When Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams with the 249th overall pick, ESPN’s strategically-placed cameras captured an iconic moment in sports history. Sam officially had become the first openly gay player in the NFL, breaking down years of barriers — both professional and personal.
Cheers erupted from the Sam household. Tears flowed from his face. A congratulatory kiss was shared with his boyfriend. There was happiness. Relief. Disbelief. Every emotion on the spectrum. It was the type of celebration you’d see at a wedding. Heck, there was even cake. Messy, messy cake.
Normally, a seventh-round selection will not receive such attention; no cameras, no breaking news tickers, no shout-out from the President of the United States, no (since-postponed) reality shows on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Some argue that Sam doesn’t deserve this type of spectacle. Others say it will undoubtedly be the peak of his surely short-lived career.
Both are wrong.
Sam has the opportunity — and certainly the potential — to be known as much more than just the first openly gay player in the NFL.
Most who’ve paid attention to his well-documented story know little ever came easy to Sam, the seventh of eight children in his family. Apart from largely keeping secret his sexual orientation, he watched his siblings die, go missing, or end up behind bars, all the while couch-hopping between friends’ houses in high school.
Adversity — and learning how to overcome it — is something Sam mastered long before he came out to his teammates at Missouri. Long before he revealed he was gay to ESPN’s Outside The Lines. Long before talking heads, analysts, and media types grab held of the news and wouldn’t let go, creating an incessant 24/7 cycle of repetitiveness.
As a player, Sam isn’t just any typical seventh-rounder. He’s a 6-foot-2, 261-pound defensive end who dominated the SEC, considered by most as college football’s top conference.
With 16 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in nine games in 2013, Sam was tabbed as an All-American, earned first-team All-SEC honors, and the coup de grâce — SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Admittedly, Sam isn’t the fastest guy. Nor is he the biggest, strongest, or flashiest. His lackluster 4.79 40-time at the NFL Combine, combined with a lack of fluidity displayed on game tape, sunk his draft stock. This is a guy who relies on smarts — not brute — to beat opposing offensive linemen.
Obviously, the NFL is a completely different animal than the collegiate ranks, and 31 other organizations deemed Sam unworthy of a precious draft pick — not even as a bottom-of-the-roster developmental project.
Fortunately for Sam, he didn’t land with any of those 31 other organizations. He ended up in an ideal, almost too-good-to-be-true spot in St. Louis.
Not only does Sam get to stay close to home, he will be coached by two of the best defensive minds in the game — Rams head man Jeff Fisher and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. He’ll be placed in a judgement-free environment, with teammates welcoming the physical talents — not the bedroom habits — that Sam brings to the squad.
If that’s not encouraging enough, Sam gets to line up alongside Chris Long and Robert Quinn, arguably the NFL’s top pass-rushing duo. Long, by the way, is roughly the same height and weight as Sam — 6-foot-3, 268-pounds.
That’s not to say Sam will turn out the same as Long. Like any draft pick, he is an unknown commodity until proven otherwise, and could just as easily bust as succeed. Just ask the 31 teams that passed him over.
But, given a fair shake, there’s nothing stopping Sam from shedding the label and making an impact in the league, possibly as soon as this season.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other — first gay player or successful NFL defensive end. He can have his cake and eat it, too.