ST. LOUIS (AP) — The overflow crowd at Rams Park did not intimidate Michael Sam. He seemed almost anxious for the attention and scrutiny.
The first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team was confident and engaged Tuesday as he was formally introduced by the St. Louis Rams, handling questions and scrutiny with aplomb well beyond that of a typical seventh-round pick.
“I’m determined to be great,” Sam said. “I understand that right now you guys want to make a big deal of it.”
Sam put his arm around coach Jeff Fisher after sharing the podium with other late-round picks. He joked that he’d never before heard the term “tweener” and even rose in his chair in mock intimidation of fellow Missouri draftee E.J. Gaines, a sixth-rounder who’d been asked what the SEC co-defensive player of the year was like as a teammate.
Sam, who came out to teammates and coaches before his senior season at Missouri, disagreed that his sexuality had been a secret.
“Apparently, everybody else makes a big deal out of it,” Sam said. “But my teammates and my school didn’t.”
“It’s OK to be who you are,” Sam said. “Whether you’re gay, straight, black or white, it’s OK to be comfortable in your own skin.”
After getting the go-ahead from owner Stan Kroenke and making the pick Saturday, Fisher called it a “second historic moment” for a franchise that signed running back Kenny Washington in 1946 as the NFL’s first black player in the modern era.
Just as in his post-draft teleconference with St. Louis media that was sprinkled with assorted salty language, Sam was feisty. He’s had a few months to get accustomed to the role of trailblazer instead of a silent star.
Sure, he’s a role model. Right now he’d much rather be the Rams’ description of “designated pass rusher.”
“I will always support equality, period,” Sam said. “But my job is to focus on football and help this team win a championship.”
The appearance of perhaps the most famous seventh-round pick in NFL history attracted a massive amount of people. A half-dozen TV trucks lined a crammed parking lot at Rams Park, an hour before the team’s two first-round picks were due at the podium.
About 80 media members attended the news conferences, with front row auditorium seats reserved for beat writers. Three days earlier when the Rams chose Sam with the No. 249 overall pick, the media contingent was in single digits.
“There’s some energy here,” general manager Les Snead said with a smile between rounds of interviews. “But I don’t think this is a circus. This deserves attention, but we’ll get it over and we’ll get to work.”
Sam shared the dais with five other players taken in the sixth and seventh rounds Saturday as the draft came to a close.Snead joked that Tennessee State center Demetrius Rhaney, taken one pick after Sam at 250th overall, should get the first question after it got lost in the hubbub Saturday.
“I’m not sure anybody knows we drafted Demetrius,” Snead said, adding that he hoped someday that pick 249 will someday be a footnote in sports history, and not such a big deal.
For Sam’s subsequent solo session with reporters, he was flanked by Fisher and Snead, with Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff joining the group.
Everyone seemed eager to embrace Sam.
Second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner, a cornerback from Florida State, has never had an openly gay teammate. He applauded Sam’s decision.
“He’s a courageous young man,” Joyner said. “He’s a brave young man that we need in this organization.”
The team’s two first-round picks were first to the podium. Offensive tackle Greg Robinson, chosen second overall, sported a bow tie.
Both got their due. Both welcomed Sam to the family.
Robinson and Sam did a TV commercial together for a credit card company. Aaron Donald met Sam at presentation ceremonies for the Lombardi and Nagurski awards.
“He’s a cool guy,” Donald said. “He’s a football player, he works his butt off and that’s what you want. You want playmakers around you and he’s a playmaker.
Third-round pick Tre Mason, a running back from Auburn, said Sam was a “man of his own and he’s entitled to do that.”
“We’re a team and he’s also a family member to me now.”
Sam will put on the pads later in the week when the team holds a three-day rookie orientation, much, if not all of it, closed to the media. The Rams drafted Sam even though they didn’t need help at defensive end, where they have a pair of first-round picks as starters.
Robert Quinn was second in the NFL with 19 sacks last season and Chris Long has been a standout since getting chosen second overall in 2008.
But the Rams were well-stocked with picks, finishing with 11 selections, putting them in unique position to make history.
“Shortly before we got to our pick, Michael’s value as a football player was off the charts,” Fisher said. “He has an opportunity now to come in and compete to try to make our team.”
Sam realizes it’s up to him to make the most of this chance, and he bristles at the naysayers who contend he’s in the NFL only because he came out.
“Will I make the cut?” he said, repeating a question. “You want to find out in a couple months, huh?”