He was the 249th overall pick in the seventh round of the NFL draft last weekend, but Michael Sam was the number one attraction in St. Louis on Tuesday.
The defensive end was welcomed by the Rams along with his fellow draftees at a press conference, but all attention was on the history maker who is set to become the first ever openly gay player in the NFL.
“I am determined to be great. I am going to train hard and try to make the team. I feel very blessed,” he told the media that packed the conference room at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Miss.
“It’s just like home to me. Missouri is only two hours away,” said the former Tigers player, who was joined by college teammate E.J. Gaines.
When asked if it was hard to keep Sam’s sexuality a secret last season, Gaines replied: “I wouldn’t say it was tough. What happened was between the Mizzou family. When it came out, there wasn’t much to do other than keep it to yourself,” at which point Sam pointedly interjected: “It wasn’t a secret, by the way.”
On Saturday, Sam, 24, sparked mixed responses when footage of him kissing his boyfriend after receiving the life-changing call from Rams coach Jeff Fisher was broadcast live on ESPN.
While many stars, including Ellen DeGeneres, Seth Meyers and openly gay NBA player, Jason Collins, tweeted their congratulations, there was also negative backlash, such as from Miami Dolphins defensive back Don Jones, who wrote “OMG” and “horrible.”
Jones has since been fined and suspended, and wrote an official apology to Sam: “I take full responsibility for [the comments], and I regret that these tweets took away from his draft moment,” wrote the second-year player.
When asked how he felt about such potential bashing from rival players, Sam replied: “If someone does say something, I will put my pads on and they will see number 96 running down that field,” he said, adding that he avoids toxic Twitter messages by simply not reading them.
Sam went on to say that he had gotten a very warm welcome from his future teammates and wasn’t apprehensive about joining the Rams locker room, “I had no nerves at all. They came to me and said, ‘Welcome to the family, and lets get to work.’
“The Rams see good potential in people.”
This will be the first time that he may face potential homophobia on the field, explaining: “It didn’t happen last season because no one knew [I was gay].
“Thank god for you guys for making this a bigger deal, because that’ll just motivate me more!” he joked to the reporters.
As for whether his coming out last February had a negative affect on his draft status, the DE — who many predicted wouldn’t go until the later rounds following a poor combine performance — replied: “I don’t know. I know that by number 249 they called my name. I wouldn’t do a thing different. I said that whatever team picked me, they knew about my sexuality, and that’s the team I wanted to play for.”
The Rams first pre-season game is August 8 against the New Orleans Saints, but first Sam has to prove himself in training camp and win a spot, or he risks getting cut before the season even begins.
“He has the opportunity to come in and compete to be a part of our football team,” Fisher told reporters.
The veteran coach is no stranger to high-profile players and controversies off the field. As the longtime coach of the Tennessee Titans, Fisher had to deal with quarterback Vince Young‘s rumored suicide attempt in September 2008, when the volatile QB disappeared after being booed by fans because of an interception.
Meanwhile, Sam already has the second-fastest selling jersey of the 2014 draft class, with his number 96 coming in behind Johnny Manziel‘s Cleveland Browns gear.
“Loving my first full day in St. Louis!! See you guys at the press conference later with the rest of my fellow rookies #RamClan,” Sam tweeted on Tuesday morning from his new Twitter handle @MichaelSamNFL. “I never liked the old one (confession), so @MikeSamFootball is now a free agent,” he declared the day before.
Loving my first full day in St. Louis!! See you guys at the press conference later with the rest of my fellow rookies #RamClan
— Michael Sam (@MichaelSamNFL) May 13, 2014