Michael Sam will make history in St. Louis. The Rams selected Sam in the seventh round (No. 249 overall) Saturday, ending a precipitous fall that made many wonder whether the Missouri defensive end would come off the board at all.
Sam is the first openly gay NFL draftee in NFL history. While there have been numerous past instances of homosexual players spread across league history, Sam will become the first openly gay NFL player should he make the roster. He would be the second gay athlete in the United States' four major professional sports leagues, joining NBA center Jason Collins of the Brooklyn Nets.
But Sam's ability to make the roster is a story for another day. For most of Saturday afternoon, speculation rested on whether a team would match Sam's bravery and fortitude by taking a chance on the 24-year-old consensus All-American.
A lack of ideal size (6'2" and 261 pounds) and speed (4.91-second 40 time at the NFL combine) left legitimate concerns about whether Sam's ability would translate to the next level. He was considered a dreaded tweener—not big enough to play defensive end nor quick enough to move to outside linebacker.
In a world where teams so often emphasize measurable size and speed over collegiate production, Sam, a mid-round pick after exhausting his eligibility, began falling down boards. ESPN Scouts Inc. (subscription required) ranked him the 224th overall prospect, while he received a fifth-round grade from CBS Sports evaluators.
Sam's drop to No. 249 was still mildly surprising given his senior-year production. Half of the most feared defensive end duo in the SEC, Sam had 11.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss en route to winning the SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award. Each of the last seven players to earn that honor were first-round picks, and none in the award's history were taken lower than the fifth round.
That said, Sam being drafted in and of itself is nothing short of a win for the NFL, the Rams, Sam and the acceptance of LGBT athletes into sports. Bleacher Report's Dan Levy congratulated Sam on walking to his own beat en route to being drafted:
No matter what else happens, Michael Sam made the NFL on his terms. Good for him. Now go make the Rams.— Dan Levy (@DanLevyThinks) May 10, 2014
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Darius Fleming perhaps offered some insight into the typical mind of a player in congratulating Sam, and he was joined by numerous others, including Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson:
Congrats to Michael Sam. At the end of the day we are all football players and the guy can play ball.— Darius Fleming (@dfleming58) May 10, 2014
For all the wonderment about how fans would react to having an openly gay player in their sport, Sam got his first taste of reactions on Saturday. As ESPN's Adam Schefter pointed out, the Radio City Music Hall crowd erupted when they heard Sam's name called:
Radio City Music Hall chanting, "Michael Sam! Michael Sam! Michael Sam!"— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) May 10, 2014
As for Sam's future teammates, they don't seem all that concerned about his presence in the locker room either. Rams defensive end Robert Quinn welcomed Sam to the front four, while coach Jeff Fisher said he was "honored":
Jeff Fisher on drafting Michael Sam to espn: "In the world of diversity we live in now, I'm honored to be a part of this."— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) May 10, 2014
Billie Jean King is one of the most famous LGBT athletes in history. Her fight for equality began on a tennis court, pushing for equal rights for men's and women's sports, and has continued with her inspiring work in the gay rights community. King offered Sam her support and congratulations on Twitter:
@michaelsam Congrats on being drafted in the NFL and the St.Louis Rams-a historic day for us all.Go for it!!!— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) May 10, 2014
Collins, whose coming-out story provided inspiration and a blueprint for Sam to handle the spotlight, has also been part of Sam's support system. He offered his acknowledgement of the moment, via SportsCenter's Twitter feed:
"It’s a great day for the NFL and for Michael and his family." - Nets C Jason Collins, on Michael Sam being drafted by Rams.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 10, 2014
Collins and King were far from the only people not associated with the NFL in a celebratory mood Saturday. News of Sam's drafting even invaded the R&B community, with singer John Legend tweeting out his support:
Congratulations to Michael Sam. It's a victory for LOVE.— John Legend (@johnlegend) May 10, 2014
While the mood was mostly ecstatic after the Rams took Sam, the mood was far different as the day stretched on and it looked increasingly likely he'd go undrafted. Patrick Daugherty of Rotoworld was one of many who found the players—in his case, quarterback Garrett Gilbert—selected before Sam frustrating:
Garrett Gilbert is apparently more projectable than the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Ok.— Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat) May 10, 2014
Most couched their disappointment with an acknowledgement that Sam was an imperfect talent, but former NFL punter Chris Kluwe is decidedly not most people. Kluwe is among the most outspoken athletes in fighting for LGBT rights and has been an active supporter of Sam since his announcement.
As part of a long, mostly NSFW tirade against the alleged fear of NFL teams to take a homosexual player, Kluwe provided anecdotal evidence to support his claims Sam should have been drafted earlier:
Stop making excuses when the precedent has already been set that project guys go in the 3rd-5th rounds, and are given 1-2 years to develop.— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) May 10, 2014
Former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels seemed to agree, citing the myriad experts who had Sam as a mid-round prospect:
I recall a lot of the "experts" (Kiper etc) saying #MichaelSam was a 4th round talent when he announced he was gay.— Sage Rosenfels (@SageRosenfels18) May 10, 2014
One of the many reasons some have cited for Sam's drop is the possibility his presence—and the media scrum that will come with it—would be a "distraction." For those with a modicum of experience covering the NFL, "distractions" are about as taboo as they come.
Of course, we also have past experience that confirms this is not the case. Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick pointed to Collins, who signed with the Nets midway through the 2013-14 season, as evidence whatever overwhelming attention exists would be short-lived:
I'm in BKN, where Jason Collins integrated into locker room & media crush died in a couple days. "Distraction" is poor excuse. #michaelsam— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 10, 2014
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport provided information on Sam's suitors in the worst possible scenario:
In the end, that drop only made Sam's moment in the sun more special. ESPN had a camera crew on the Missouri defensive end throughout the day, occasionally checking in to capture his emotions. When Sam received the call from the Rams, he was seen sobbing with joy in one of the more touching moments in recent memory.
Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post captured a photo of Sam's celebration:
Sam himself sent out the first picture of him wearing Rams gear:
Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis. I'm using every once of this to achieve greatness!! pic.twitter.com/QESdOJVzsw— Michael Sam (@MikeSamFootball) May 10, 2014
Sports Illustrated's Peter King pointed out that this wasn't just a landmark moment in the NFL—it will pervade American culture:
Michael Sam rejoicing and kissing on national TV. This is a great moment for the country.— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) May 10, 2014
Media critic and Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch also applauded ESPN for its well-rounded coverage of Sam and his celebration:
Pretty bleeping great, ESPN. #michaelsam— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) May 10, 2014
Watching the draft live, this was one of those special television moments where there wasn't a living room across the country with a little extra "dust." There may be some who wonder whether Sam's sexuality caused him to drop almost out of the draft entirely—and, as Kluwe pointed out, they may have a fair point.
But none of those concerns could take away from the moment Sam heard his name called at Radio City Music Hall. As a seventh-round pick, there is no guarantee he makes the Rams' roster. Make no mistake, though: We all witnessed history—glorious, awesome, heartwarming history—on Saturday.
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