Michael Sam Jr. '15 Interns as an Assistant American Football Coach in Istanbul, Turkey

Michael Sam Jr. '15 Interns as an Assistant American Football Coach in Istanbul, Turkey

On August 13 I received an unexpected call from Tom Stallings, Rice University Sport Management professor. As I answered the phone I was greeted by his overly energetic and jovial voice as he immediately asked the question, “How would you like to spend your final semester as a Rice Owl coaching American Football in İstanbul, Turkey?” As I contemplated this question with complete surprise, I could not help but realize that my dream to be part of the expansion of American Football around the world was actually becoming a reality. It was this question that would have a great impact on how I would spend my final semester as a Rice Owl and allow me to graduate from Rice University not only having played football at the collegiate level, but also having coached the game I love to a group of men on the other side of the world. Now just four days before I walk thru the Sallyport and obtain my Bachelors of Arts in Sport Management as a Rice University graduate, I have the opportunity to reflect on my internship as an assistant football coach for the Koç Rams in İstanbul, Turkey.

Prior to arriving in İstanbul on January 25, I knew very little about the Koç Rams, the team I would be interning with for the next four months. However, once I met John Douglas Harper, the Koç Rams Head Coach and General Manager, he could not stop telling me about the program and how grateful he was to have me work alongside him. After being the only person coaching the team for the last two seasons, Coach Harper was excited to gain and put to use my previous playing and coaching experience.

MJ Sam with players

After my first coaches meeting with Coach Harper, I was immediately named the Koç Rams Special Teams Coordinator and Lineman coach for the professional team and the university team. With the Koç Rams winter football camp startıng the next day, I was told that in less than 24 hours I would be in charge of the lineman section of the camp and that I needed to create a five day camp schedule for rookie lineman. I instantly felt overwhelmed by the immediate work that was coming my way, but excited to teach these young men the sport that I had devoted my entire life to learning.

As those four months went by, I learned a lot about myself and the game I love that I will hold on to for the rest of my life. A few of the lessons I learned are:

  • Learn the Culture – Though this may come as a no brainer to some people, it is one of the most important lessons I learned while interning with the Koç Rams. Frustrated wıth the lack of attendance on weekend and end of the week practices, I began punishing my players for not being present. As punishment increased, the players started to tell me that they went home every weekend to spend a few days with their family. As a naïve American, I was confused as why a college student would go home EVERY weekend. Little did I know that one characteristic of the Turkish Culture is the high value placed on family. If I did not learn this important cultural characteristic and if I would have continued to punish my players, I could have damaged the player-coach relationship and hindered my ability to do my job as their coach.
  • Every Player is Different – I am aware of the obvious fact that no person is the same as the next. However, sometimes people in authority can communicate to everyone in the same way, often times the way that is easiest for them, without considering what may be best for the listener. As a coach and teacher of the game, I had to learn how to communicate to each player in the best way for that individual if I really wanted him to grasp the complex concepts of the game.
  • Be Aware of Your Influence – All my life I have been an athlete, participating in youth sports all the way to collegiate sports, but I never really understood the extent of the influence my coaches were having on my life. That is until I became a coach and one of my players told me he was going to name his son after me. I was in total amazement. Initially it felt kind of weird, but then I found it to be pretty cool. On that day I began to reflect on my job as a coach. I saw myself not only teaching my players football, but also teaching them life lessons that would enable them to grow into men of character and integrity.

On top of all that I learned throughout my internship experience, I had the opportunity to coach the University team to the league semi-finals which is the furthest they have ever been in the playoffs. I also coached the undefeated professional team to their first place ranking in the professional league, seven wins, and a birth in the championship game which will be played on May 31.

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity the Rice University Department of Sport Management gave me in interning with the Koç Rams. From this experience, I was able to learn life lessons that I will be able to apply not just as a coach, but in every aspect of life. When I walk thru the Sallyport on Saturday, May 16, I will walk with the memories I made in İstanbul, Turkey, representing the Rice University Department of Sport Management, the School of Social Sciences, and Rice Athletics.

MJ Sam