INDIANAPOLIS — In the moments following Michael Sam’s media availability Saturday at the NFL combine, the name “Michael Sam” had 1.12 billion hits on Google, the majority of which came after his announcement two weeks ago as the first openly gay NFL prospect.
In the 12 minutes, 35 seconds he spoke, he answered three dozen questions, and only twice did he say the word “gay.”
“Oh heck yeah I wish you guys would (ask), ‘Hey Michael Sam, how’s football going? How’s training going?’” Sam said with a laugh. “I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player and not Michael Sam the gay football player.”
Michael Sam the football player had 10.5 sacks last season and was named the SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year at Missouri. But while he excelled as a pass rusher in college, he’s considered a “tweener” at the pro level – someone who doesn’t really have a home at defensive end or outside linebacker.
CBS Sports projects Sam will go in the third or fourth round of May’s draft.
Multiple NFL coaches and general managers, including Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, have said Sam will be judged on his football abilities alone and not his sexual orientation. Sam said Saturday no teams have asked him questions regarding his orientation.
“A trailblazer?” Sam said rhetorically when asked if he felt like he’s paved a path. “I feel like I’m Michael Sam.”
But how Sam will fit in an NFL locker room remains a question. He said he’s been surprised by the support he’s received in the past two weeks, and that the positive outweighs the negative.
Sam spoke glowingly of his time at Missouri, where he came out to his teammates before the 2013 season but was never outed to the media.
Last week he received a standing ovation at halftime of a Missouri basketball game, and Saturday he wore a button that read “Stand With Sam” on top of gay pride colors. He said he’s been hugged and kissed on the cheek by supporters, some of whom have cried in his arms.
“A loving brother,” said Kony Ealy, a fellow Missouri defensive end, of Sam. “He’s always singing, which gets on my nerves sometimes. Other than that he’s fun to be around, fun to play with. I know at the end of the day he’s going to do his job, and there’s no other guy I’d rather go to work with.”
Sam said he’s been in locker rooms where homophobic slurs have been thrown about, but said he doesn’t think anyone ever meant anything by them.
“Everyone can be normal around me if they wanted to,” Sam said of Missouri’s locker room. “We joke around because it’s a brotherhood, it’s a family, we could say things to each other. We don’t draw blood. It’s all fun and games.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera indicated if Carolina took Sam in the draft, Sam’s sexuality wouldn’t affect the locker room culture. He said if Sam can play, who cares?
“I think probably the best thing everybody can point to is what happened at Missouri,” Rivera said. “The young man came out in August, and it didn’t seem to affect their team. They went to a BCS bowl. He was an All-American. I think the thing everyone needs to realize is, this is not the story people want to make it out to be. I think it’s about going forward, and whatever happens, happens.”
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton agreed with his coach. If Sam can contribute to the Panthers sustaining success and returning to the playoffs, Newton is all for bringing in Michael Sam the football player.
“I think his personal life isn’t going to make or break him,” Newton said in a recent interview. “If he’s performing on the field, people are going to look past it. And being that he’s the first person to ever do it, my hat goes off to him for having the courage to stand up to everybody and say look, I just want to get it over with. He will fit right in our locker room, but being that we already have worthy linebackers I don’t think he would be eligible to come.
“But if he does come, if I had words to say to him, it’d be, ‘Bro, you’re here in the locker room for one reason and one reason only, and it’s not to make friends outside. You know what I’m saying? Because people will make friends with you if you’re balling.’ And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9