INDIANAPOLIS - When Michael Sam was presented a rainbow pin at a University of Missouri basketball game last week, he was deeply touched by the show of support.
"I wanted to cry," he said. "But I was like, 'I'm a man.' "
Sam is in the process of tweaking that traditional definition and changing perceptions. Two weeks after announcing publicly that he is gay, he was here at the NFL Scouting Combine, where all 32 teams will give him the once-over to see if they will select him in the May draft. If he is chosen by one of the teams -- and as the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, he is projected by many as a midround pick -- he will become the first openly gay active player in NFL history.
Yet speaking to the fully assembled media at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday afternoon in his first news conference since coming out, the defensive end said he does not see himself as a trailblazer, is not focused on becoming a celebrity endorser and is indifferent to any type of potential attention paid him by the movie industry. He doesn't feel like any of those things, he said.
"I feel," he said, "like I'm Michael Sam."
These days, that in itself is enough to draw a crowd. Sam was prepared for his news conference and opened it by reading a statement.
"As you may know, Missouri is the 'Show Me State,' " he said. "You'd think I have shown you guys enough over these last few weeks, but I'm learning with the media that you guys still want more, so ask your questions and I'll answer them the best I can."
Sam made his public announcement two weeks ago, but he told his college teammates at the beginning of the 2013 season that he is gay. He said most of the students on campus at Missouri knew that, and they accepted him. That his sexual orientation did not reach the media, he said, was a testament to them. "We protect one another at Mizzou," he said proudly.
Since going from nearly anonymous midround prospect to national headliner, Sam has been overwhelmed with support from those around him. He said some come up to him as he walks around campus to give him hugs and kisses, some of them crying on his shoulder. At a Missouri basketball game, the school gave him a standing ovation and those rainbow pins were distributed. Sam wore one on the lanyard that held his Combine identification badge in place Saturday.
Not every city will be as welcoming and supportive as Columbia, Mo., of course. Some players, coaches and executives have wondered aloud if an NFL locker room is ready for an openly gay player. Last week, the NFL released the Wells Report, which illustrated a pattern of homophobic harassment toward players and staff members on the Dolphins. Sam knows that could be what awaits him.
"Everyone can be normal around me if they wanted to," he said of his experiences in the Missouri locker room. "We joke around because we're a brotherhood, it's a family, so we can say things to each other. No harm. We don't draw blood. It's all fun and games."
And when it isn't?
"If someone wants to call me a name, I'll have a conversation with that guy and hopefully it won't lead to anything else," he said.
Sam said that when he was at the Senior Bowl and met with some NFL teams, the topic of his sexuality never came up, even though most scouts who dug into his life just a little bit knew about it. At the Combine, he said, he has yet to be asked about his announcement by any team in any interview.
"What people do with their personal life, I'm not concerned about that," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said.
That's just the kind of reception that Sam is hoping to receive. He was practically overjoyed when asked football questions during his news conference. He said he wants to rush the passer and aspires to be the kind of player that Hall of Famer Michael Strahan was, and he expressed no preference about playing defensive end in a 4-3 scheme or outside linebacker in a 3-4.
"I'm not focusing on anything else but to earn my spot on an NFL team," he said. "[I want NFL scouts to know] that Michael Sam's work ethic is just like or better than the guys who are here."
That would be the second way that Sam could stand out at the Combine. And in his mind, the most important.