Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam addresses the huge media contingent Saturday at the NFL Scouting combine.
INDIANAPOLIS – When Michael Sam reached the podium at the NFL Scouting combine on Saturday afternoon, he looked down at a piece of paper and read a short, prepared statement. Nineteen seconds later, he looked up at the giant crowd of cameras and reporters, smiled, and prepared for the first dose of his new reality.
The former Missouri defensive lineman answered questions in a press conference inside Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time since the Feb. 9 announcement that he is gay. He is projected to be a middle-to-late-round draft pick, which would make Sam the first openly gay player in the NFL.
Sam wore a rainbow button which said 'Stand with Sam' and was forthcoming with his answers to a variety of questions. He said the support has been 'great' since his public announcement.
"The positive outweighs the negative," Sam said. "I'm kind of surprised, actually. But there's a lot of supporters. A lot of
people want this."
Sam stressed repeatedly that he'd prefer to be known simply as a football player moving forward, not a gay football player, but knows that's not realistic for the foreseeable future.
"I wish (the media) would just say, 'Michael Sam, how's football going? How's training going?'" Sam said. "I would love for you to ask me that question. But it is what it is."
Coaches and general managers from around the league have been asked about Sam in the past three days, with all of them singing a similar refrain. If Sam can play, his sexual orientation will not be a hindrance.
"I think he'd be welcomed," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "It'd be no different than any other player we have. 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."
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians had a similar feeling, although he worries about the fan reaction.
"Every locker room I've ever been in is all about winning," Arians said. "If you had a hand in us winning and you were different, guys accepted it. Now, the fans? I think that's a very different story.
"I've walked into stadiums where gentlemen are teaching their sons how to moon the bus and moms are teaching their daughters what their middle fingers are for – it's not a ring. That scares me more, what's going to be said from stands and the fans. The locker room? The locker room won't be a problem."
Sam was the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC after compiling 48 tackles and 11 1/2 sacks with the Tigers in 2013. He may be too small to play defensive end in the NFL, and a transition to outside linebacker and pass-rush specialist could be his ticket to success.
The Cardinals could have a need at outside linebacker, since John Abraham is 35, Matt Shaughnessy is a free agent and Sam Acho, Lorenzo Alexander and Alex Okafor are all coming off serious injuries. General Manager Steve Keim said he will evaluate Sam strictly by his on-field potential and character.
"I just know that any time a guy is a good player in the locker room, he's a good person and he produces on the field, he's always accepted no matter what he does off the field," Keim said. "And that's the same way we judge him. This is a big issue, obviously, across the country, (and) you may think GMs would be talking to each other and it would be a big topic of conversation, and it's actually not. I haven't had one other conversation with a GM or personnel guy about the situation. I just want to see how he moves on the field, what he runs, and what kind of player he is on tape."
While NFL teams are just getting to know Sam, fellow draft prospect Kony Ealy has been alongside him the past three years at Missouri. Although Ealy believes Sam sings way too much – "which gets on my nerves sometimes" -- he has the utmost respect for his former teammate.
"There's no other guy I'd rather go to war with," Ealy said.
Sam dismissed talk of being a trailblazer and said he's not interested in the marketing side of his situation. He felt making the public announcement was a necessary process, but hopes to be judged on his athletic prowess moving forward. At this point, Sam said no NFL team has asked him about being gay.
"I just want to do what I love to do," Sam said, "and that's play football."