[UPDATE Saturday 6:52 p.m. EST] After 248 previous picks and nearly three days of waiting, Michael Sam became the first openly gay player ever selected in the NFL Draft Saturday.
The St. Louis Rams selected the 6-foot-2, 261-pound Missouri defensive end and relentless first-team All-American with the No. 249th overall pick in the seventh round, ending months of doubt over whether his sexual orientation would affect an NFL team’s decision to pick him.
During the three-day draft process it was unclear when or if Sam would be picked three months after he revealed to the world that he is gay. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell praised Sam after he came out and reiterated the league’s stance against discrimination of any kind, but there was still uncertainty an NFL team would welcome Sam into the locker room or be wary of a higher than usual media presence.
Sam slid down draft projections from the third round to as low as the fifth, sixth or seventh round after he came out, and the NFL and its teams were placed in a precocious situation. If he went undrafted the perceived snub could have been viewed as discrimination or fear rather than a reflection of Sam’s skills or ability to adapt to the pro game.
Sam would have taken the avenue of signing as a rookie free agent hoping to make a roster after cuts throughout training camp in the summer.
Sam wasn’t expected to go in the first round and a selection on Day Two in the second and third rounds seemed a possibility but came and went. Yet as the third and final day entered the sixth and seventh rounds there was a very real possibility Sam wouldn’t hear his name called.
Following the combine in February, Sam was given a draft grade of 5.1. In the first three rounds of the draft four players with draft grades lower than Sam were selected, according to OutSports.com.
Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker and current free agent Brendon Ayanbadejo has supported Sam ever since he came out and stated his disbelief on Twitter, while Hall of Fame cornerback and NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders expressed his faith in Sam’s skills.
I stand with Sam, but now I am sitting. Teams keep passing SEC DPOY for small school guys with less stats & tangibles Crazy @MikeSamFootball
â€” Brendon Ayanbadejo (@brendon310) May 10, 2014
Some team needs to Draft Michael Sam and be real the kid can play! Truth
â€” DeionSanders (@DeionSanders) May 10, 2014
In the long lead up to the draft, Sam posted underwhelming results during the NFL combine but showed improvement in his 40-yard dash time during the Tigers Pro Day in March. However it’s been said too much emphasis is placed on results from workouts and player measurements prior to the draft.
Sam led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss, routinely facing pro-level competition. The Tigers rose to national prominence with a 12-2 overall record and a victory in the Cotton Bowl with Sam leading the defense. Sam came out to his teammates in August of last year before the season began.
Sam also said at the combine that he wanted to be recognized as a football player, and not as a gay football player.
The Rams already have top young defensive end Robert Quinn on their roster, but Sam could still compete for a spot throughout training camp or add to the squad’s depth. St. Louis was ranked third in the NFL in sacks last season and Sam could make their pass rush even stronger.
Typically a player named the top defender in college football’s toughest conference is selected in the first round. Before Sam, former Alabama and current Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Demeco Ryans was the last SEC Defensive Player of the Year to fall out of the first round in 2006.
Sam was the fourth player selected out of Missouri this year, following fellow defensive end Kony Ealy and offensive lineman Justin Britt, both of whom went in the second round, and defensive back E.J. Gaines in the sixth round. Missouri head football coach Gary Pickel congratulated Sam via Twitter after the selection.
â€” Coach Gary Pinkel (@GaryPinkel) May 10, 2014
Sam joins center Jason Collins of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets as an openly gay player in one of the four major U.S. sports. In 2013 Collins came out in an article published by Sports Illustrated, earning praise around the country from civil rights activists and fans, as well as from President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
[UPDATE Friday 2 p.m. EST]: Day Two of the NFL Draft will commence in a few short hours, and this was supposed to be Michael Sam’s time to shine.
Before the Missouri defensive end revealed to the world that he is gay, Sam was projected as a high as a late second-round or third round pick. Hours after Sam came out to the nation and would-be NFL-employers, he fell to as low as a seventh-round projection.
Over the next two days of the draft, Sam could hear his name called at Radio City Music Hall or join a number of prospects that sign as undrafted free agents and hope to survive training camp and make a roster.
Should he be selected, Sam will be the first openly gay NFL player but there are a number of defensive end prospects still available who posted better numbers at the Combine, like Missouri teammate Kony Ealy, Alabama’s Ed Stinson or Arkansas’s Chris Smith.
Still even if Sam must wait out the seven-round draft process without being picked, he’s already inked an endorsement deal.
Sam signed with credit card giants Visa, and his first commercial spot began circulating on Thursday.
As he bench presses during the 43-second spot, Sam says: “Judge me for what I do on the field.”
Missouri defensive lineman and 2013 Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam became the first openly gay NFL prospect three months ago, but despite his accomplishments on the field, where the 6-foot-2 261-pound Sam lands during this weekend’s draft remains a highly debated topic.
Depending on how high or how low he goes in the seven-round selection process, Sam could be labeled as overrated, underrated or even a token for the NFL and teams to show that they welcome the LGBT community into the league.
As the Daily Beast pointed out, Sam said at the NFL combine that he wants to be seen as a football player, and not “the” gay football player. However, NFL owners will always be worried about how a new player will affect their profits and image with fans, and the country is still slow to accept gays in sports.
No NFL team or official has said Sam won’t be welcome in the league, and his statistics and awards received in college should be enough to merit a selection at least in the later rounds.
In four seasons at Missouri, Sam gradually improved each year and in his senior season helped the Tigers contend for a national title with a punishing defense that consistently lined up against NFL prospects in the talent-rich SEC. Sam led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss, and he was named a first-team All-American.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell praised Sam after his announcement on Feb. 9.
"Good for him," Goodell said to NFL.com. "He's proud of who he is and had the courage to say it. Now he wants to play football. We have a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. We will have further training and make sure that everyone understands our commitment. We truly believe in diversity and this is an opportunity to demonstrate it."
Should no team decide to demonstrate its tolerance and embrace diversity, the NFL could have a serious public relations problem on its hands. After Sam came out as gay, he fell from a third-round projection to the fifth or sixth round.
“The NFL kind of has no win in this situation,” said former NFL player and gay-rights activist Wade Davis to the Washington Post. “Because if he doesn’t get drafted, it’s going to be positioned that he didn’t get drafted because he’s gay.”
Sam did have drawbacks at the NFL Combine. He didn’t show a real burst of speed that teams require for a pass rusher, with a 4.91 40-yard dash, and Sam could only manage 17 reps on the 225-pound bench press. He also registered a below average 25.5-inch vertical leap.
The Post also cited reports that one NFL general manager predicted Sam won’t be drafted at all, and five of 21 NFL scouts polled said they wouldn’t use a draft pick on Sam. Seven of those 21 said they wouldn’t even sign him to a free-agent contract after the draft.
“When you see anonymous people and people who are leaking stories, they’re afraid that their good old football is going to look a lot different. And it’s not,” Davis said. “They’ve never seen a game Michael Sam played, but they just assume he’s going to be out there with pom-poms.”
Prediction: The combine results aren’t impressive, but they should not and won’t be the deciding factor for Sam. His incredible senior season should tell GMs everything they need to know, and Sam clearly has the desire to succeed in the NFL. Still, Sam could go as high as the fourth round, or as low as the seventh round.