Among the hundreds of players eligible for this year’s NFL draft, one has come out and announced he’s gay.
For all the dramas that will grab center stage each time a big name moves up or down the board, the fate of Michael Sam — and whether he gets a real shot to play at the next level — could wind up trumping them all.
More than a few players and front-office execs have vowed they’d play alongside anyone if he made them a better team. This could be the weekend that claim is put to the test.
Sam is under-sized (6-foot-2, 252 pounds) by NFL standards, so the skills that won him acclaim as one of the top defenders in the top-tier Southeastern Conference won’t carry as much weight as it otherwise might with the league’s tough-to-impress scouts. The loyalty and respect he garnered among his Missouri teammates, who dutifully kept Sam’s secret throughout last season, will count as a character reference but not much more.
Because while Sam was a factor on just about every down as a defensive end in college, predicting how he’ll adapt to a role in the pros as a part-time, pass-rushing linebacker and special-teams player is a roll of the dice. What’s certain, on the other hand, is that he’ll have a media circus in tow wherever he lands.
“I would not hesitate to use a draft pick on him,” said Bill Polian, a longtime NFL executive with Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis who is currently working as an ESPN analyst. “He’s a hard-nosed football player and there’s always room for one of those.”
Yet even while saying he thinks Sam’s problem won’t be with potential teammates — “players won’t have any issues with (his sexual orientation) at all” — Polian suggested that by coming out, Sam may have left some front offices skittish.
“They may not see the distraction as worthwhile,” he added.
At least one current general manager believes otherwise.
“I certainly think there is an element of courage that goes along with that,” said Trent Baalke of the San Francisco 49ers, whose team interviewed Sam during his pro day workout at Missouri. “That’s an issue that is continually being addressed, not only in the National Football League but in society. It needs to be addressed and I’m glad that the NFL is taking an active role from the commissioner on down.”
Roger Goodell greeted Sam’s announcement in February by saying, “Good for him. He’s proud of who he is and had the courage to say it. Now he wants to play football.
“We truly believe in diversity,” the commissioner added, “and this is an opportunity to demonstrate it.”
But Sam’s agents acknowledge they’re as much in the dark about his draft prospects as everyone else. Well aware that it only takes one franchise or owner determined to make a point or drum up lots of free publicity (think Dallas Cowboys and Jerry Jones) — they’ve been told he could go anywhere from the end of the first round to being left off the board altogether.
The consensus among scouting services is that he’ll be selected on the final day of the draft, if at all, somewhere between the fourth and sixth of the seven rounds. A few commenters on message boards have suggested it would be fitting if Sam was taken with the last pick in the last round, a dubious distinction known as “Mr. Irrelevant.”
For his part, Sam has stayed out of the public eye, turning down requests for interviews since addressing his sexuality at the scouting combine with both smarts and poise. More to the point, he’s overcome long odds before.
Raised in a one-parent household, Sam lived in a car briefly as a youngster and with classmates several times during his high school career. He lost one brother to gun violence and two others are in prison. Just getting to the football field some days took the kind of guts that even the toughest NFL players have to admire.
All he’s asking for is the chance to display that toughness one more time.
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