Those who have been inspired by the story of Michael Sam and who were worried that his bid for an NFL career might be over before it started after he failed to make the St. Louis Rams’ roster can rest a bit easier today.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Sam had passed a physical, was signed to the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad and was preparing to join his new teammates on the practice field.
For those who have been ensconced under a rock for the past few months, Sam is the young man who became the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, the Rams, after his stellar collegiate career at the University of Missouri.
It was never seen as a lock for Sam to make the Rams, or even to be drafted, and it wasn’t all about his sexual orientation.
Certainly, when the draft was held in May, there were teams that were not interested in the kind of attention that drafting Sam would attract. But Sam, despite his accolades in college, simply was not a good fit for many teams, as a football player. As a defensive lineman, the position he played in college, he lacks typical NFL size. But moving him to linebacker isn’t the answer, because he’s not fast enough to play there. He’s what is called, in NFL parlance, a ’tweener.
As a result, when the draft began, Sam was left waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Finally, in the last round, with only a few picks left to be made, the Rams took a chance on Sam, and by all accounts he has acquitted himself well. At the team’s first mini-camp, there was the expected initial media frenzy, but after that, Sam was just another player trying to make the team. He played well in the Rams’ preseason games, but St. Louis is blessed with considerable depth on the defensive line, so Sam’s bid fell short. Initially, when teams across the league were adding players to their practice squads, Sam found no takers. The Rams, facing a need to shore up other positions, passed on re-signing him. But then, on Tuesday, came the news the Cowboys were interested in bringing Sam back to his home state of Texas.
When Sam was available to any taker, were there some team owners or general managers or head coaches who still, despite all indications to the contrary, feared the disruption that might be caused by signing Sam? Certainly. But the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones isn’t your average owner. While most avoid the spotlight, he runs toward it. More attention for the Cowboys? Bring it on.
In the end, though, Sam’s dedication to his career and his talent will determine whether he ever gets a shot to play in a regular-season game for the Cowboys or for another team down the road. NFL teams are all about winning. If a coach thinks a player can help him win, and keep his job, that player will be on the field, regardless of his personal attributes. Working in Sam’s favor is the fact the Cowboys are extremely thin at his position. With another injury or two, or excellent performances in practice, Sam could work his way into being in uniform on Sundays (or whatever other day of the week on which they play NFL games these days).
While the NFL is the pinnacle of professional football, it’s not the only option. Sam’s rights in the Canadian Football League, which has been home to such well-known players as Warren Moon and Doug Flutie, both of whom later played in the NFL, are owned by the Montreal Alouettes, and they already have been in contact with Sam, expressing interest in his services should things not work out in the “big league.”
Whatever the outcome, Sam always will be recognized as a trailblazer, someone who could have kept his sexual orientation to himself but chose instead to be, in public, who he is. The next openly gay player, and there will be one, might find his path a bit easier to travel because of what Michael Sam has done.