- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Less than two hours east down Interstate 70 from his college stomping grounds at the University of Missouri, Michael Sam will take his shot at becoming the first openly gay player in the NFL.
The St. Louis Rams used the 249th overall selection on Sam on Saturday night, giving him the opportunity to begin his NFL career in surroundings that should be about as comfortable as possible for a player transitioning to the game's highest level.
That isn't to say Sam won't have his share of challenges. Whenever you're the first to do something, there likely will be bumps along the way. Sam knows what awaits.
"I knew what I was coming into," he said. "Are there going to be idiots out there who say some stupid stuff? Yeah. I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about the guy next to me, the guy in front of me. I have got to prove myself. I have got to make sure the vets know I'm a team player and I love this game and I want to show the coaches that I'm a team player and a hard-working guy. What I do on the field will determine how great Michael Sam will be."
On a macro level, St. Louis provides a smaller media market through which Sam should be able to go about his business without much distraction. St. Louis is also home to countless University of Missouri alumni, a group that has spent the past four years rooting for Sam in Columbia.
Even Rams owner Stan Kroenke holds multiple Mizzou degrees and maintains a residence in Columbia.
Further, Sam enters a locker room and a defensive line that is overflowing with diverse and eclectic personalities.
"It's going to be a mess in that room now," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said, a smile creeping across his face. "It's going to be fun."
Forgetting for a moment the microscope that likely will stay focused on him throughout the offseason and into training camp, Sam is walking into a group that will keep him on his toes on and off the field.
"Yeah, Michael does not know what he's getting himself into," Rams general manager Les Snead said.
The Rams defensive line has been one of the best in the league the past two years and boasts players from all different walks of life.
Long, the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long, sets the tone with his playful approach in the locker room. But he's all business otherwise.
"We have a heck of a room," Long said. "Coach Waufle works us hard. We work hard. We are a fun group and we are always going to be the liveliest group on the field, too. I think that those guys love playing tough football and working hard which when you watch tape of them, they do that. I really enjoy being part of our defensive line. We're trying to be tone-setters. We have a long way to go and certainly the addition of guys like Michael helps."
There's also Eugene Sims, a quiet unassuming type from Mount Olive, Mississippi.
Robert Quinn is the best player of the bunch, a freak of an athlete who is about as humble as emerging superstars come.
The list goes on.
What's more, Sam won't just be surrounded by players who figure to be welcoming: They will also serve as mentors, willing to help him improve.
"It's not only a great opportunity to be around a diverse group in there but I think he has a lot of guys in that room he can learn from football-wise," defensive captain James Laurinaitis said. "I think that's the most important thing. He has guys like Robert and Chris and William and Eugene. There's a lot of guys that are really good football players and obviously the competition is really deep there in that room.
"I think that's just kind of the DNA of the guys in that room right now. They always go to work. They work hard in the weight room, out on the field and they are a bunch of good guys, so I think he'll fit in great."
If, for some reason, a problem pops up, Sam also has the benefit of playing for one of the most respected coaches in the league. Fisher makes a consistent effort to keep tabs on the locker room and won't hesitate to step in if someone steps out of line.
"If there's an issue there, I will address it as it would relate to any other form of discrimination or anything that I would feel was offensive from a diversity standpoint," Fisher said. "No different."
As Sam spoke to the media Saturday night, his excitement to join the Rams was unmistakable. Through the course of the conversation, Sam adamantly tried to discuss football instead of his sexuality.
Soon enough, Sam will get his chance to put aside all talk of his life off the field to prove himself on the field. The competition at a loaded position will be tough. Making the roster is no sure thing.
But if it doesn't happen for Sam, it won't be because of anything aside from good old-fashioned competition.
"I think the reaction you see from people on our team out on Twitter and all of that just shows we have got a group of guys that all we care about is are you going to come in and help this football team win football games and get to where we want to go?" Laurinaitis said. "That answer is definitely yes."
1dEric D. Williams
1dEric D. Williams