INDIANAPOLIS – In a brief time period after Missouri’s Michael Sam spoke for about 13 minutes Saturday at the NFL combine, reportedly there were more than one billion Google hits on his name.
On few occasions can one player at a combine generate that much buzz, and reasons for it often relate beyond the playing field.
That would be the case for Sam since about two weeks ago he announced he is gay, one of the rare times an athlete has been so public on such a personal matter at this point in a career.
Sam’s play as a Missouri defensive end generated headlines, particularly this past season when he had 11.5 sacks, 19 tackles for losses and 48 stops in 14 games.
Those around Sam were aware of his orientation and Missouri went on to earn a 12-2 record that included a Cotton Bowl win.
“He’s not the first,” said Tampa Bay General Manager Jason Licht, “not the first NFL, not the first college. In my experience, it’s been kind of a moot issue. I’ve been lucky to be in organizations with strong locker rooms, strong staffs, a strong coach, where it hasn’t been an issue.”
Said New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, “I think he’d be welcomed. It’d be no different than any other player we have. One thing I know for sure, you’re going to have 53 players and they’re all different – religious beliefs, what they look like, height, weight, married, single.
“The main thing we talk about is respect in our locker room. Even though everybody’s different, it’s a respect thing. If the young man’s a good football player and teammate, that’s all we ask.”
Chuck Pagano on Friday said the Colts never have discriminated based on sexual orientation. “We look at the player. If he can help our team, help us win football games, he’ll be more than welcome.”
Sam faced the barrage of questions associated with high-profile combine participants, handling himself with poise and a calm demeanor. It was one component in a series of weekend job interviews as he tries to shift from playing on Saturdays to Sundays.
“I wish you guys would just say, ‘Michael Sam, how’s football going? How’s training going?’ I would love for you to ask me that question, but it is what it is,” said Sam. “I just wish (people) would see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.”
Those questions about talent prowess came from evaluators over the weekend and likely will continue for Sam, as they will for numerous draft hopefuls, as it is to be determined how college skills and size relate to the professional level.
Sam said he has been using the weeks after the Cotton Bowl to work on aspects of his game. He said he has not paid close attention to media during that time.
It is likely he kept close tabs on the bullying issue associated with one NFL team. Sam felt support at Missouri on his squad and on campus, and feels equipped to handle sensitive situations if any occur.
“I know how to handle myself,” said Sam. “I know how to communicate with my teammates. I know how to communicate with the coaches and other staff I need to communicate with.
“If someone wants to call me a name, I’ll have a conversation with that guy. Hopefully it won’t lead to anything else.”
Like every other player, Sam will need to prove himself. The phrase ‘tweener’ has been used on many prospects trying to take the next step. Some wonder if he fits a 4-3 set, while others point to nine of his 11.5 sacks coming in three outings.
“I’m a pass rusher. If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I’m going to get the quarterback,” said Sam. “Whoever coaches or GMs, this league is a passing league, I’d like to believe in myself as a good pass rusher.”
Sam handled himself well over a range of questions that only a few combine attendees get, two of whom last year were Manti Te’o and Tyrann Mathieu.
Te’o and Mathieu held up well under the combine spotlight and acquitted themselves as rookies. Sam hopes to follow suit.
“A trailblazer? I feel like I’m Michael Sam.”