INDIANAPOLIS — A mid-round pass-rushing prospect calmly strode up to the podium Saturday afternoon at the NFL Combine and felt the need to introduce himself to the world.
“Good afternoon. My name is Michael Sam. I play football for the University of Missouri,” he said.
The introduction was unnecessary, though, because the world is already well-versed in his story. Sam was an All-American and the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year last season after compiling 11½ sacks and 19 tackles for loss for the Tigers. He’s a hotly-debated mid-round NFL draft prospect who is slightly undersized for a defensive end (6 feet 2 inches, 255 pounds), projected to go anywhere from the third to the seventh round.
And he’s also a ground-breaking athlete, becoming the first openly gay athlete not only in the history of the NFL draft, but in the four major professional team sports in North America.
Sam, 24, announced his homosexuality in a carefully timed media release two weeks ago. Saturday was the first time he faced questions from reporters in a news conference setting — a 15-minute session in front of nearly 1,000 reporters that was aired coast-to-coast not only on the NFL Network, but also CNN, which usually has no interest in televising news conferences from the Combine.
Sam wore a rainbow “Stand with Sam” pin on his nametag Saturday, but he doesn’t necessarily want to be known as a revolutionary athlete. He hasn’t signed any endorsements since coming out, and hasn’t tried to capitalize on his newfound fame.
“A trailblazer? I feel like I’m Michael Sam,” he said.
“I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player, instead of Michael Sam the gay football player. 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.”
Sam told his teammates before last season that he is gay, and said it wasn’t much of a secret on campus, but he wanted to control his story and announce it to the world two weeks ago instead of letting it squeak out in the media.
Reaction across the NFL has been mixed — a handful of current and former players have questioned whether Sam’s orientation will cause a stir in the locker room and bring “unwanted” attention to the team — but he said the reaction from the public has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I mean, the positive outweighs the negative,” he said. “I’m kind of surprised, actually. But there’s a lot of supporters, a lot of people want this. There’s just a lot of support out there.”
As the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin episode in Miami proved, football locker rooms aren’t always the most tolerant, progressive places. But Sam said he’s never had any problem fitting in, and doesn’t believe his coming out will cause much of an issue.
“If someone wants to call me a name, I’ll have a conversation with that guy and hopefully it won’t lead to anything else,” he said. “I’ve been in locker rooms where all kinds of slurs have been said, and I don’t think anyone means it. I think [they are] a little naive and uneducated, but as time goes on everyone will adapt.”
He even said he would welcome the chance to play for Miami despite the mess it is embroiled in.
“If the Miami Dolphins drafted me I would be excited to be a part of that organization,” he said. “I’m not afraid of going into that environment. I know how to handle myself. I know how to communicate with my teammates. I know how to communicate with the coaches and other staff I need to communicate with.”
Sam said that when he participated in the Senior Bowl three weeks ago, none of the teams asked about his sexual orientation during private interviews. It likely will be more of the same at the Combine.
“It was all football questions,” he said. “They asked me about my size. ‘Have you ever played linebacker?’ General questions like that.”
By coming out now, several months in advance of the 2014 season, Sam hopes that the attention might fade away when it’s time to play again next fall.
Sam does hope his decision to come out will help other athletes feel comfortable doing so. But it wasn’t necessarily his goal, either.
“If I did that, it’s just great,” he said. “I just want to do what I love to do, and that’s play football.”
Sam is here to sack quarterbacks, not necessarily be a poster child for the gay rights movement.
“That’s my 100 percent focus on this. I’m not focusing on anything else but to earn my spot on an NFL team,” he said.
“I’m a pass rusher. If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I’m going to get the quarterback.”
After 15 minutes, he smiled at the crowd and TV cameras and had one last message.
“God bless you guys,” he said.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.