Michael Sam: A Small Step, and a Giant Leap
Brace yourself. It’s Michael Sam Week… again.
Maybe it didn’t matter to you the first time around, when the Missouri defensive end came out to a national audience and announced his intention to be pro football’s first openly gay active player. If that’s the case, it probably matters even less now that he’s done it, having been drafted in the seventh round by the Rams. That’s fine. You have the right to stop reading.
But know that it really mattered to a handful of men, beginning with St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher, who said he wanted to be a part of an historic moment and get a good football player. When out former NFL player Wade Davis delivered his inclusivity talk to a room full of coaches at the NFL owners meetings in March, Fisher jumped from his seat and was first in line waiting beside the stage when Davis finished, ready to bear-hug the former cornerback. A decade earlier, Fisher had cut Wade not once, but twice from the Titans. They hadn’t spoken since.
“Maybe I did make a mistake by cutting you,” Fisher told him, “because you’re still here!”
There will be a lot written this week about Sam. We’ll discuss why he fell to the seventh round. We’ll wonder what’s next; how will Rams players and their fans and the local media respond to being a proving ground for the unprecedented? Will Sam even make the Rams roster?
We’ll talk about pick 249 as a historic moment. And it is, but whose history is it?
“I don’t think anybody needs to be vilified,” Wade says of Sam’s slide. “When you go into a new space, there’s some hesitation.”
It’s not Sam’s history. Surely, he’s beginning to grasp the significance, but how could he ever thrive in this sport if he wasn’t at least somewhat naive about the larger context? Who in his right mind could bear all that weight? He didn’t kiss his boyfriend on ESPN to be the first dude to kiss his boyfriend on ESPN. He did it because he wanted to kiss his boyfriend.
Can the NFL puff its chest out and claim this moment? Nope. Not in light of Sam’s breathless fall down the boards. There are reasons for that. Some are well-documented. Some aren’t. On some level, we can understand it as evidence of the league’s collective reluctance to take the leap into a new era, despite commissioner Roger Goodell’s insistence of the opposite. It’s true that Sam is not a first-round talent. It’s also true he’s not a seventh-round talent. They call the NFL a copycat league, and this time it manifested in an ugly way.
Even the Rams, groundbreakers that they are, don’t own this. They waited like everybody else, convinced Sam would fall further than his talents merited. They made history, but not before they got a bargain.
No, this moment belongs to gentlemen with a sort of perspective we can’t even imagine, who watched the draft at the edge of their seats. Davis streamed it live to his phone en route to a flag football game in New York. Out former NFL defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo watched it from his home in Minnesota, at one point shutting off the television because he couldn’t stand to watch anymore… then flipping it back on almost immediately. David Kopay, the first retired player to come out, watched the broadcast at home near Occidental College outside of Los Angeles. Three generations of NFL players, hoping and praying the man who had the courage and perspective to do what they couldn’t—come out while playing—would have his confidence validated.
Slowly, the confidence eroded.
“I was so angry as the rounds passed by,” said Tuaolo, 45.
“I could just feel the pressure that he was under,” said Kopay, 71, “and the anxiety, having stood up the way he has, just to be who you are.”
Pass rushers flew off the board in rapid succession in the seventh; Ben Gardner, a banged-up tweener out of Stanford, went 231st to the Cowboys. Trevor Reilly, a 26-year-old linebacker out of Utah, went 233rd to the Jets. Terrence Fede, FCS school Marist’s career leader in sacks, went 234th to the Dolphins. Shelby Harris, who was dismissed from the Illinois State football team and didn’t play in 2013, went 235th to the Raiders.
Davis, 36, has been speaking with owners, coaches and general managers for weeks, and while he hated to see Sam fall, he understood it.
“Teams aren’t afraid of having Michael; they’re afraid of the unknown,” Davis said. “How is the media going to handle it? How are the coaches going to handle it? I don’t think anybody needs to be vilified for it. When you go into a new space that’s never been breached before, there’s some hesitation there.”
Nearing the end of the draft, some of us in the television audience squirmed in anticipation. Others, certainly, didn’t want to hear Sam’s name. A great many Americans with good enough sense to not watch the backend of the freaking NFL draft were out enjoying their Saturdays.
The Rams chimed in at pick 249 out of 256, choosing Sam.
Tuaolo was still frustrated, but soon grew thrilled. He pledged to be at Sam’s first game, then set out to celebrate with a friend over drinks. Kopay sat in front of the television and thought of his friend and former teammate Jerry Smith, who died of AIDS on October 15, 1986, having never come out.
“Did I cry?” Kopay said. “I cried quite a bit.”
Davis, en route to the flag football game, watched the pick come across the screen of his smartphone, then saw Sam embrace his boyfriend and kiss him. He felt nothing, then everything. “It brought me back to when I was going through all of that,” Davis said, “but obviously under very different circumstances.”
The calls started coming in; newspapers, websites, friends, loved ones. The men who lived in the shadows for as long as they could bear felt the tide shift on Saturday, just weeks after learning of a young man who didn’t at first understand the gravity of it all and probably still doesn't.
Dozens more men, still closeted, still in the NFL, watched too. One of them sent Davis a short text message on Saturday night: ":-)"