What a year for Michael Sam—and the NFL!

The league's first openly gay player attended the ESPY Awards Wednesday, where he was honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Following an emotional video reel, Sam appeared on the Nokia Theatre stage to accept the award from Dwayne Johnson. The football player was greeted by a standing ovation.

"The Arthur Ashe Courage Award is a big honor, one much bigger than just me. This year I had a lot of experience being part of something bigger than myself," the 24-year-old professional athlete told the crowd while trying not to cry. "At times, I felt like I'd been living in a massive storm...but I'm here tonight to tell you the lessons learned about love and respect and being true to yourself will never leave me."

Sam quoted late American World No. 1 professional tennis player Arthur Ashe, saying, "Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can." He added, "Those were the words to live by, whether you're black or white, young or old, straight or gay...Football raised me, football taught me about hard work."

The St. Louis Rams defensive end praised his mentors and said, "Whatever passion you have, follow it."

Sam's newfound fame has allowed him to give back to others. "The way I see it, my responsibility at this moment in history is to stand up for everyone out there who wants nothing to be themselves openly," he said. "Recently, a friend asked me to talk to his sister, a young woman who was considering killing herself rather than [telling] her loved ones the fact that she was gay. When we spoke she told me that she would never consider hurting herself again, and that's something that somehow my example helped her. It's amazing to think that by just doing what we can, we can all touch, change and even save lives."

Michael Sam, ESPYS

Getty Images/Kevin Winter

He then thanked the University of Missouri, his family and his Rams coaches and teammates. Sam gave a special shout-out to his boyfriend Vito Cammisano, who was in the audience, by telling him, "You are my inspiration." He also called the award "one of the thrills of my life," adding, "I promise to spend the rest of my life trying my best to live up to this honor and trying to become the best football player I can."

Sam ended is speech by saying, "To anyone out there, especially young people, who are feeling like they don't fit in and will never be accepted, please know this: great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself." He then received a second standing ovation from the star-studded audience.

PHOTOS: 2014 ESPY Awards arrivals

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