Michael Sam is first openly gay NFL draft pick
The announcement came at a time when usually only the most diehard fans are paying attention, just a few minutes before the final selection of the final round. But near the end of the seventh round of this particular NFL draft, the 249th pick proved to be one of the most meaningful moments in league history.
American history, too.
NFL director of operations Mike Kensil walked to the podium on the Radio City Music Hall stage Saturday night and with these words signaled the transformative event: "With the 249th pick, the St. Louis Rams select Michael Sam, defensive end, Missouri.''
The handful of fans still at Radio City erupted in cheers, breaking into a chorus of "Mi-chael! Mi-chael!'' Fans gathered at a gay bar in Los Angeles screamed jubilantly before the ESPN cameras. And Sam himself, after an agonizing wait of more than seven hours on Day 3 of the draft as he watched at the home of his San Diego-based agent, finally enjoyed his moment. He was welcomed to the Rams with a phone call, wept as he held hands with his boyfriend and spoke to Rams coach Jeff Fisher.
Sam, who became the first college player to come out on Feb. 9, is the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team.
"Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis,'' Sam wrote on his Twitter account. "I'm using every once of this to achieve greatness!!''
Sam can be forgiven for misspelling "ounce''; such was the overwhelming emotion of the moment. And there is more to come as he gets the chance to take his journey one step further by becoming the first openly gay player to play in an NFL regular-season game.
As long as he makes the team -- and there are no guarantees for a seventh-round pick who some scouts consider too small to play defensive end in the NFL -- that moment will come Sept. 7 when the Rams host the Vikings at the Edward Jones Dome.
The stadium is about 125 miles from where Sam starred in college, where before last season he began this journey by telling his Missouri coaches and teammates that he's gay. The disclosure was accepted then by those around him, and Fisher expects that will be the same in the Rams' locker room.
"I don't have any concern whatsoever,'' Fisher said a few minutes after drafting Sam. "We drafted a good football player.''
Sam knows his place in history, knows how meaningful it is. He doesn't shy away from the responsibility and understands there will be taunts about his sexuality -- maybe even from some teammates -- although Fisher will do his best to make his players understand that Sam is not to be judged on anything except how he does on the field.
Sam believes he should have been drafted higher but stopped short of accusing teams of passing on him because of his sexual orientation.
"You know what, who knows? Who knows?" he told reporters after being drafted. "Only the people who sit in the [draft] war room know. They saw Michael Sam, day after day they scratched it off the board. That was their loss. But St. Louis kept me on that board. And you know what, I feel like I'm a [Jadeveon] Clowney, a first draft pick. I'm proud of where I am now."
Sam repeatedly has said he wants to be judged strictly as a football player. He knowingly carries a heavy burden and accepts whatever might come with it. But after living through a difficult childhood in the small town of Hitchcock, Texas, where three siblings died and his only real solace was on the football field and in the many books he devoured, Sam is uniquely equipped for the next part of his journey.
"When you have experienced the kind of tragedy he's been through . . . this is not a matter of life and death,'' said former NFL receiver Wade Davis, who came out in 2012 after his career was over. "He's experienced so much death and tragedy that he's excited about moving forward.''
Now the question is whether the NFL will be accepting of him or whether Sam will be subjected to the kind of unfortunate treatment that comes when others fail to accept his sexual orientation. Will there be taunts in the locker room, either outwardly or in the shadows? Will fans accept him or scream their derision with homophobic slurs?
The league and the Rams will make it their business to provide as safe and comfortable a workplace as they can.
"We've had a lot of discussions with our clubs, our players, our personnel, to make sure we provide the best possible environment, a professional environment where [Sam] has the opportunity to come and play,'' NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said a few days before the draft. "We're going to make sure we provide that opportunity for him.''
Former cornerback Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, believes the time is right for Sam to make a smooth transition to the NFL. Vincent said he had six gay teammates.
"It worked," he said. "We won many football games. We didn't see them as anything different. We watched film together. We traveled together. They were our roommates on the road. We didn't look at them any differently, and I don't think the players today would treat them any differently.''
The difference with Vincent's experience, of course, is that those former teammates he said are gay did not publicly disclose their sexual orientation.
Even so, the fact that teammates knew and were accepting of their sexuality was an indication that Sam can expect to be treated as a football player, not a gay football player.
It is all he asks of his new teammates. It is what Fisher will demand from his players.