Michael Sam's Story May Not Have a Hollywood EndingJune 17, 2015
This is Michael Sam's last fight, and it doesn't look good.
I believe I know what happened to Sam—why he suddenly bolted from his last, great chance to be a professional football player.
Some of you, holding a predisposition to dislike Sam because he's gay, won't understand what I'm about to say. Some of you, who understand nuance and human frailty, will get it.
I believe that Sam has reached this point—where he left the CFL's Montreal Alouettes last week with little explanation to the team—because the pressure of being the first finally got to him. In this case, the pressure that came from becoming the first openly gay NFL player.
Sam will always be a hero to me, but I also know he is made of flesh and blood. Like other pioneers in sports, he carried the weight of many people on his shoulders.
My belief is that that weight, increased by the anvil of social media, is far too heavy for Sam—for the moment at least. I think he just got tired…and so he left.
He may come back to Montreal. But for now, he's gone. The truth is, I'm surprised it took this long for the pressure to build and for Sam to finally succumb to it.
None of this is an excuse for Sam. Some people are built to be the first. They have layers of armor under already thick skin. Insults and slurs are deflected like bullets off Superman's chest.
Jackie Robinson was like this. Roberto Clemente was like this. James Harris, one of the pioneering black quarterbacks in the NFL and a longtime team executive, was like this. Amy Trask, the sport's first female team executive, working for the Raiders, remained an exemplary human being in the face of bigotry. Same with Art Shell, the first black head coach in the NFL, and the first Latino coach in the league, Tom Flores.
But not everyone is superhuman, and not every story has a perfect Hollywood ending. Sometimes, understandably, the hero doesn't say to the bad guys "Yippee ki-yay" and walk off into the sunset.
This is where we are right now when it comes to Sam. He became the first openly gay player in NFL history, was drafted by the Rams, released by St. Louis and later signed and released by the Cowboys. Then came the chance in the CFL with Montreal.
Alouettes general manager Jim Popp told the Montreal Gazette's Herb Zurkowsky of Sam's departure:
He wanted to go home, and that's what he did. I don't know why. When a guy wants to go home, they go home. He had some personal things to take care of.
I wouldn't be surprised if he returns. I'm surprised he left. I was very surprised. If he doesn't come back, I would think football's over for him. He's the one that has to face that. But I don't think he doesn't want to play football. That's why he came here.
I think there's a solid chance Sam will be back in Montreal. I think he just needed a breather.
I've said in the past that Sam was discriminated against in the NFL. That isn't the case in Montreal. It has treated him extremely well, and the locker room hasn't been particularly pernicious, I'm told by a source close to Sam. It's a franchise that wanted him, with a long history of inclusion and a GM who genuinely believes he can be a force in the pass-happy league. It is a different country and type of game, but it's set up for him to do well.
Some of you will say this is all about the fact Sam can't play. That may be proven true. In this case, if Sam doesn't play well, it's not on anyone else but him. There are no excuses.
Yet I also get there are burdens he faces that few of us can understand. There's a reason he's the first. It's because he had the guts to make history, and that counts for something. It counts for a great deal.
We still live in a country where gays are assaulted at significantly higher rates than other groups. He entered a sport that's long been hostile to gays. Yes, guts.
I don't believe Sam left due to pouting, as one source told Zurkowsky. It was nothing so silly.
Is it possible Sam left Montreal because he knew he wasn't going to make the team? Zurkowsky also has raised that possibility:
The latest theory concerning Sam's departure was that he simply wasn't good enough to make the roster, sensed this and left to save himself and the organization embarrassment. This particular scenario is gaining steam throughout the Als dressing room and, for that matter, the CFL.
Was it possible those of us backing Sam were wrong all along? That he simply wasn't talented enough? People like myself may have to allow that it was the case—or that it was a blending of several things. There was bigotry, but also his impressive college game didn't translate to the pro level.
Wrapped around both of those things was Sam possibly falling to the pressure of being a historic figure.
The pressure was tectonic, and I think it got the best of him. Understandably. It would get the best of almost all of us.
No, these stories do not always end well. That doesn't make Sam any less a hero.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.