Michael Sam made history on Friday by becoming the first openly gay football player to participate in an official NFL game. The St. Louis Rams' seventh-round draft pick made his professional debut in the team’s first preseason contest of 2014, as they lost to the New Orleans Saints at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, 26-24. The four preseason games don’t count in the regular-season standings, but Sam’s performance in the exhibition season will determine whether or not he’s still around for Week One.
The former college-football standout was drafted in the final round at No. 249 overall, just seven picks ahead of the last selection. He signed a four-year contract worth $2.65 million, but only $46,000 is guaranteed, making him far from a sure thing to make the final 53-man roster.
Sam was confident after his debut, telling reporters that he knows he can be an NFL player. The rookie was active in his first preseason appearance, recording a tackle and getting a hit on third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin. He was able to put pressure on the quarterback a few times, playing at defensive end.
"He does fly around a little bit," an NFL scout told USA Today. "He's a good hustle player. I just wonder if that's enough. He's a stiff dude. But if you can run and hustle, you give yourself a chance."
With three preseason games remaining, questions still remain about Sam’s ability to be productive in the NFL. He was a star in college, being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, but some are unsure how his skills will translate at the next level. Even though he was a dominant defensive end at Missouri, his lack of size forced him to try his hand at linebacker at the Senior Bowl. Sam struggled at the new position, and will look to make a career as a defensive end and special teams contributor.
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The ideal situation for the Rams has Sam performing well enough in the preseason to make the final roster. The 24-year-old’s story as an openly gay player has received a lot of national attention, and St Louis, as well as the NFL, could have a public-relations issue if Sam gets cut, even if he doesn’t have what it takes to play in the league.
Even though he was drafted, there has been some speculation that Sam’s sexual orientation caused him to fall in the draft. Multiple NFL executives told Sports Illustrated that Sam’s decision to come out would hurt his draft stock, and Sam’s draft projection plummeted, following his announcement. Former NFL head coach Tony Dungy also made headlines last month, saying he wouldn't have drafted Sam.
Besides avoiding a potential controversy, the Rams might prefer to keep Sam because he's become one of the most popular players in the league. From April 1 to July 17, Sam ranked sixth in jersey sales in the entire NFL. In his attempt to become the first openly gay rookie player in a major American team sport, Sam has become a role model to many.
Ultimately, the Rams will make the decision that best helps them on the field. Tim Tebow was one of the most popular players of the past few years, and the New England Patriots released him before the start of the 2013 NFL season. St. Louis is looking to make the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and they aren’t likely to let Sam’s situation affect their football decisions.
St. Louis and Sam will play again on Saturday against the Green Bay Packers. The Rams open the regular season on Sunday, Sept. 7 against the Minnesota Vikings.