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Michael Sam carries a souvenir rock from the University of Missouri’s Memorial Stadium at the end of his final home game, a victory over Texas A&M. MARCUS QUERTYUS/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Michael Sam carries a souvenir rock from the University of Missouri’s Memorial Stadium at the end of his final home game, a victory over Texas A&M.MARCUS QUERTYUS/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Making history, Michael Sam, a 24-year-old defensive end, on May 10 became the first out gay man drafted into the National Football League, picked by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh and final round of the draft.

Prior to the pick, Sam enjoyed a successful college career at the University of Missouri, leading the Southeastern Conference in quarterback sacks and tackles for loss. In his final year, he was named All-American by several organizations, including the American Football Coaches Association, and was designated co-defensive player of the year by the Associated Press, a title shared with linebacker C.J. Mosley from the University of Alabama.

In February, having wound up his collegiate tenure, Sam came out publicly in an interview with ESPN, voicing the hope of becoming the first out gay NFL athlete. When asked why he chose that time to come out, the athlete, acknowledging the spotlight that would be cast on him if he journeyed to pro ball, replied, “I want to own my truth. No one else should tell my story but me.”

The NFL welcomes its first out gay player

Speculation immediately arose as to whether coming out would hurt Sam’s chances in the upcoming draft and if the NFL was yet ready for an out gay player.

Sam was initially thought likely to be a third or fourth round pick in the draft, but his prospects dimmed after what was widely viewed as a lackluster performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. At the combine, the view hardened that he might be too small for a defensive end and not fast enough to play linebacker.

Sam’s recruitment was met with mostly positive responses. He received messages not only from fellow athletes — including gay NBA player Jason Collins, who came out last year and now plays for the Brooklyn Nets — but also from President Barack Obama and LGBT rights leaders, including Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin.

But not all the feedback has been positive. After ESPN televised Sam’s draft and subsequent reaction — which included not one but three kisses with his boyfriend, former University of Missouri swimmer Vito Cammisano — Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones vented on social media, referring to the draft pick and the resulting attention as “horrible.” The Dolphins have since fined and suspended Jones. Former University of Texas quarterback Case McCoy took to Twitter to express his complaints about ESPN’s coverage of Sam, writing, immediately after the kisses were aired, “ESPN… You serious right now?

Rams head coach Jeff Fisher is confident Sam is the right fit for the team, saying, “We're in an age of diversity. Players understand that, they know that.”

Prior to his pick by the Rams, Sam, in an ad for Visa, was essentially endorsed by the credit card company. The ad, released just days prior to the start of the draft, had the collegiate star daring people to “judge me.” While no mention of his sexuality is made, it is clear that Sam intends the message as a challenge that he be accepted for his athletic abilities and not his sexual orientation.

Since being drafted, Sam has received several additional endorsement offers — which is unprecedented for a player drafted so late. Outsports.com reported that, according to the NFL, Sam’s new Rams jersey is the second highest selling among the 2014 draftees after the Browns’ new quarterback pick Johnny Manziel, who was number 22 overall in the draft.

Sam’s pick is not the first time that the Rams have made historic strides for the NFL. In 1946, the team, then located in Los Angeles, signed Kenny Washington as the first African-American football player with a contract in the league.

So what does this mean for all the rumored gay athletes currently playing in the NFL? Being drafted doesn’t guarantee Michael Sam a spot on the roster. Less than half of seventh round draft picks make the roster in their rookie year. It will be a labored battle; here’s to hoping he is up to the challenge.

In the meantime, go Rams!

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

Bill Brina says:
The issue with Michael Sam is whether/where he fits in an NFL defense. At 6'2" (maybe) and 261 lbs. (that's real), he's too small and too light to be a good 3 down defensive end in any NFL scheme; he won't be able to hold his own against the run. He might have a decent career as a situational pass rusher: a guy who comes in on obvious passing downs, as a pass rushing specialist, when a team that plays a "3/4" base defense (3 down linemen; 4 linebackers; 4 defensive backs) shifts into a "nickel" or "dime" package (5 or 6 defensive backs; 4 down linemen, 1 or 2 linebackers). E.g., the Jets. The team that drafted him, the St. Louis Rams, plays a "4/3" base defense (4 down linemen; 3 linebackers; 4 dbs); more like the latter day Giants. Some 4/3 teams rotate one or two defensive linemen on obvious passing downs, so he does have a chance to excel in a "sub package". In his favor, as my friend Nathan Riley points out, he's staying home -- he's well known and well liked in Missouri. Also in his favor is that the Rams current coach, Jeff Fisher, is one of the best in the league; he knows what he's doing and how to go about doing it. There was some discussion earlier about moving him to linebacker, but the consensus seems to be he's too slow for that role. He ran a 4.91 sec. in the 40 yd dash at the combine; that's a number the scouts want to see on a guy who weighs 320 lbs. or more, not a guy who weighs 261 lbs., and doesn't look like he has the frame to carry much, if any more. I like the guy but I doubt he turns out to be the trail blazer people are hoping he'll be. He looks like a classic "tweener". Every year, there's a bunch of those guys; a handful make it as situational players, but most fail and are out of the league in a year or two. There WILL be an out gay player -- soon -- who makes it in the NFL. Probably a guy whose other attributes -- height, weight, speed, strength and agility -- conform closely to the NFL standards for whatever position he plays. That said, there are always a few 'tweeners who make it as productive and respected players in the league. If Michael Sam turns out to be one of them, he'll have beaten more than one set of prejudices.
May 16, 2014, 12:20 am

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