Ted Lewis: At long last, for Michael Sam, the game’s the thing

Associated Press photo by Jeff RobersonSt. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam signs autographs for fans following practice July 29 in St. Louis.
Associated Press photo by Jeff RobersonSt. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam signs autographs for fans following practice July 29 in St. Louis.

By Ted lewis

tlewis@theadvocate.com

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Entering Friday’s exhibition opener against the Saints, Michael Sam is listed as a third-team defensive end for the St. Louis Rams.

Which is exactly where you would expect a rookie seventh-round draft pick to be.

And it’s practically the only normal thing about Sam that’s happened since February when he became the first openly gay player to seek an NFL roster spot.

Since then, the All-American from Missouri was heavily scrutinized in a so-so combine workout; was one of the dominant topics of draft speculation until the Rams used a supplemental pick to take him seven spots from the end; had a proposed reality show on the OWN network nixed by the team; signed an endorsement deal by Visa; received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs; ranked No. 6 in the NFL in jersey sales; and was the subject of remarks by Tony Dungy that resulted in one of the most-respected voices in the league being vilified as a both a coward and homophobe.

And did we mention he was on the cover of Out magazine for a story called “Michael Sam and the Draw That Changed American Sports Forever?”

Really?

No wonder that after his first day of training camp, Sam was saying: “I got some hits out there. It felt good.”

Because, at the heart of things, Sam professes to remain a football player, one passionate about playing a game which above all others celebrates a macho culture — and one good enough to be named co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference, although, contrary to what you might have heard, that did not automatically qualify him to be drafted or to a roster spot.

That latter element will be determined over the next four weeks, and Sam’s performance in the exhibition games — especially his work on special teams — will be paramount.

Which is also as it should be.

Despite the orchestrated feeling of Sam’s selection, those in the know say that the Rams are under no pressure from the NFL for Sam to make the cut. It will be, they say, based on his ability to help his team.

“We’re in a league that is striving to win,” Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked about Sam earlier this week. “I think the locker room welcomes all of those who can help them do that.”

Hopefully that’s so, because it’s already a lose-lose situation for the Rams.

Cut him, and it’s because they didn’t want the “distractions” that come with Sam’s presence — although drafting him demonstrates the team was willing to deal with that, and it’s nowhere near the zoo accompanying Johnny Manziel.

Keep him, and it may cost some more-deserving player a roster spot.

That’s going to be the tricky part.

Because as good a fit for Sam as the Rams are — located in the state where he made his name as a player and with the strong leadership of veteran coach Jeff Fisher — they’re not a good fit for a borderline player at his position.

St. Louis is loaded on the defensive line, and Sam is vying to be, at best, the No. 5 defensive end.

Among those vying for that spot is Ethan Westbrooks, an undrafted player from West Texas A&M who went unsigned last year because of a knee injury but who has impressed early on in camp with his pass rushing ability.

That’s also Sam’s forte, but he has leveled off somewhat since the first days of training camp.

Westbrooks is certainly aware of his role as a potential spoiler.

“The whole me-and-Michael Sam thing, I wish him nothing but the best in his endeavors on the football field,” Westbrooks said. “He has a competitive spirit, I have a competitive spirit — what better way to really just boost one another or see what one another is really made of, to have that (competition).”

It’s obviously far too early to declare the competition over. But it’s obviously in Sam’s best interests — and Westbrooks’ — to show up strong in the exhibition games.

If anything has been settled, it’s that the NFL is ready for an openly gay player.

At Missouri, Sam was out to his teammates, and it was no big deal. Credit the young for always being ahead of the curve when it comes to embracing social change.

However, Sam himself may have been adversely affected by attention, albeit understandably so.

Eric Waters, a teammate at Missouri who roomed with Sam last year, recently said that Sam was “not the same Michael Sam anymore.”

Waters went on to reference to the way Sam “acts and carries himself,” and who constantly refers to himself in the third person, adding that the two don’t talk anymore because “he’s more focused on the fame and opportunity he has now.’”

If that’s so, it will manifest itself over the next few weeks.

Making an NFL roster is not a task for those who are concentrating more on either cashing in or making a social statement as Sam, at times, has seemed to do.

Inexperienced management hasn’t helped in that regard either.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Sam said last week. “But I believe in myself and I believe in my talent.”

In that regard, Sam is just like every other NFL aspirant.

Which is always the way it should be.