Michael Sam at Combine Shows He Can Be Perfect Trailblazer and Prime-Time Player

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Michael Sam at Combine Shows He Can Be Perfect Trailblazer and Prime-Time Player
Brian Spurlock/USA Today

INDIANAPOLIS—Are you a trailblazer, a reporter asked the man everyone was waiting to hear from?

"No," he said, "I feel like I'm Michael Sam."

In his interviews with NFL teams thus far, Sam said, none has asked about his sexual orientation.

One team executive who interviewed Sam said this: "As much football knowledge as any college prospect I've ever interviewed in decades in this business. As good a man as any prospect I've interviewed. After a few minutes, I was looking for things to knock, but I couldn't. After a while the interview felt like I was talking to a friend."

Said another team official: "He seemed too good to be true, so I kept trying to get find something that seemed off. There was nothing. This guy has no weakness in his character."

Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said he believes Sam will be a good teammate, and then Newsome explained that the media, and the attention it is paying to Sam, was the bigger problem. "What are you guys going to do with him?" Newsome asked.

Sam's meeting with the press on Saturday was supposed to be one of the more powerful moments of the combine, and it was, but maybe not for the reasons some expected. That's because of the man himself. Sam turned what could have been a controversial or edgy moment into something special.

In the pantheon of much-anticipated, potentially hazardous combine meetings with the media—think Cam Newton, Tim Tebow, Manti Te'o, Johnny Manziel or Robert Griffin III—none owned the moment more than Sam.

It was a moment laced with historic importance but also sincerity and openness. While Manziel came off as rehearsed, Newton slightly egotistical, Te'o as weird and Tebow as goofy, Sam came off as a guy you'd want to have a beer with.

"I wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player," he said, "not as Michael Sam the gay football player."

He didn't say those words in a condescending or angry manner. It was more like a plea. As unrealistic as that is, hearing him say it tugged at the heart. He really just wants to play football. He doesn't want to be a symbol (but he is). He doesn't want to be anything but a player in the NFL (and he will be).

What I can tell you, and what I firmly believe, is that Sam will be a star on the next level.

Based on my conversations with team executives, though Sam has shortcomings—the most common criticism is that he's inconsistent—my belief is on the field he will shock some people with his skill and longevity. Off it, he will be an endorsement machine. He will charm Madison Avenue. His sexuality will not be as much an albatross as it will be magnetism that will draw people to Sam from all walks of life.

Sam has the temperament to handle the questions and pressure. Sam doesn't want to be a trailblazer, but he is, and he's perfect for it. The comparison to Jackie Robinson is awkward and not exact except in one way: Robinson had the personality to handle the pressure, slurs and bigotry. If any of that comes Sam's way, he'll be able to deal with it.

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

Perfect answer.

The overarching message from Sam was that he wants to be known as a football player. Whether he likes it or not, he will be known for more than that, like Robinson or Billie Jean King or the forgotten Glenn Burke.

Sam took the podium and started this way. It was humble and charming, like Sam.

"Good afternoon. My name is Michael Sam, and I play football for the University of Missouri. As you may know, Missouri is the 'Show Me State,' and I think I've shown you guys enough in the past couple of weeks. But I'm learning about the media, and you guys still want more, so ask your questions, and I'll answer them the best I can."

And he did.

And he will.

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