Rams make history; now it's time for football

By Howard Balzer

He wants it to be only about football, but deep down Michael Sam realizes that simply isn't the case.

During and after the draft, networks don't have massive analysis and reaction for seventh-round picks, much less one that was selected only seven choices before the 256th and final pick, which has been dubbed Mr. Irrelevant.

ESPN doesn't turn on the cameras to catch a player accepting a call from a head coach when there have been 248 players already taken, and then watch the emotion that ensued.

Maybe one day it will be only about football, assuming he is good enough to play in the NFL, but for now, defensive end Michael Sam knows the attention and sponsorships have been there because of his February announcement that he is gay.

When the St. Louis Rams exercised that pick on him late Saturday afternoon, history was made and for good reason.

He admitted after being drafted, "You know what? I knew what I was coming into."

But he became pragmatic, knowing that being the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team is only the start. It won't mean much if he doesn't play well enough to make a 53-man roster.

He said, "Are there going to be idiots out there who say some stupid stuff? Yeah. I'm not worried about that. I'm worrying about the guy next to me, the guy in front of me. I have to prove myself. 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 that I'm a team player and I'm a hard-working guy, and that what I do on the field will determine how great Michael Sam will be.

"Can Michael Sam play football? Yes, I can. The St. Louis Rams know I can and I'm going to give everything I've got to the St. Louis Rams to help the Rams win a championship."

The Rams are accustomed to making history. It may have been 68 years ago, but in 1946, one year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, the Rams signed the first black player in the so-called modern era, Kenny Washington. There had been blacks in the early years of the game, but they were banned after the 1933 season. The signing of Washington ended a 12-year stretch without black players.

Told that fact, Sam said, "The Rams know what the hell they're doing."

Still, there were other opportunities to select Sam since the Rams had two picks in the sixth round and used two earlier seventh-round picks on other players. But as punters and small-college players went off the board, as well as players that the league didn't even have information on, and Sam's name wasn't being called, head coach Jeff Fisher believed it was time.

A few picks before they would use their final two choices in the draft, Fisher had conversations with chief operating officer Kevin Demoff and owner Stan Kroenke and the decision was made along with general manager Les Snead.

Said Fisher, "From a historic standpoint, I'm honored to be a part of that as Les and Kevin and Mr. Kroenke are. Again, Michael's a good football player and you guys would know if you paid much attention to the response by some of his new teammates, but they're pretty excited to have him in the building.

"It was the right thing to do at the right time."

Still, the Rams didn't select Sam for the positive headlines it would generate. They believe, even within a very competitive position group, that Sam can help make it better. Yes, as Sam knows, aside from the obvious storyline, whatever happens on the field will be all up to him.

Said Fisher, "That's a football player with ability that you just can't pass up. He's very versatile. He's got good get-off. He's got good hand use. He's a relentless player. He's a chase guy. How many tackles for loss? I think it was 19 tackles for loss, a big part of their success."

Added Snead, "Eleven-and-a-half sacks, probably nine pressures. Screams off the edge."

He will be competing with a group that includes Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Eugene Sims.

But Sam is ready. He said, "I am a pass rusher. I sack quarterbacks - that's my main job. I want to get better with the D-line coach (Mike Waufle) and the defensive coordinator (Gregg Williams). That's my job. We'll probably have the most quarterback sacks in the NFL next season." Last season, the Rams were third in the NFL with 53 sacks.

Fisher said, "We're going to have the ability to package things up with him and take advantage of his athletic ability."

Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis was asked about Sam fitting in with a talented and diverse defensive line.

He said, "I do think we're getting an extremely productive guy that's going to come in and work hard. I think he's going to want to prove himself and we're excited about that. I think from the reaction you've seen from people on our team on Twitter and all that, I think it just shows we've got a group of guys that all we care about is, hey, if you can come in and help this football team and win football games and get to where we want to go, I think that answer is definitely yes."

In a conference call with St. Louis media, Sam sounded like he wanted to jump through the phone line and begin playing immediately.

"Let me tell you something," he said. "If we were playing the Vikings (the Rams' first opponent) right now I would probably have three sacks the first game."

Had the Rams not drafted Sam, they would have tried to sign him as a free agent, but there would have been competition from other teams. As for other teams with interest, Sam became animated.

"It doesn't matter who was talking to me," he said. "They didn't have the (guts) that St. Louis had. I'm telling you, no one had the (guts) that St. Louis has and I'm proud to give everything I've got to St. Louis. So many people are proud of the St. Louis organization for being the one to make history."

While believing he should have been selected no later than the third round, he wouldn't speculate whether his sexuality concerned teams.

Said Sam, "Who knows? Only the people who sit in the war room know. They saw Michael Sam's name and they scratched it off the board. That was their loss. But St. Louis kept me on that board until the end. They picked me in the late seventh round and I feel like I'm (Jadeveon) Clowney being the first pick in the draft, so I'm proud of where I am now."

As are many others.

Howard Balzer hosts "H and Friends" Monday-Friday from 9-11 on Fox Sports 1490 The Champ. He is also a host on SiriusXM NFL Radio and one of 44 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


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