The St. Louis Rams selected Sam with the 249th overall choice and the 34th pick in the seventh round, making him the first openly gay athlete to be drafted into the NFL. He will play professional football about 125 miles east of the Missouri campus, where, after coming out to teammates before the 2013 season, he led the Tigers to the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division championship and led the conference with 11 ½ sacks.
Shortly after the selection was announced, ESPN showed video of a tearful Sam taking a phone call from Rams officials, later celebrating with hugs and back slaps, along with a kiss from his boyfriend. Jeff Fisher, the St. Louis coach, later said on ESPN that he simply told Sam that the wait was finally over.
“Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis,” Sam posted on his Twitter account, along with a photograph of him wearing a Rams hat. “I’m using every [ounce] of this to achieve greatness!!”
Sam, the SEC’s co-defensive player in 2013, saw his draft stock begin falling after coming out in February interviews with ESPN and Sports Illustrated. Following a disappointing performance at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, highlighted by a 4.91-second time in the 40-yard dash, questions surfaced about how Sam would fit into NFL defenses — and whether he would be drafted at all. His size — 6 feet 2 inches and 261 pounds — made him an awkward fit at defensive end or outside linebacker, the positions he projected to play in the NFL.
During the three-day draft, dozens of players went off the board before Sam’s name was called, and for a while it appeared his NFL hopes might depend on a free agent contract.
But those who know Sam retained hope that a team would use a draft choice on him, understanding the symbolism of a franchise spending one of its most valuable commodities on him.
“That was a very smart move on the league’s part,” said Dave Kopay, one of only a handful of former NFL players to come out as gay after their careers ended. “Saying that this guy is one of our guys.”
During his appearance on ESPN, Fisher said that he, General Manager Les Snead and Rams owner Stan Kroenke spoke during the middle of the seventh round and discussed the possibility of selecting Sam. Fisher said he wanted to “make sure everyone was on the same page with this.”
“Realistically speaking,” the coach said, “there is going to be an adjustment.”
After Sam came out, and in particular after the combine, many in and around the league began criticizing his game — much of the scrutiny coming anonymously — seemingly to soften the blow if, fearing the increased media attention, teams passed on him and he ultimately went undrafted.
But St. Louis seems a sensible destination for Sam, who has said he wants to be seen less as a sports pioneer and more as a football player. The Rams play in a smaller NFL market, with less media attention than some of the larger cities, and Fisher is a veteran coach who’s seen as a strong leader. Fisher, a student of the league’s history, didn’t avoid the topic of Sam’s sexuality, and what it means for the NFL, during his appearance on ESPN.
“In a world of diversity we live in now,” he said, “I’m honored to be part of this and I’m excited about his opportunity to help this football team win.”
Sam’s college teammates knew of his sexuality throughout his senior season, and his so-called secret was well-known throughout Columbia, Mo. But teammates never spoke publicly about it, and no one ever went on the record calling it a distraction; if anything, Sam was seen as a face of an overachieving team.
Sam projects as an end in the Rams’ 4-3 defensive scheme, which is similar to the one he excelled in at Missouri. He won’t face high expectations as a rookie, though, because St. Louis seems set at the position; its starting ends are Robert Quinn and Chris Long, who combined for 27½ sacks in 2013. Quinn is seen as one of the league’s best young pass rushers, and with such stability on the Rams’ defensive line, Sam won’t face pressure to make an immediate impact.
Still, he’ll have the concern of even making the team at such a deep position. After signing his contract with the Rams, he’ll need to make enough of an impression during training camp and the preseason to earn a roster spot in order to become the league’s first openly gay active player.
Kopay, who played two seasons with the Washington Redskins during a nine-year career more than four decades ago, was among a small group that gathered in Los Angeles in February to prep Sam for his announcement. He said during a telephone interview Saturday evening that, after hours of increasing anxiety, he was relieved and proud.
“The journey is just beginning,” Kopay said. “He has overcome so much. I just hope now that he goes to work, and he’s certainly going to get a fair chance.”
NFL draft note: Gallaudet defensive lineman Adham Talaat went undrafted, but his quest to become one of the few severely hard-of-hearing players to reach the NFL is not over. The Springfield, Va., native agreed to a tryout at the Seattle Seahawks rookie minicamp later this week and hopes to sign with the reigning Super Bowl champions as an undrafted free agent.