Former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam doubled over and began sobbing when Rams coach Jeff Fisher called shortly before 4 p.m. Saturday to say Sam had been drafted into the NFL.
The relief and exuberance, as captured by ESPN cameras in the living room where he watched the third and final day of the NFL Draft, was evident for Sam, who became the NFL’s first openly gay player.
“It took a guy with raw courage to stand up,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said as he left the NASCAR Sprint Cup race Saturday night at Kansas Speedway.
Far from the camera’s prying lens, Sam’s former Tigers teammates felt a similar sense of relief.
“That guy is like family to me,” former MU tight end Eric Waters said. “I’ve lived with him for a year now, and he’s a great guy. I wish him the best, and I’m so proud of him. … I wanted it (to get drafted) more for him than I did for myself, so I really want to say congratulations to him. He deserves it. He’s a hard worker, and he really deserves the opportunity.”
Sam was the SEC defensive player of the year and racked up a school-record 11 1/2 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss last season as a senior at Missouri.
He was projected as high as a third-round pick by some in early NFL Draft analysis, but those same analysts started sliding Sam farther down the draft board after he came out publicly in February.
Sam’s name still hadn’t been called as the draft entered the supplemental picks, which are tacked on to the end of the seventh round.
That’s when Fisher and the Rams — with pick No. 249 overall — made history.
“We were very fortunate to have the supplemental choices, and you use those for players that you want to give an opportunity to that you think you want to draft,” Fisher said during a news conference. “I haven’t said a whole lot to anybody over the last week or so, but after doing the study, he’s a good football player.”
Fisher described Sam as a “tweener, maybe a rush end or a standup” linebacker.
“He screams off the edge,” Rams general manager Les Snead said.
There wasn’t a raucous celebration in St. Louis’ draft room — “They reacted no different than any other selection — they clapped, they were excited,” Fisher said. — but Sam’s selection was wildly cheered outside those walls.
“That’s awesome,” said former Missouri wide receiver Marcus Lucas, a Liberty graduate. “I’m glad that all the backlash that came along with him announcing that he was openly gay didn’t discourage the Rams from taking him. I know it may have hurt his draft potential, but knowing that he’s a great player and the defensive player of the year in the SEC — that’s a prestigious award — so he deserves to be rewarded for that.”
Sam joins a Rams roster that already includes three other former Tigers — center Tim Barnes, wide receiver T.J. Moe and cornerback E.J. Gaines, whom St. Louis drafted in the sixth round on Saturday.
“That’s perfect, having that kind of Missouri connection will be great and will help him be more comfortable in that situation,” Lucas said.
Now, though, those close to Sam hope the focus shifts to football.
“That’s cool,” Pinkel said when asked about Sam staying in Missouri to begin his professional career,” but the bigger issue is he’ll be judged as a football player, and let’s move on.”
Chiefs general manager John Dorsey also limited his comments on Sam to his on-field value.
“He’s a good football player,” Dorsey said. “The guy was SEC defensive player of the year for a reason, and you know what, that’s why you’re happy for him. The guy got drafted. He’s made his dream. His dream is to play in the National Football League, (and) he’s playing in the National Football League.”
Still, for many, it was clear that Sam’s arrival in the NFL was a transcendent moment.
“I’m glad he got drafted,” said Chiefs quarterback and former Missouri star Chase Daniel, who also was at Kansas Speedway for the NASCAR race. “He deserves a chance. Quite frankly, he’s a darn good defensive lineman. I’m excited about it, I’m sure he’s completely pumped about it.”