NDIANAPOLIS — Michael Sam needed no introduction.
He provided one anyway, subtly spelling out his desire to be known simply as a football player whose sexuality isn’t a national story.
“Good afternoon. My name is Michael Sam. I play football for the University of Missouri,” he said to commence his first public appearance since announcing he’s gay.
Sam smiled and laughed often during a 12½-minute news conference at Lucas Oil Stadium, looking relaxed, jovial and confident while taking questions from the hundreds of reporters surrounding the podium.
Though Sam said he’s been too busy working out to absorb the coverage in the two weeks since his revelation, he chided the media a bit for the volume of analysis of this watershed moment in sports. Sam will be the first open homosexual in the NFL.
“I wish you guys would just say, ‘Michael Sam, how’s football going? How’s training going?’ I would love for you to ask me that question. But it is what it is. And I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.”
Coaches and executives around the league were asked often this weekend for their thoughts on how Sam would fit, both on the field and in the locker room. Nobody would acknowledge any hesitation, of course, and there was a predictable theme to the responses.
“It’s a results business. Can Michael Sam help us win?” Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine said.
Sam said he was not worried about being accepted, either, in light of the bullying scandal that emerged involving Miami Dolphins offensive linemen.
“If the Miami Dolphins drafted me I would be excited to be a part of that organization,” Sam said. “But I’m not afraid of going into that environment. I know how to handle myself. I know how to communicate with my teammates. I know how to communicate with the coaches and other staff.”
Sam has heard the slurs before, but if he’s in any way anxious about entering such a macho environment he has not shown it.
“If someone wants to call me a name, I’ll have a conversation with that guy and hopefully it won’t lead to nothing else,” he said.
Sam wore a rainbow-colored button that read “Stand with Sam,” given to him by a woman at a recent Missouri basketball game. Sam beamed about all the support he’s received, originating on campus.
“M-i-z-z-o-u. I’m a Tiger forever,” he said.
The Missouri teammates who joined him this weekend at the league’s annual scouting combine were returning the praise.
“Mike Sam is the toughest guy I know. He knew what was going to come of this. He’s ready to embrace it all. He’s fearless. He’s courageous. He’s ready,” wide receiver L’Damian Washington said.
Other players, too, downplayed the significance of Sam’s sexual orientation.
“It’s not the 1950s. We’re not in a backward society. I think things move on,” said Memphis punter Tom Hornsey, who has the same agent as Sam. “It’s in the media at the moment, it’s all the talk, but I believe when it comes down to it, when he can prove he can play football, everything’s going to take care of itself and it won’t be a distraction.”
Despite credentials featuring the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year award, Sam is projected only as a mid-round pick in the draft in May. He’s 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, falling somewhere between a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme and an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system.
“He’s a tweener, and I think that’s why people are having trouble with the evaluation,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said, adding: “He’s got linebacker size, but he’s got the physical skill set of a defensive end. He’s a tough fit.”
Where he winds up, Sam said he doesn’t care.
“I’m a pass rusher. If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I’m going to get the quarterback. Whoever coaches or GMs, this league is a passing league. I’d like to believe in myself as a good pass rusher,” said Sam, who mentioned single-season sacks record-holder Michael Strahan as a player he’s patterned his style after.
One knock on Sam: he failed to record a sack in eight of Missouri’s 14 games last year.
“Winning is hard, buddy. Winning is hard. There’s going to be games when I might not get a sack,” he said. “Throughout the games I did have some inconsistency there, but for the most part we as a defensive line did put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks, made them uncomfortable in the pocket to have to go and run away or throw the ball out of bounds.”
If Sam were to slip down the draft board, determining a bias against his sexual orientation or a fear of the potential distraction would be near impossible. If teams pass on him, they’re likely unsure how his combination of size and speed fits with their defense. But the mental toughness and unflappable mindset Sam has shown will be a selling point.
“You only need one team. One team that believes in you,” Washington said.