Friday, June 6, 2014
Michael Sam feeling at home in St. Louis
By Nick Wagoner
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The spotlight that shined so brightly on Michael Sam immediately after the St. Louis Rams drafted him has dimmed.
The majority of the media attention that once engulfed Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, has moved on. Since he came out on ESPN in February, Sam has consistently insisted that he wants it to be all about football.
There have been hiccups along the way, including an excruciating wait to be selected in the seventh round (249th overall) in May's draft, and the ensuing Oprah Winfrey Network "docu-series" which had many wondering whether his focus really was solely on making the roster at one of the team's most crowded positions.
As Sam spoke Friday for the first time since the team started organized team activities, the media horde was about one-third the size of the group that watched him go through a conditioning workout last month, and maybe one-tenth the size of the crew that attended his introductory news conference.
Asked what it was like to finally be back on the field and practicing, Sam lit up.
Michael Sam said he enjoys being back on the field and is focused on making the team.
"It's been a long time coming," Sam said. "Last year during this time I was already playing football at spring practice, but it's really good to put my helmet on and get out there and grind."
Along with that grind comes the most important task in this whole deal: making the roster. It's no secret the Rams are well-stocked at defensive end with the quartet of Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Eugene Sims firmly entrenched in their spots on the depth chart.
The Rams have carried additional defensive linemen in the past, employing a fifth end and a ninth lineman for most of last season. The journey to staking a claim to an additional spot began in earnest after Sam was drafted but has elevated to a new level with the beginning of OTAs.
As with most rookies, the adjustment to the size and speed of his teammates has been an eye-opening experience, and it isn't limited to the offensive linemen he's lining up against. Sam has also been impressed by the talent and depth of the defensive linemen with whom he shares a meeting room.
"I'm telling you, they get after it," Sam said. "They compete. I have got to step my game up to compete with this defensive line. I thought our defensive line at Mizzou was pretty tough. This is a whole new level; I've got to up my game.
"The speed, the strength, everything. Coach [Mike] Waufle is getting this defensive line right. This defensive line is probably one of the best in the country."
That said, Sam hasn't lacked for opportunities in the early OTA sessions. With Hayes not practicing, Sam is getting repetitions with the No. 2 defense at left defensive end. In addition, he's working on special teams, an area he's vaguely familiar with from his time at Mizzou, but he needs refreshing. He is also working to shed a few pounds from his listed weight of 261 in an effort to improve his speed and contribute on coverage units.
In Thursday's practice, Sam even made his presence felt in a minor scuffle with running back Isaiah Pead. After the pair got tangled during a play, Pead shoved Sam, who responded with a shove of his own. It was quickly broken up in no small part because coach Jeff Fisher had already made it clear the fighting had gone too far after a pair of earlier dustups.
Off the field, Sam has spent almost all his time trying to learn a new defense and the many nuances of coordinator Gregg Williams' scheme.
Williams is constantly buzzing around the practices and making his voice heard during drills, and Sam has quickly picked up on the idea that if he is doing the wrong thing, Williams will let him hear about it. Sam said he has seen plenty of similarities to Mizzou defensive coordinator Les Steckel and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski.
Sam has also leaned on veteran ends Long and Quinn in the early going and has benefited from the Rams' former Mizzou players as he acclimates, such as receiver T.J. Moe, center Tim Barnes and cornerback E.J. Gaines.
Soon after drafting Sam, the Rams endeavored to find ways to make him feel comfortable. They brought in Wade Davis, the former Tennessee Titan and current executive director of the You Can Play project, which is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes regardless of sexual orientation.
Davis spent time talking to the Rams' players, coaches and staff members and answered any questions thrown his way. It's just one example of how the Rams have made Sam feel at ease.
"It's a comfortable environment," Sam said. "Coach Fisher and the rest of the staff are making this a comfortable environment for me, and it is.
"I almost feel like home, which it is home. It is still Missouri."
Now comes the hard part: doing enough on the field to make it a more permanent residence.