2014 NFL combine: Michael Sam stands tall at scouting combine
Missouri DE Michael Sam tackled his Saturday press conference at the NFL combine with confidence and calm, with the wish that he would be recognized as Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the gay football player.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Michael Sam is a proud gay man. For four days at the NFL combine this week, he's primarily identified as DL42, the league-assigned number to one of the 335 prospects invited to participate.
"I wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player," Sam said Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium before an overflow media contingent. "Not Michael Sam the gay football player."
The All-American defensive end from Missouri was the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. At 6-feet-1 5/8, 260 pounds, Sam isn't built like the prototype NFL defensive end and moved to outside linebacker for some drills at the Senior Bowl. Reviews were mixed, and there are teams who view him as a classic tweener without a natural position.
"I'm a pass rusher," Sam said. "If you put me in position to get the quarterback, I'm going to get the quarterback. I can drop back in coverage as well. My specialty is rushing the passer."
Sam played the entire season after informing teammates and coaches during a team-building exercise that he was gay.
Missouri players, coaches and even some media kept Sam's preference quiet because, as wide receiver L'Damian Washington recalls, it didn't define who he was to his friends and peers.
"Mike Sam is the toughest guy I know," Washington said. "He knew what was going to come of it. He was ready for it all. He's fearless, he's courageous."
Sam told Washington he was gay before he informed the rest of the team. Earlier this month, he told the rest of the world in detailed interviews with the New York Times and ESPN, going from middle-round draft prospect to front-page news in the process.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and several NFL teams issued congratulatory statements applauding Sam's courage, his manhood, even comparing his social endeavor to Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier.
Predictably, not all the reaction was positive.
Anonymous general managers and scouts were cited by Sports Illustrated saying Sam "won't be drafted" and another told Peter King the NFL "wasn't ready" for a gay player in the locker room.
"I love the environment we've created, the culture we've created," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. "The Colts never have and never will discriminate based on sexual orientation. We look at the player. We'll evaluate him just like we evaluate everybody else. If he can help our team and help us win football games, he'll be more than welcome."
Most executives speaking on the record at the combine during the first three days of the event said sexual preference wouldn't matter and that the evaluation of Sam would focus only on the player -- DL42.
"I think someone put it this way -- he's been a good player, he's been in a locker room," said Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end and top personnel executive for the Baltimore Ravens. "It's you the media -- what are you going to do with him? ... The biggest thing is how you deal with him.
"This is something that's new to the league. We all will have to adapt to it. What I was talking about, our locker room has had the ability to adapt to things quicker than the media."
Washington was miffed by the ongoing commentary that grown men wouldn't accept another on the basis of sexual preference different than their own.
"We had guys 17 years old out of high school on the team [when Sam told the team first]," Washington said. "I mean, at 17 years old, you're pretty immature. But those guys embraced him because he's a great guy and a great leader and never brought any of that to the locker room.
"If a 17-year-old freshman can accept the fact that a teammate has a different [sexual] preference, why can't a 33-year-old vet accept that fact?"
Confounding as it might sound to Washington, acceptance isn't a given.
Former Stanford and San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Kwame Harris came out as gay only after being outed publicly days before the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans after an altercation with a former boyfriend that led to charges.
Teammate Chris Culliver was forced into sensitivity training after making bigoted comments on the record at a Super Bowl media session.
"I don't do the gay guys, man," Culliver said in February 2013. "I don't do that. No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. Nah ... can't be ... in the locker room, man. Nah."
Sam sought the counsel of former NBA player Jason Collins, who announced his sexual preference in a first-person article published last spring in Sports Illustrated. The 33-year-old who was previously engaged to a woman spent parts of two days with Sam before his national television interview aired on ESPN.
They discussed carrying the weight of his forthcoming revelation on and off the field. Some players will openly disapprove, even use gay slurs. Sam said all that would invite is a one-on-one conversation.
"I think a little naïve and uneducated, but as time goes on, we'll adapt," Sam said. "Everyone can be themselves around me."
Part of Sam's experience at the combine included face-to-face private interviews with teams who aren't permitted to pose specific questions about sexuality.
"I am not a general manager, I do not control my draft status," Sam said.
At the Senior Bowl and combine, Sam said he was not asked about his sexual preference at all. Teams can find different angles to broach the subject, such as asking how he'll deal with inflammatory comments from opponents or fans and if he's prepared to tackle a storm of media as what most of the sports world recognizes as face of gay athletes in pro sports.
"I think he'd be welcomed. It'd be no different than any other player we have," said New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan. "One thing I know for sure, you're going to have 53 different players and they're all different -- different religious beliefs, what they look like, height, weight, married, single, any of these. Everybody's different. But the main thing we talk about is respect in our locker room. And even though everybody's different, it's a respect thing. If the young man's a good football player and a good teammate, that's all we ask. So he'd fit in just like the rest of our guys."
Harris said if given a redo, he would hope he could find the strength to come out. He was haunted by the weight of what he called a heavy secret to the point that he contemplated suicide.
When he leaves Indianapolis, Sam won't be DL42, but he will still be the first proudly and openly gay NFL prospect trying to convince evaluators he deserves a place in professional football.
He drew high marks for strength and courage this week. Titans general manager Ruston Webster said Sam, projected a third- or fourth-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com, has much more than that to stand on.
"I think Michael Sam is an effective outside pass rusher," Webster said. "He has some strength at the point. But his main thing is getting up the field and rushing the passer and putting pressure on the quarterback. He was obviously very productive."
An anonymous ESPN survey of 51 NFL players in the days after Sam's announcement found that sexual preference didn't matter to 44 of the players. But only half of them said a gay player would be comfortable in an NFL locker room.
"I'm not afraid about going into that environment," Sam said. "I know how to handle myself."
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