in all aspects of their life.

The whole point of backstory is that who we are and what we’ve experienced shapes us as people. From what Michael Sam has chosen to share of his backstory, and what’s been reported in the past two weeks, we can see how he got to where he is today. They’re a key part of his story. As I learned more about Dan as a character, I realized that without his past — without the mob and Uncle Billy and Liz and the rest of his family — he wouldn’t be who he is.

Dan Reilly is fictional. Michael Sam is very real. But they both show how our backstories, our past, shape us in all sorts of ways.