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Los Angeles (AFP) – An American university football star revealed that he is gay, raising the prospect he could become the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team.

In interviews on Sunday with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and with The New York Times, Michael Sam said he was going public with information that was already known to his teammates and coaches at the University of Missouri.

“I am an openly, proud gay man,” Sam, a defensive lineman who was the Southeast Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, told ESPN.

Sam is eligible for the NFL draft in May. If he is drafted, he could become the first openly gay player in the league’s history.

“I understand how big this is,” he told ESPN. “It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be … I want to be a football player in the NFL.”

Sam, projected to be a middle-round draft selection, said he decided to speak out now because he wanted to tell his own story.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, whose team finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl last season, issued a statement supporting Sam.

“We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents Mizzou,” Pinkel said. “He’s taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other.”

The NFL also voiced support.

“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the league said in a statement. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

Last March, a CBS Sports report that a current NFL player was “strongly considering” revealing he was gay created a stir around the league, although it never happened.

With hostility to homosexuality still common in the sports world, American Robbie Rogers said last year that he thought coming out as a gay man would spell the end of his football career.

However, Rogers found that not to be the case, signing with the Los Angeles Galaxy to become Major League Soccer’s first openly gay player.

Basketball center Jason Collins also told the world last April that he is gay, a revelation that created a bigger splash in the United States because of NBA basketball’s high profile.

Collins, who was a free agent who had played for six NBA teams over 12 seasons, hasn’t played since his announcement.

AFP Photo/Joe Robbins

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