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Michael Sam, the Football Player

Posted Feb 22, 2014

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason writes about Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam.

INDIANAPOLIS --As he stared into a bobbing ocean of cameras, smartphones and reporters, Michael Sam owned the moment, like he owned many an offensive tackle during his four seasons at the University of Missouri. His press conference introduced the NFL's media galaxy to the man that University of Missouri football supporters have come to know well the last four years: confident, intelligent, engaging, wry.

But he knew why a massive crowd surrounded him, instead of the handful of reporters who talk to most players who come through the club level at Lucas Oil Stadium. Most weren't there to ask the SEC's Co-Defensive Player of the Year about football -- no matter how much he wished they would.

"Heck yeah, I wish you guys would just (ask), 'Michael Sam, how's football going? How's training going?' I would love for you to ask me that question," Sam said. "But it is what it is. I just wish you guys will see me as Michael Sam, the football player, instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player."

As time goes by, more will. The process toward that began on Feb. 10, one day after Sam announced that he is gay. On that day, John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president and general manager, declared that Sam will be evaluated "just like any other draft prospect -- on the basis of his ability, character and NFL potential. His announcement will have no effect on how we see him as a football player."

But the revelations of homophobic slurs and conduct from the Ted Wells report on the Miami Dolphins' locker-room culture show the potential dark side. In the Miami locker room, Wells' report revealed distance that exists between some players and tolerance -- let alone outright acceptance, which is the obvious goal. Even if it's a distinct minority of a team, that can still be enough to poison the environment.

Such conduct is something Elway did not see as a player, and would not permit on his team today.

"We never had those issues in Denver when it came down to the things that went on in that locker room and the things that were said," Elway said Friday. "I think that every locker room that I’ve ever been in in the NFL and the guys I’ve been around have always respected the right of other players. There is a line you don’t cross. I still believe that’s the way the majority of the NFL is."

Sam admits hearing some slurs in the past, but brushes it off.

"I've been in locker rooms where all kinds of slurs have been said, and I don't think anyone means it," Sam said. "I think (some are) a little naive and uneducated, but as time goes on, everyone will adapt.

"If someone wants to call me a name, I will have a conversation with that guy," Sam added, "and hopefully it won't lead to anything else."

In future decades, people might look back at the hubbub and wonder why this was a big deal. If he makes a team, he'll be the first openly gay player, but he won't be the first gay player, not by a long shot. Nevertheless, at this point in time, the significance of being the first player through that metaphorical wall is massive. And if others follow, so much the better.

"If I did that, I think it's just great," Sam said. 

But Sam doesn't want this to define him. It's part of his tapestry. But so is being a graduate of the University of Missouri with a major in Parks, Recreation and Tourism, being a man who enjoys hunting and fishing, being a football player, being someone who closes the most scrutinized press conference of his life to date by telling the media, "God bless you guys."

And at the Scouting Combine, only one of those things should truly matter.

"I just want to do what I love to do," he said, "and that's play football."

At that, he did one thing better than anyone else in the SEC last year: get to the quarterback, evidenced by his conference-leading 11.5 sacks.

"I'm a pass rusher. So if you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I'm going to get the quarterback," Sam said. "This league is a passing league, and I like to believe (in) myself as a good pass rusher."

From what Sam has experienced at the Combine, that's how teams see him. He said no questions have been asked about his sexual orientation; rather, he's been asked "all football questions" -- size, his experience at linebacker, and other similar matters.

And if NFL clubs ask his Mizzou teammates about him, they'll hear responses like the one offered by fellow Tigers defensive end Kony Ealy, which reveals everything about the intensity and effort with which Sam plays, and the character he brings to the locker room:

"There's no other guy I'd rather go to war with."