Michael Sam's father said Monday he had no idea his football-star son was gay until he got a text from him on his birthday last week.
"I told him, 'Well, you could have wished me a happy birthday first,'" the dad, who has the same name, joked to NBC News from the Texas nursing home where he lives.
While he was surprised to hear the news, he fully supports the University of Missouri defensive lineman's decision to come out.
"I was shocked because I didn't see it," the father said. "I mean, you see your kids, but you don't suspect that."
"He sent me a text first," he recalled. What did it say? "I'm gay."
Then came the phone call a little later in the evening.
"I said was he sure, and he said he was," the 55-year-old disabled truck driver said.
The two men talked about the athlete's decision to tell the world about his sexuality.
"I asked him about his career and everything, and he said he was just going to do it," the father said. "And I said, OK then. He's in control and he's grown. No matter what, he's my son and I still love him."
He said he had little doubt his son would weather any negativity or criticism his announcement might spawn. After all, he had already endured a lot of adversity for a young man.
A 2-year-old sister, Chanel, drowned in a neighborhood lake before he was born. When he was just a tot, his 16-year-old brother Russell was shot to death. About four years later, another brother, Julian, left work and just vanished.
"He's in control and he's grown. No matter what, he's my son and I still love him."
He has two older brothers, Josh and Chris, who have been in and out of trouble for years and are both in jail, the father said. Two other sisters, at least, "are doing well."
From an early age, little Michael "wanted to make something of himself," his father said.
"He always had a basketball or a pencil in his hand," he said. "He was pretty much a good kid. He's the smartest one in the family, too, because he finished college now."
The proud father said that because he was a long-haul trucker, he was away from his kids a lot and their mother, Jo-Ann, did most of the child-rearing in Hitchcock, Texas, a small town about 40 miles from Houston.
His son didn't start playing football until junior high school, he said. By the time he was in high school, though, it was clear he had talent.
"Michael was always a hard-working kid, got along well with everybody. He was always an asset to our program," said one of his former coaches at Hitchcock High, Craig Smith. "We love him and wish him the best."
Smith said he last saw Sam in December when he was in Houston to receive an award. "A lot of the kids that went with us were in grade school when Michael was here, but he took the time to thank them all for coming and individually shook their hands."
He said he never gave his former player's sexuality a thought, but now that he's made it public, he's proud of how well he handled himself.
"Michael is very smart and articulate and we admire his honesty and courage."
He said he was sure Sam could overcome any fallout.
"When Michael was recruited in college, he was what they call a two-star recruit. And in five years, he went from being a two-star recruit from a small school in Texas to being a unanimous All-American for the Missouri Tigers," Smith said.
"It's like he said last night in an interview: Judge me on the field."
Sam's extended family took to Facebook to express their pride.
"Michael is very smart and articulate and we admire his honesty and courage in this matter," cousin Jovanne Sam, 41, said.
Another cousin, Gerald Sam, 32, noted that the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year did not have to come out, especially before the NFL draft in May.
"This is a big step in his life," he said.
An aunt, Geraldine Sam, said on Facebook: "The only thing my family and I disagree on is I want the Texans to draft him, they want the Cowboys to draft him. What ever team picks him up we will be so proud of him."
Sam's father said he last spoke to his son on Saturday night but the connection was poor, so they didn't get to talk long.
Asked what he would say to him if he was on the phone now, he didn't pause.
"I love you."
First published February 10 2014, 11:12 AM