Round after round after round after round of the last day of the NFL Draft had whirled by Saturday. Players were being plucked now from off-the-radar places like Lindenwood, Bloomsburg, Coastal Carolina (twice), Concordia (the one in Minnesota, to be exact), Marist and McGill.
Soon, it would be time to introduce Mr. Irrelevant, the last of 256 picks in the draft.
And it seemed less and less likely that the exceptionally relevant matter of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, voted in 2013 the best defensive player in the best conference in the country, would be reconciled by then.
Sam would later say his credentials should have earned him selection in the first three rounds but that he had faith all along he would be picked despite concerns of others that the NFL wasn’t ready to draft its first openly gay player.
But that didn’t mean he wasn’t overcome when the St. Louis Rams called and made him the 249th pick in the draft.
And in that poignant moment, captured by ESPN, you could view not only Sam’s reaction but also a snapshot that will be remembered as a pivotal milestone in an emerging movement against institutional bigotry.
With cautious anticipation, he answered the phone. As he got the news, he seemed momentarily dazed before convulsing in tears, weeping and leaning over. He managed to say, “Yes, sir, yes, sir, thank you,” before hanging up and giving a quick, tender kiss to his boyfriend.
And just like that, the Rams began to forever change the parameters of inclusion in the NFL, which has had gay players before but never one who could publicly live who he was while he was playing.
If the Rams hadn’t drafted Sam, there’s no way to know if he would have been chosen in the final seven picks. Most likely, he would have signed somewhere as an undrafted free agent.
But the Rams, who also signed the NFL’s first modern-era black player, Kenny Washington, in 1946, made a statement of integrity by doing what every team had a chance to do and didn’t.
To paraphrase Sam’s words on a teleconference with reporters in St. Louis, the Rams did what others didn’t have the, uh, guts to do.
And that was all the more so with how coach Jeff Fisher embraced the matter.
Instead of dodging it and just mechanically chronicling Sam’s attributes as a football player, Fisher considered it an honor to be part of the development.
He scoffed, too, at the notion of “distraction” that could come with Sam.
“People will try to make it a distraction, but it’s not a distraction,” Fisher said at a news conference. “I’m personally proud of him for coming out. I’m sure it was a very difficult thing for him to do.
“I would also submit it was probably a tremendous load off of his shoulders, and he enjoyed a sense of relief, because the truth was out there, and he was accepted by his teammates, and was able to flourish and be part of an outstanding defense.”
So by not only giving Sam a chance but also the power of the moment of being drafted, not merely signed as a free agent, the Rams acquitted themselves well but also stood up for the league to remove any doubt about a hazy situation.
Because in the balance along the way to Sam being chosen was the weighty question of whether the NFL would snub its first openly gay prospect for the draft.
Even if it certainly would have been more coincidental among 32 teams than it would have meant collusion, some wondered if that would automatically have indicated homophobia in some form was a factor.
Or would it just have suggested that cool, calculated evaluations of Sam determined that he is simply a tweener — not big enough for his speed and not fast enough for his size?
The answer would probably have been somewhere in between, but there would have been little gray in the interpretation of it.
“For them not to select him would be very problematic,” Cyd Zeigler, the founder of Outsports.com told NBC News before the draft. “If he isn’t selected, it’s a public black eye on the league.”
Yes, Sam was the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, and we know all about his great “motor” and heart.
But were NFL teams going to be morally wrong not to draft a man who ran the 19th-fastest 40-yard dash among defensive ends at the NFL Combine? A man 21 others at his position outperformed in the bench press, and a man 19 other defensive ends trumped in the three-cone agility drill?
That would be a complicated thing to responsibly sort out.
So with eight picks left, I’d come to see Sam not being drafted as not a conspiracy or an atrocity (unless he didn’t later get signed as a free agent) but as a numbing missed opportunity.
Then he did get picked, and those what-ifs didn’t matter any more.
Now Sam has a chance, and he’ll be in a place with a progressive coach in familiar territory with three former Tiger teammates (T.J. Moe, Tim Barnes and fellow draftee E.J. Gaines) on board.
Now Sam has another potential platform to be what on “Good Morning America” last week he called “a beacon” for others who don’t know how to be comfortable in their own skin.
It won’t be easy for him now. It wasn’t at Mizzou, no matter how the stories get repeated that there never was any turbulence.
But he’ll get a chance to go from being the first openly gay football player to just another NFL player, which would be the most relevant development of all.