No matter how career plays out, Sam an inspiration
Rostered by NFL team or not, football player an important trailblazer
This is always my favorite time of the year. The division races are heating up, the U.S. Open tennis tournament is in full swing and it always seems like Labor Day weekend brings a smile to your face. However, all last week, I kept thinking about Michael Sam and the St. Louis Rams.
After months of much press coverage from the time he came out publicly, the NFL combine, and of course, the Draft, the actual moment was near. Final rosters needed to be set, and it seemed every sportscaster had an opinion whether or not Sam would make the cut. His preseason numbers seemed to suggest that he would, as he led the Rams in sacks. Off the field, Michael was quiet during camp, letting his play do the talking. The buzz surrounding him seemed to fade after that first preseason game, and I was relieved. Finally, it was about football, and not about a football player who happens to be gay.
I watched as many Rams highlights as possible, and to me, No. 96 looked like every other rookie, fighting for a job, playing with reckless abandon, trying to make things happen. I knew he was carrying the hopes and dreams of many people on his broad shoulders, was playing under intense pressure, and I was very proud of what I saw. Unfortunately, as the roster deadline approached, there was one ESPN reporter who volunteered an unprompted discussion of Michael and his teammates' shower habits. It was antiquated hyperbole to attract viewers, and a giant step backwards for the media.
Then I read All-Pro Rams defensive end Chris Long's tweet that read simply: "Dear ESPN, Everyone but you is over it." For a superstar and a teammate to make such a direct comment was a breath of fresh air, and proves most players are focused on who can help them be most successful at their job.
Every professional athlete learns very quickly that games are for kids, and a job in the sports world is business. On Saturday, 704 professional football players were released to get each NFL team to its 53-man limit. Think about that for a moment: More than 700 professionals were told they are no longer needed. One minute they were living their dream, and the next uncertainty, as well as unemployment. It brings back memories of sleepless nights and worry from my own playing days. Those moments make you tougher, and you quickly understand the privilege of being a pro. I'm sure every one of those players believed they were breaking camp with the team, if they didn't, they never would have made it as far as they did.
I got up very early on Saturday morning hoping to hear that Michael Sam was a member of the St. Louis Rams. All week, I felt so sure that he would make the team. It just seemed to me like it was going to happen. In July, when I saw Rams head coach Jeff Fisher attend the ESPYs with Michael, and then watched him stand and applaud the courage of his seventh-round draft pick, I could see the sports world evolving in real time. It seemed like he had found the right coach, the right team.
When I read that the Rams had cut Michael, I knew there was going to be a dialogue, so I turned on the TV. The reporters kept talking about the depth of the Rams defensive line, and the likelihood of him being picked up by another club. I didn't hear any negative comments, about him not playing well, or being a distraction. It seemed like a football decision, one that 703 other players were being subjected to that day. I felt disappointed, for him, and for the other athletes still playing in silence. Let's be real: It's highly unlikely Michael Sam was the only gay man wearing a NFL uniform last week, just the only one who chose to tell us.
I let the news settle in over the weekend, and I realized that it doesn't really matter if Michael was let go by the Rams or ever plays a down in the NFL. He is one of the bravest young men I have ever met. He'll inspire others for the rest of his life, a hero to so many people gay or straight. I don't care if you're an athlete or not, member of the LGBT community or not, a sports fan or not. His honesty has changed the world forever, and for the better. All athletes are scrutinized, but few as much as him, and he has handled it with great humility. I know he's hurting, but his story is far from over.
Every athlete's journey is different. I believe Michael will play for a professional football team, and I hope it's in the NFL; the Dallas Cowboys signed him to their practice squad on Wednesday. We will never know for sure if his coming out hurt his chances, but I hope not. This football player -- who was the captain of his college team, a first team All-America defensive end and the SEC's Co-Defensive Player of the Year -- chose to tell his truth, play with his head held high and be his best self. If that isn't success, I don't know what is.