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Michael Sam would rather talk about football than sexual orientation

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Updated: March 24, 2014 6:30AM



INDIANAPOLIS — He started by introducing himself, cracking a joke about coming from the Show Me State and having to do yet another interview. He wore a rainbow pin given to him last week and an NFL Scouting Combine track jacket with his number, another historic 42, over his heart.

Someone in the hundreds-strong media throng shouted a question, asking him if he felt like a trailblazer as he prepared to become the first publicly gay athlete in America’s big-four team sports.

“A trailblazer?” he said. “I feel like I’m Michael Sam.”

That was good enough Saturday, as the Missouri defensive end nimbly navigated questions about his NFL future with nuance, charm and, many times, humor.

Two weeks after telling the public what his coaches, teammates and friends had known for six months — that he was gay — Sam answered questions that spoke to the NFL’s very idea of machismo.

Yes, he has had teammates use slurs before, but it was because they were “a little naïve and uneducated,” not hateful. Like any brotherhood, he said, “If we don’t draw blood, it’s all fun and games.”

The day the NFL threatened to penalize players for racist language, Sam described his strategy if he’s subjected to a gay slur. It was as subtle as a punch to the face.

“If someone wants to call me a name, I’ll have a conversation with that guy,” he said. “And hopefully it won’t lead to nothing else.”

No, an NFL team has not asked about his sexuality, he said. Yes, he’d be willing to play for the Miami Dolphins, who are mired in a bullying scandal. No, he doesn’t have any endorsements lined up.

“I wish you guys would just say, ‘Michael Sam, how’s football going? How’s training going?’ ” he said. “I would love for you to ask me that question.

“But it is what it is.

“And I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam, the football player — instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player.”

Michael Sam the football player is a mid-round pick, a tweener at 6-2, 261 pounds who might be too small for defensive end but too slow to be a 3-4 outside linebacker. NFL Network draftnik Mike Mayock thinks he’s too “tight-hipped” to play the latter.

“I’m a pass rusher,” Sam said, regardless of position.

Michael Sam the football player wouldn’t have his news conference on a podium before 300 media members aired live on NFL Network.

He knows that but wrestled with it Saturday.

He spoke of “Stand With Sam,” when Missouri students blocked the Westboro Baptist Church last week from protesting his presence at a basketball game.

He smiled when reminded that his classmates dragged their feet in the snow to draw a crude “SA” next to the rock “M” beyond Missouri’s end zone, spelling his name in tribute.

He couldn’t cross campus the last two weeks without being mobbed with requests for hugs. Many buried their heads in his arms, sobbing.

“There’s a lot of support,” he said. “A lot of people want this.”

College teammate Kony Ealy, a likely first-round pick at defensive end, praised Sam as a leader.

“Despite what you say about him, it’s not gonna matter,” he said. “He’s still gonna go out there and do his job.”

Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan doesn’t think he has had a gay teammate. But, like many, he has a gay family member.

“I still love him the same way,” he said. “That’s my cousin — it’s the family.

“I’m not going to look at him any different.”

The hope is Sam isn’t looked at differently, either, by the jaundiced eyes of scouts or media.

A reporter reminded Sam that most of his sacks came against Missouri’s worst opponents.

Annoyed, Sam smiled.

“Winning is hard, buddy,” he said.

The room erupted in laughter.

Trailblazer or not, Sam is being himself.

And winning easily.

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @patrickfinley



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