In any other year, the football-watching world wouldn't have even noticed. It's a story we see dozens of times a year: A hard-working, overachieving, good-character guy rides the pipeline between his college program and its in-state NFL team.
A brutal summer of film study, cram sessions, weight machines, protein shakes, sweltering practices and special teams gets him onto the active roster, or maybe a practice squad contract, or maybe just a firm handshake and thanks for his trouble.
Sam, though, isn't just a good kid. He's a consensus first-team All-American, and co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
He's also openly gay.
A Culture Changed
Sam is the first openly gay NFL player, but he is far from the first gay man to play football. Retired NFL veterans like Wade Davis and Esera Tuaolo played while still in the closet—and gritted their teeth when teammates cracked gay jokes, used slurs or said out-and-out hateful things.
Former University of Maryland player Akil Patterson told Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Mike Freeman about life as a closeted football player:
"I didn't think about being gay," said Patterson. "The only time I worried about it was when a coach yelled 'f----t' or a teammate said, 'I'm going to whip that gay kid's ass.'
"But staying in the closet eats at you," he said. "It eats you up. You think you're hiding something important about yourself. My way of coping was to say, 'I'm going to go fight someone. Then drink some beer. Then fight again. Then take home as many girls as possible.'"
But he said none of that could keep staying in the closet "from eating at you."
In the last ten years, there's been a sea change in the way American society understands sexuality. As polling by The Washington Post recently showed, 55 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage in 2003—but now, 59 percent support it.
2003 was also Patterson's last year in at Maryland; when he came out to some of his teammates, one broke down crying. "I said, 'Dude, I'm not dying,'" Patterson laughingly told Freeman.
Ten years later, as Sam told John Branch of The New York Times, Sam came out to his teammates as part of a getting-to-know you exercise.
"I looked in their eyes," Sam said, "and they just started shaking their heads—like, finally, he came out." He hadn't dropped a bombshell on his teammates; they'd long since guessed and had never cared. They didn't just tolerate him, they supported him—celebrated him, even. One teammate went with Sam to a gay pride rally in St. Louis, and others went out to gay bars with him.
The world of the NFL is deeply conservative. That's not just in the political sense, it's a profoundly risk-averse culture that with deep respect for tradition and deep skepticism of new ways of thinking. That manifests in everything from locker-room culture to fourth-down decision-making.
When defensive tackle Louis Nix fell deep into the third round, Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller contacted some of his NFL sources to find out why. Along with his in-progress rehab from a late-season knee surgery, they were very concerned about his "Social media use."
Yes, Nix is active and engaged on Twitter. He interacts with fans and cracks jokes—usually about food:
Apparently such weird, wild stuff as talking to fans and being hungry just doesn't fit in with the buttoned-down world of the NFL. It's an unknown. It's a risk. It's trouble. So they passed on him.
Is it any wonder many thought Sam's fall to the seventh round was motivated by fear of his sexuality?
With ESPN live on the scene, Sam watched and waited as it looked like his dream wasn't going to come true. It looked like the doubters were right. NFL decision-makers were just too stuck in their antiquated ways to accept a gay player—no matter how productive he was in college.
Football media folks began sniping on Twitter about the NFL's collective failure when Sam's cell phone rang.
It was only right that the St. Louis Rams had made the call. Just over 100 miles from where the community of Columbia, Missouri rallied around him, in the city where he'd once attended Pride with a Missouri teammate, an NFL football team chose Michael Sam.
The scene that followed was emotional and beautiful, spellbinding television—and a watershed moment in sports:
The New Normal
Many players cry when they get drafted; super-stud defensive end Jadeveon Clowney did when he was picked No. 1 overall. Why wouldn't Sam? Many players kiss their wives or girlfriends when they get drafted. Why wouldn't Sam kiss his boyfriend?
The most important part of this moment is that it's over.
ESPN is not going to send a camera crew to the next gay draft prospect's house. The NFL-watching world will not gasp in astonishment the next time a player is affectionate with a man. These are just things that happen now, and not breathless news stories.
"I wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player," Sam told reporters at the NFL combine, "not as Michael Sam the gay football player."
Miller, and Bleacher Report NFL Analyst Chris Simms, discussed how Sam didn't just land in the perfect place for himself personally, but professionally:
All of the worrying and fear and doubt is over. As of today, the door is open for him. He's not a prospect or a hopeful or a candidate or a movement or anything other than who he is: Michael Sam of the St. Louis Rams.
Going forward, his career will be defined by what he does on the field, and not by his personal life. Just the way he wants it.
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