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In this image taken from video, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam cries as he talks on a mobile phone at a draft party in San Diego, after he was selected in the seventh round, 249th overall, by the St. Louis Rams in the NFL draft Saturday, May 10, 2014. The Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year last season came out as gay in media interviews this year. (AP Photo/ESPN)
Column: Rams’ Sam unafraid to rise or fall on his terms
First Published May 11 2014 12:08 pm • Last Updated May 15 2014 05:08 pm

We’ll know what kind of football player the St. Louis Rams got with the 249th pick in the draft soon enough. We already know what kind of man they got in Michael Sam.

Anyone who watched him break into tears getting the phone call and expected only gratitude to spill out was in for a surprise. Because a few minutes later, breaking what amounted to a months-long silence, one of the first things Sam set out to do Saturday night was vaporize any lingering doubts that he wasn’t macho enough for the NFL.

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"Let me tell you something," he said, "if we were playing the Vikings right now I’ll probably have three sacks the first game."

That was the message the league’s first openly gay player sent to the Vikings and every other team that passed him over. He was less interested in why they did then when they were going to meet up next.

Asked whether he thought being frank about his sexuality hurt his chances of getting picked sooner, Sam began: "You know what, who knows? Who knows? Only the people who sit in the war room know."

He coolly repeated his promise to return the favor.

"They saw Michael Sam, day after day they scratched it off the board." That, Sam said, "was their loss."

He may not have the size and speed his competition did for a spot on an NFL roster, but he has the bravado. In a league of outsized personalities, Sam already looks like a good fit. He’s not afraid to speak his mind in a business that pretends to hate "distractions," but doesn’t hesitate to promote them when they’re good for the bottom line.

Besides, there are dozens of players who could charitably be labeled "distractions" in the NFL right now, ranging from prima donnas to real criminals, and likely another dozen or so in the incoming draft class. If commissioner Roger Goodell and his owners are half as smart as they think they are, Sam is the kind of "distraction" they’ll welcome. He’ll be that rare player drawing attention for the right reason — at least most of the time.

As for the rest, Sam sounds more than capable of taking care of himself.


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"You know what, I knew what I was coming into. I’m not afraid to answer questions. Are there going to be idiots out there that say some stupid stuff? Yeah," he said, without waiting for an answer. "I’m not worried about that. I’m worrying about the guy next to me, the guy in front of me. I have to prove myself."

The other knock on Sam was that he’d have to learn to a new position in the NFL, shifting from defensive end, where he played at Missouri, to a pass-rushing linebacker. He didn’t minimize how tough the transition would be, and he’s logged a few hundred hours in gyms and weight rooms since the Tigers season ended getting prepared.

He also knows only too well what happens to guys who don’t fit the mold. Most get pushed out after a few unsuccessful tries; a few are committed enough to try hard enough to break the mold. Sam left little doubt about which camp he fit in.

"I am a pass rusher, I sack quarterbacks," he said. "That’s my main job."

Sam will get a better-than-even chance to prove that in St. Louis, a team with a young, fast-improving defense and a coach, Jeff Fisher, who likes to take risks. He’ll also benefit from the goodwill earned playing his college ball just down the road in Columbia.

But the fact is Sam got this far because his own expectations long ago surpassed those that everybody else laid in his path. Getting the chance to rise or fall on his terms is all he ever asked. Anyone who thinks Sam is going to let go of that without a fight hasn’t been listening.

"From last season alone, I should have been a high (draft pick), first three rounds, you know. SEC defensive player of the year, unanimous All-American. I should have gone in the top three rounds easily," he said.

"It is what it is. I’m happy to be a St. Louis Ram. Everything else," he added a moment later, "is history."

———

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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