INDIANAPOLIS – One thing was rather apparent as Michael Sam held his first news conference as an openly gay draft prospect on Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine.
He comes with an undeniable edge.
Sam was not timid, hesitant, nor did he appear to be the least bit nervous as one question after another focused on his sexual orientation.
Good for him.
In this unchartered territory as a social trailblazer – whether the Missouri defensive end wants to admit to that or not – Sam will probably need to have some thick skin.
You can mark that off on your combine checklist.
When someone asked Sam about the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal, he tossed aside the inference as if it were a rag doll.
"I'm not afraid of going into that environment," he said. "I know how to handle myself. I know how to communicate with my teammates."
If teammates hurl gay slurs in his direction?
Sam contends that he knows exactly how he would handle it.
"If someone wants to call me a name, I'll have a conversation with him," he said. "And hopefully that will be the end of that."
Sam didn't have to say anything beyond that. His deft message, with a tough-talking tone, had already hit home. If a conversation doesn't work, it seems that he would be willing, at 6-2, 261, to take it a bit further – if necessary.
After revealing his sexual orientation to Missouri teammates last August, Sam came out publicly two weeks ago and ignited a cross-cultural conversation about whether the NFL is ready for its first openly gay player.
While most of the response inside and outside of the NFL has been positive – Sam even got kudos from President Obama and The First Lady – whispers have persisted.
In addition to the typical homophobia, such as former New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma saying recently that he would be uncomfortable showering in a locker room with a gay teammate, there is the question of whether Sam's draft status will be affected by his monumental disclosure.
According to ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, Sam projects as a mid-round pick. That's based on football. Although Sam was co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference – the best conference in college football – he's considered a "tweener." He might be too big to play linebacker on the NFL level, too small to be a defensive end.
He's hoping to convince NFL teams that regardless of the position or scheme, he can rush the passer.
Yet I wonder if his sexual orientation will bump him, regardless, in some cases. While several teams have declared that they would select him if he's positioned accordingly on their draft board, there are some within the league who believe there are teams who would pass on him because he's gay.
"All it takes is one homophobe in the group – a coach, a general manager or an owner – for a team to pass on him," an NFL GM told USA TODAY Sports this week.The GM spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Sam came out before the NFL combine to put his cards on the table, so to speak. He is to be commended for that approach, considering an NFL draft process that has been historically rife with rumors and innuendo about issues involving prospects. Sam wanted to control the narrative and how his personal situation was revealed, but was pressured to some extent.
With the information already common knowledge to his teammates and the student body, it seemed to be only a matter of time before it became a news story, if Sam hadn't broken the news himself during interviews with The New York Times, ESPN and Outsports.com.
During the week leading up to the Reece's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. last month, there was such widespread speculation about Sam's sexual orientation that one of his teammates inquired.
"One of my friends at the Senior Bowl said, 'Michael Sam, I didn't know you were gay,' " Sam recalled of the conversation. "I was like, 'I didn't know, either. Apparently, the media is just blowing it out of proportion.' "
Sam wasn't ready to come out at that point, but it's a different deal now.
He opened his news conference with a statement, declaring, "As you may know, Missouri is the Show Me State and you'd think I'd have shown you guys enough these last couple of weeks."
We'll find out soon enough whether Sam will be a special player – perhaps even a draft-day steal – on the NFL level. For now, anyway, the projection seemingly has a piece of the puzzle in place.
It would take a certain type of person to deal with the scrutiny that comes with the social role that Sam is playing concurrently with football.
As he spoke to a media throng of hundreds that extended far beyond his podium inside the media center at Lucas Oil Stadium, Sam wore a "Stand With Sam" pride button that a woman gave him one night after he came out, when he received a standing ovation at a Missouri basketball game.
When someone asked about the button, he grinned and urged the pack, "I hope all you guys Stand With Sam, by the way. Please do."
He said he almost cried when the woman gave him a button, then added, "But I'm a man."
With that edgy punch line, Sam added a bit more to the human face that is poised to become the NFL's first active player who is openly gay.
He tried to downplay that distinction, but that won't work. Not now. The world is not interested in Sam because he might have a burst coming off the edge.
For now, it's significant that he has an edge.
Does he look forward to the day that someone will write about him without mentioning that he's gay?
"Well, heck yeah," he said. "I wish you guys would just say, 'Michael Sam, how's the football going? How's training going?' But it is what it is. And I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."
Hopefully, that day will come. But it's been just two weeks since Sam's announcement shook up the NFL landscape and forced many people to confront whatever stereotypes they harbor about whether a gay man could play such a brutal sport as football.
Time will tell how Sam handles the scrutiny over the long run. At the moment he seems well-equipped.
Someone from the pack got his attention by shouting, "A football question."
"Hey, what's that?" Sam responded.
Then someone, mindful that his sacks plummeted during the second half of last season, asked about his inconsistency in that regard.
"Winning is hard, buddy," Sam said.
In other words, you try power-rushing some 350-pound tackle and chasing down a scrambler.
Strikingly, for as good as Sam was, the player who impressively preceded him at the podium – Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy – seemed even more at ease.
Ealy shared details about adversity that he has endured in his life and the driving force that is his sister, Siera, who battles with a blood disorder.
As Ealy spoke, he did so before a crowd that was maybe one-fourth the size of the group that listened to Sam. No matter that Ealy is a projected first-round pick.
Sam has overshadowed his higher-rated teammate – and pretty much every other player at the combine – because of his role as a ground-breaker.
This hardly bothered Ealy, who was a roommate of Sam's.
"Not at all," Ealy told USA TODAY Sports. "We don't think like that."
Ealy waited around for several minutes for Sam to finish his press conference, then congratulated his teammate.
"I just want to support him," Ealy added, "and he wants to support me."
That, too, should be marked on the combine checklist.