- Ashley Fox
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This is a story of social significance, of acceptance, of courage and of strength. Michael Sam is trying to become a trailblazer, trying to gain acceptance outside of his insular world on the Missouri football team, trying to make it as the first openly gay player in the National Football League.
But now that the clamor over Sam's announcement is starting to die down, this is starting to morph into a football story, as it ultimately should. While there remains the question about whether a bunch of professional football players in their 20s and 30s can accept an openly gay teammate, other questions are equally important to Sam's story.
Can Sam's skills as a college defensive end transfer to the NFL? Can he be effective in pass coverage when he never really had to be during his four years playing for Missouri? Can he play linebacker, even though when asked to do so at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month, he looked lost playing in space?
Is Sam's body, considered small for a defensive end at 6-foot-1 5/8, strong enough to go week after week against bigger tackles than he ever faced in college? Is a player who consistently showed great effort in college and has a great first step but does not have elite speed off the edge worth more than a midround draft pick?
Does it really matter that Sam was the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference when the majority of his sacks and tackles for loss came in only a handful of games and he struggled against better competition?
None of this is to discount what Sam is going through personally and the statement he is trying to make about being able to be an openly gay professional football player. That means something.
But there is a real, tangible element to this and every story about each prospect who enters the draft. NFL personnel people don't grade on emotion. They grade on facts. And although a lot of personnel people would benefit from realizing that character, desire and heart matter almost as much as ability and statistics, the safest measure, in most scouts' eyes, is the facts.
What that means for Sam is that a third-round grade might be way too high for a lot of teams. A seventh-round grade might be too high. One talent evaluator I talked to said he wasn't even sure that Sam would get drafted.
It is possible that a team that covets effort or an owner looking for attention could be intrigued by Sam and reach to make him a high draft pick. It is also possible that Sam could plummet down the draft board because he is undersized for an NFL defensive end, doesn't have the lower-body strength of an Elvis Dumervil or the quick moves of a Dwight Freeney, and isn't experienced in passing situations.
Sam isn't a can't-miss prospect. He isn't South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney. He's in the middle of the pack of prospects, which means it could be tough for him, particularly the later the draft goes. Sam could face a situation where, all things being equal between him and another player, the other player gets selected because the team doesn't want to deal with all of the ancillary issues that will accompany Sam. That wouldn't be fair, but it also wouldn't be the first time a player got skipped over in the draft because of an off-the-field element to his story.
Every player with aspirations of playing in the NFL wants to get drafted, and Sam is no different, but it might not be the worst thing in the world if he doesn't. That way, he could pick the situation that he feels is best for him. He could choose the right fit. One of Sam's agents told U-T San Diego earlier this week that the Chargers would be a great fit for Sam given the way they embraced and treated former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o last year during his rookie season.
Regardless of whether he's a third-round pick or an undrafted rookie free agent, Sam is going to have his work cut out for him fitting into an NFL locker room environment. The NFL isn't college. His teammates aren't on scholarship. They're paid good money to play football, and that creates an entirely different work environment.
Sam is probably going to have to endure his share of ribbing from his teammates, but more than that, he is going to have to work hard, be professional and produce on the field -- in practice, at training camp and during games.
That is what will matter most, because while Sam's story is a significant one in the history of professional sports, his is still a football story. And at its core, football is still about blocking and tackling and making plays. In the end, Sam's ability to do those things should matter more than his sexuality.
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