INDIANAPOLIS: Michael Sam strode through the glass doors of the media room at Lucas Oil Stadium unannounced, arriving on the heels of a teammate, and reporters scurried in his wake. One quickly ditched a napkin full of potato chips to gain position for the historic moment.
The first openly gay draft prospect might not have drawn the largest crowd in NFL Combine history, but whether his Saturday news conference surpassed last year’s mob scene to hear Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o tell his fake dead girlfriend saga depended on one’s proximity to the podium.
To those who found themselves fighting for elbow or cell phone camera space 10 rows back from the stage, Sam, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound University of Missouri defensive end, looked like a speck. But his presence still loomed large Saturday.
There seemed no doubt that the 24-year-old from Hitchcock, Texas, is prepared to handle the spotlight he created for himself when he announced his sexual orientation on ESPN’s Outside the Lines on Feb. 9.
“Good afternoon. My name is Michael Sam. I play football for the University of Missouri,” he began. “As you may know, Missouri is the Show Me State and you’d think I’d have shown you guys enough these last couple of weeks. But I’m learning with the media you guys still want more, so ask your questions and I’ll answer them the best I can.”
On the lanyard around his neck, Sam wore a pin in rainbow colors that read “Stand with Sam.”
He said it was given to him by “a very kind lady” when he attended a Feb. 15 home basketball game against Tennessee.
“I gave her a hug,” Sam said. “I hope all you guys Stand With Sam, by the way. Please do.”
At that same game, the Tigers held a Cotton Bowl trophy presentation at halftime and Sam received the biggest ovation.
“It was just amazing. I wanted to cry, but I’m a man,” Sam said. “So I just want to thank everyone who supported me, especially Mizzou, the students, my coaches, the whole organization and every Missouri fan. I’m a Tiger forever.”
Sam said he has been surprised at the reaction since he came out nationally. He told his Tigers teammates in August, and while he said it was widely known on campus that he was gay, the university community kept his secret.
“I walk around campus and dozens of students and faculty give me hugs or kisses, start crying in my arms,” Sam said of the past two weeks. “It’s unbelievable.”
Not all are embracing Sam and his cause. There have been ugly posts on social media. Kent State wrestler Sam Wheeler from Copley High School was indefinitely suspended after posting homophobic comments regarding Sam on Twitter.
“The positive outweighs the negative,” Sam said. “There’s a lot of supporters, a lot of people want this.”
NFL coaches seem ready to welcome him if their team drafts Sam, a pass rush specialist expected to be a mid- to late-round pick in the May 8-10 draft. But the selection of the 2013 Southeastern Conference co-defensive player of the year is no certainty.
“I applaud what he did,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said Saturday. “In the NFL, it’s a results business. Can Michael Sam help the Cleveland Browns win? If he can, then there’s a good chance he’ll be a part of our football team.”
Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano, a Browns assistant from 2001-04, said Friday that he believes Sam would fit into the locker room culture his team has created.
“I think we have an outstanding locker room,” Pagano said. “The Colts never have and never will discriminate based on sexual orientation.”
The Miami Dolphins’ bullying controversy last season has brought locker room issues to the fore, but Sam said he wouldn’t be afraid to go to the Dolphins.
“I know how to handle myself,” he said. “I know how to communicate with my teammates. I know how to communicate with the coaches and other staff.
“I’ve been in locker rooms where all kinds of slurs have been said and I don’t think anyone means it. I think it’s a little naive and uneducated, but as time goes on everyone will adapt.”
Sam said if he encounters harassment or hostility or a teammate calls him a name, he will have a conversation with the player and “hopefully it won’t lead to anything else.”
Sam is ready to break ground with dignity. He does not appear to be trying to profit from his announcement, saying he has signed no endorsement deals. When told an agent said a movie surely will be made about him, Sam said he wasn’t focused on such possibilities, instead focused on draft preparation.
Sam longs for the day when he will be seen as “Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.” But that is months, if not years away.
Until then, Sam will forge ahead without fear into the macho world of professional football.
Asked if he felt like a trailblazer, Sam said, “A trailblazer? I feel like I’m Michael Sam.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.