Football / Sports

Michael Sam goes to work with Rams amid much hoopla

ST. LOUIS -- Rams defensive end Michael Sam gained international fame as the first openly gay player drafted by a National Football League team.

He would much rather be known as an exceptional football player.

"I'm determined to be great," he said Tuesday afternoon at Rams Park during his introductory news conference. "I'm going to train hard and try to make this team."

He accepts his standing as a role model, but he prefers to define himself as an athlete.

"I will always support equality, period," Sam said. "But my job is to focus on football and help this team win a championship."

That will be no simple task, as the media crush at Rams Park demonstrated. Reporters came from all over the country to chronicle his first days on the job.

Sam faces more media scrutiny than any seventh-round draft pick in league history.

"We've definitely got to be aware that Michael Sam and the social impact of the pick needs a special place," Rams general manager Les Snead told ESPN Radio on Monday. "We'll prepare for that. We'll handle it, but at the end of the day we want this to become as normal for everybody as possible."

Yeah, well, that is going to be easier said than done.

His initial news conference as an NFL hopeful drew more than 80 media types. Satellite trucks crowded the parking lot. TV reporters did stand-up reports out in front of the complex, under a tent protecting them from the persistent drizzle.

Photographers took footage of other photographers waiting to get footage of Sam.

These folks had lots of questions. What was his message to others who have suffered from social stigmas?

"It's OK to be who you are, gay, straight, black, white -- it's OK to be comfortable in your own skin," Sam said.

And . . .

"I'm just looking forward to continuing on my dream. If it inspires other people, I'm with you."

Has he heard homophobic insults on the football field?

"It did not happen last season because nobody knew," Sam said.

How does he handle the hateful response his selection triggered in the social media and elsewhere?

"How do I handle it?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't read it."

Was he nervous meeting his new teammates?

"I had no nerves at all," Sam said. "They came to me, 'welcome to the family, let's get to work'."

The other Rams rookies had to field Sam questions in addition to inquiries about their own hopes and dreams.

"He seemed like a real good guy," top pick Greg Robinson said. "We did a commercial together.

"I don't think he will be a problem in the locker room. I don't think it will interfere with football."

Third-round pick Tre Mason shrugged off the issue. "We're a team," he said. "He's almost a family member."

Has second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner ever played with a gay teammate?

"Not that I know of," he said. "That's why I respect him so much. He is a courageous young man."

Demetrius Rhaney was selected in the seventh round, right after the Sam selection. "I'm happy they gave him an opportunity," Rhaney said. "He had a great senior campaign. He earned it."

And now Sam wants to earn his place in the NFL.

"The work is just starting," coach Jeff Fisher said, bringing the news conference to a close. "We are looking forward to being part of this journey."

(c)2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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