Confident Michael Sam keeping focus on football

INDIANAPOLIS — When the SEC’s reigning Co-Defensive Player of the Year hosted the most-anticipated news conference of the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, he introduced himself by saying, “My name is Michael Sam. I play football for the University of Missouri.”

During the 12 minutes and 30 seconds that followed Saturday, he intermittently fielded questions about football. Was he better built to play linebacker than defensive end, though the latter position was the one he manned in college? What aspects of his game had he been working on?

But most of the questions dealt with the fact that he’s gay, which he revealed publicly earlier this month. Was he worried that fans at NFL stadiums would verbally abuse him? Was he concerned about experiencing anything that even remotely resembled the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal?

Sam patiently answered every question, football or otherwise. When the time he had allotted to meet with reporters elapsed, he admitted to being worried about just one thing.

“Since I’m not on an NFL active roster, that is my only goal: to be on that roster,” he said. “I’m not focused on anything else but to earn my spot on an NFL team.”

He shared two hopes with the hundreds of people training cameras or voice recorders on him.

About the game’s observers: “I just wish you guys see me as Michael Sam, the football player, instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player.”

And about NFL teams, that he can convince them to depart the combine with this thought: “Michael Sam’s work ethic is just like the guys’ — or better than the guys’ — here.”

The 6-foot-2, 261-pound Sam is trying to become the first gay football player to come out and then play in the NFL. He told his teammates that he was gay in August, and he informed a worldwide audience about his sexual orientation Feb. 9 as it became increasingly probable that someone from the media was going to out him.

In between, he led the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss, and he was recognized as the top defender the league had to offer.

In public, virtually everyone doing the evaluating — or being evaluated — at the combine has kept it about football with Sam.

“We’re going to evaluate him like any other player,” said Martin Mayhew, general manager of the Detroit Lions. “We’re going to evaluate his talent level, skill level, what he brings to our football team, and we’ll make a decision that way.”

Responding to a reporter who asked for his impressions of Sam, Titans GM Ruston Webster remarked, “I think Michael Sam is an effective outside pass rusher. He has some strength at the point, but his main thing is getting up the field and rushing the passer and putting pressure on the quarterback. He was obviously very productive doing that.”

Sam confirmed teams have not asked him about anything other than playing football. They’ve asked him about his size; his arms are long at 33 3/8 inches, and his hands are big at 9 3/8 inches.

But that’s not what many members of the media covering the combine were interested in. One was curious: Would Sam be hesitant to join the locker room in Miami where, an investigation concluded, some were harassed with racial and homophobic slurs, among other things?

“If the Miami Dolphins drafted me, I would be excited to be a part of that organization,” Sam said. “I’m not afraid about going into that environment. I know how to handle myself.”

About potentially facing bigotry elsewhere in the pros: “If someone wants to call me a name, I’ll have a conversation with that guy. Hopefully, it won’t lead to nothing else.”

More than once, he recounted how most folks he has talked to have encouraged his pursuit of an NFL career. He even wore evidence of that: a rainbow-colored button pinned onto his lanyard reading, “Stand with Sam.”

Those buttons were worn by hundreds of people at a small anti-gay protest outside of a Missouri basketball game against Tennessee that Sam attended. The buttons’ purpose was to show the protesters they were outnumbered.

“I hope all you guys stand with Sam,” the player jokingly said when conversation veered to the button. “A very kind lady gave it to me. I gave her a hug, and I got a lot of support out there.”

Finally, a reporter wanted to talk football. Sam reacted by feigning incredulousness and exclaiming, “Heeey!”

The reporter asked him for his thoughts on NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock’s recently labeling Sam a “tweener.”

“He’s got linebacker size, but he’s got the physical skill set of a defensive end,” Mayock said. “He’s a tough fit.”

Sam coolly countered, “Put me in a situation to get to the quarterback — I’m going to get to the quarterback.”

Missouri teammate and fellow draft prospect Justin Britt had no doubt about that earlier at the combine.

“Mike’s a good guy, and he’s somebody who speaks from his heart — how he feels when he feels it,” said Britt, an offensive lineman. “I don’t think he would’ve done that on national TV if he didn’t have the courage to go on from there.

“I think he’ll be all right.”