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NFL alums support Rams seventh-round draft pick Sam

| Thursday, May 15, 2014, 9:57 p.m.
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EARTH CITY, MO - MAY 13: St. Louis Rams draft pick Michael Sam addresses the media during a press conference at Rams Park on May 13, 2014 in Earth City, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Michael Sam still hasn't strapped on a pair of shoulder pads for an NFL practice, yet he might be the most-scrutinized seventh-round draft pick in league history.

The Oprah Winfrey Network is planning a documentary on the Missouri defensive end's attempt to make the St. Louis Rams' roster. The Rams are anticipating a record number of training camp media credential requests. And Sam said his goal isn't to merely play in the league, but to be “great.”

All this for the 249th pick in the NFL Draft.

Ordinarily, Sam's words — “You will see No. 96 running down that field and making big plays” — would be dismissed as naïve braggadocio given he was the eighth-to-last player drafted. The Ravens cut the player chosen in that same position last year, cornerback Marc Anthony of California, during training camp.

But Sam's drive to become the NFL's first openly gay player will be followed intently not just by Rams fans, but also by millions nationwide.

According to a Huff Post/You Gov poll, 60 percent of Americans are in favor of their favorite team signing an openly gay player — and 65 percent of NFL fans are.

Several former NFL players, including Hall of Famer Barry Sanders and former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, are certain Sam won't be the league's first gay player if he makes the team. But Sam is the first to acknowledge that he is, and that makes his story different from any other draft pick in any other year. Certainly, he was the first to kiss his boyfriend, as an ESPN video captured him doing, immediately after being drafted.

But Sanders and other Hall of Famers, including Harry Carson, don't expect Sam to be subjected to any locker room harassment; they said teammates traditionally bond with each other regardless of their backgrounds or how they live their lives.

“I think that from the time you're a kid, playing this game, your major focus is, you're almost programmed to, can this guy play or not?” Sanders said. “I think once you get to the NFL, that's well-ingrained in you. I'm pretty sure every guy in this league has been around gay individuals before. I don't think it (Sam's sexual orientation) will be any problem.”

Kluwe, the NFL's most-outspoken advocate for gay rights until being cut a year ago, said multiple players on other teams told him they had gay teammates, but that those players chose not to go public.

If 2011 research by the Williams Institute at UCLA that 3.5 percent of the adult population is gay or bisexual is correct, there would be an average of two gay players on every team.

“I'm determined to make this team,” Sam said Tuesday during a news conference. “I have every confidence in myself that I'll make this team.”

However, the Rams already have two quality starting ends in Chris Long and All-Pro Robert Quinn, plus a proven, high-priced backup in William Hayes. Sam will be competing with holdover backup Eugene Sims and others for what might be a single roster spot.

It won't be easy. At 6-foot-2 and 261 pounds, Sam is considered a tweener — probably not big enough to play defensive end and not athletic or fast enough to play linebacker or on special teams. He won't compete with the Rams' first-round draft pick, former Pitt star Aaron Donald, to play defensive tackle in St. Louis' 4-3 defense. “There wasn't much of an immediate need for Michael Sam along the defensive line, but he gives them depth in the pass rush and is a high-effort player with a chance to contribute despite average athleticism,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.

And a chance to make history.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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