Ryan Black commentary: Michael Sam's work only just beginning

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comMay 16, 2014 

Ryan Black

No one knows how Michael Sam's story will end.

The only thing certain at this point is that he's a pioneer of sorts.

After Sam revealed he was gay in February, months of headlines followed as the NFL draft grew closer. Would the disclosure hurt his draft stock? Or would he even be drafted at all?

We got our answer Saturday, as the St. Louis Rams selected the former Missouri star in the seventh round with the 249th overall pick.

Now that the draft is over, however, an even bigger challenge awaits: Merely making the team. It won’t be easy. Seventh-round picks are routinely cut from rosters. And defensive end is already a position of strength for the Rams, as they boast a pair of young starters in Chris Long and Robert Quinn (neither has reached 30 years old) and two solid backups in William Hayes and Eugene Sims.

There’s no doubt that putting Sam on the waiver wire would be an unpopular move, especially given the number of jerseys he’s already sold — second only to Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel among players drafted last week — and the legion of supporters hoping he does well.

But Rams coach Jeff Fisher has made it clear that Sam won’t be treated differently than any other player the Rams drafted.

“(I)’ts going to be very competitive for him, as it will be for some of the other guys, the later picks, because of the depth and the talent level at the position,” Fisher said in a teleconference after Sam was selected. “He’s going to have to come in, and like the rest of his new teammates, these rookies, they’re not in shape, not in the condition our veterans are in. He’s going to have to work to get into great shape and we’ll blend him in the offseason program.”

Perhaps Sam has a saving grace: Far more seventh-round picks end up making teams than one might think. Bernie Miklasz, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, did some research on this very subject after Sam was drafted, and the numbers were astounding.

He found that of the 51 players taken in the seventh round of the 2011 draft, 37 have played in at least one regular season game, with 20 starting at least one time. Four have started 10 or more games and five have become the primary starter at his spot over the course of the season.

For good measure, the MVP of last year’s Super Bowl — Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith — was one of those seventh round picks three years ago.

The numbers from the 2012 and 2013 tell a similar story. So Sam has a better-than-expected chance of ensuring a place for himself when the Rams have to chop things down to the 53-man roster they’ll carry into the season.

And there’s this: Along with the four defensive ends noted above, St. Louis kept a fifth on the active roster for 14 of its 16 games last season. That makes the notion the team has no room for Sam an absurd one.

Of course, Sam’s football ability is only part of this story. As long as he’s in the league — be it with the Rams or another franchise — Sam being the first openly gay player is an unavoidable topic. How he’s accepted in the locker room and treated by opposing fans will be closely monitored by the NFL, media scribes and those on both sides of the political spectrum.

In his first conference call with reporters, Sam said he wasn’t worried about any of the extra attention that will inevitably follow him everywhere.

“I’m worrying about the guy next to me, the guy in front of me. I have to prove myself,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure the vets know that I’m a team player and I love this game. I want to show the coaches I’m a team player and I’m a hardworking guy, and that what I do on the field will determine how great Michael Sam will be.”

Still, there is a disconnect between Sam’s words and his actions. On Wednesday, it was announced Sam had agreed to take part in a documentary series produced by the Oprah Winfrey Network that will chronicle his bid to make the Rams' roster. There was already going to be a massive microscope on Sam after he was drafted; Oprah’s involvement — and that of her film crew — will increase that 10-fold. This came one day after he told reporters at his introductory press conference that his sole job was "to focus on football and help this team win a championship."

But those who care only about the football aspect of this, take heart: On-field performance always takes precedence. With only 53 available spots on the active roster, teams can't afford to keep a player solely due to outside factors like jersey sales or, in Sam's case, breaking new ground for openly gay athletes.

This means his future in St. Louis boils down to one question: Does he make the team better?

If so, Sam's No. 96 jersey will be waiting in his locker for the Rams' season opener Sept. 7. Simple as that. Don't for a second think any amount of external pressure will sway St. Louis' decision-makers. They don't view him as Michael Sam, the next Oprah creation. They don't even view him as Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player.

Appropriately, he's seen the way he wants to be.

He's just Michael Sam, the football player, nothing more, nothing less.

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