Michael Sam seizes moment at combine

February, 22, 2014
Feb 22
4:35
PM ET
Michael SamAP Photo/Ben LiebenbergDefensive end Michael Sam has told NFL executives he can be the pass-rusher every team covets.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a 12-minute, 30-second glance into the future.

But when Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay draft hopeful stood before a huge array of cameras, digital recorders and smartphones sending his image to Twitter on Saturday at the NFL’s scouting combine, he simply owned the moment.

He was composed, witty, engaging. He handled himself the way he’s going to have to handle himself in the days, weeks and months ahead in whatever becomes of his professional football career. Sam looked ready, sounded ready, oozed ready for what’s to come.

He is at the front of the line, a player who will have to wrestle, control and handle all of the attention that will be along for the ride.

Sam understands all of it, at least he says he understands. He received a standing ovation when the Missouri football team was honored at halftime of a recent Missouri-Tennessee basketball game in one of his few public appearances since his Feb. 9 announcement that he is gay.

Saturday, he repeatedly lauded those in and around the Missouri campus for “all of the support," including a "Stand with Sam" button he wore at the combine, given to him, he said, by a “very kind lady." And Sam’s announcement, as well as his appearance at the combine, has brought all of the is-the-NFL-ready-for-a-gay-player storylines. For the past two weeks, players have been quoted, both anonymously and on the record, about Sam's football future.

There have been gay players in NFL locker rooms before, some who have acknowledged it to teammates and some who have not. But Sam will be the first to have publicly announced it before arriving.

Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome constructed two Super Bowl teams as a team executive, and he was a Hall of Famer as a player. Newsome said Saturday that Sam already has dealt with teammates who knew Sam was gay. The challenge, at this point, Newsome said, is how Sam deals with the public and the media in a wired world.

“He’s been a good player, he’s been in the locker room, it’s what you, the media, what are y’all going to do with him," Newsome said. “Once he gets in, and he can rush the quarterback, get the quarterback on the ground and make tackles, he’s going to be a good teammate. The biggest thing is how the media is going to deal with it."

Newsome was then asked -- as an executive who makes roster decisions, who builds depth charts -- if the attention given to Sam would be a deterrent for those trying to figure out where Sam should be drafted.

“This is something that is new to the league and we all will have to adapt to it," Newsome said. “What I was talking about, I think our locker room has had the tendency to adapt to things a lot smoother than maybe the media does."

The Broncos' top decision-maker, John Elway, also a Hall of Famer as a player, has said Sam’s announcement would have no impact on how he will be evaluated as a player. That “having spent 16 years in an NFL locker room [as a player], the bottom line is that it's about treating others with respect and earning that respect. By all indications, it appears Michael has done just that throughout his football career."

That was the message Sam delivered for all those gathered in front of him Saturday. His “whole focus" has been preparing for the combine, preparing for his pro day next month.

“Heck, yeah, I wish you guys would ask me, 'Michael Sam, how’s football going?'" he said. “I would love for you to ask me that question, but it is what it is. And I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."

In his interviews with NFL team executives at the combine, Sam’s message has been he can be the pass-rusher every team covets, that concerns he’s too small to be a defensive end and did not perform well in linebacker drills at the combine are things he can alleviate with the benefit of opportunity.

“I’m a pass-rusher. If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I’m going to get the quarterback," Sam said. “Whoever the coaches, the GMs, this league is a passing league, and I like to believe in myself as a good pass-rusher."

While the attention Sam has in tow will come in large part because of his off-the-field life, Sam said his concentration is on football, and that football should determine his professional future.

Those who know Sam believe he can handle the attention, or as Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy said Saturday, “I expect him to go in there and just do his job. … He motivates. … He’s just that type of player, that type of person, off the field, all around."

Sam was asked Saturday if he felt like a trailblazer in all of this, and his answer showed his mindset, showed what he has presented to the league’s decision-makers.

“I feel like I’m Michael Sam."

Michael Sam, the football player.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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