Since the announcement that the Los Angeles Rams were moving to St. Louis in 1995, no one remembered a media swarm like the one here Tuesday.
Not through two Super Bowls or five coaching changes or the introduction of two overall No. 1 NFL Draft picks.
CNN was at Rams Park, and so were crews from NBC Nightly News, ESPN, the NFL Network and Fox Sports 1. The Oprah Winfrey Network was here, too, working on a documentary.
So this was the start of the so-called media circus. This was the ominous “distraction” that some perceived would become all-consuming baggage lugged by Michael Sam anywhere he’d end up in the NFL as the first openly gay player ever drafted.
But the Rams seized the scene with a sophisticated approach that at once sought to appreciate the moment and move past it.
“All of us in the draft room were aware of the magnitude of the decision; knew it would be a pivot in history,” Rams general manager Les Snead said, seated next to Sam and later adding: “What’s nice about that is there’s going to be a timeline here: Michael is the first.
“Somewhere in the future, guess what? He’s just going to be a name that a kid in middle school has got to memorize. We won’t think it’s anything special because it will be normal.”
And that’s really the complicated and even counterintuitive crux of the story of Sam, the Southeastern Conference player of the year at the University of Missouri last season.
To be able to be who he is so he can ultimately be just another player.
The NFL has had any number of gay players before just none who believed they could, or should, publicly acknowledge it while they were playing.
There were many reasons for that, but surely the most prominent was fear of public scorn and even continued employability.
Times are changing, enough so that sales of Sam’s Rams’ jersey reportedly are second only to Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel among NFL draftees.
And enough that fellow Rams draft pick Tre Mason didn’t hesitate when he said, “I welcome him with open arms. Everyone’s entitled to who they want to love, and he’s a man of his own and he’s entitled to do that. We’re a team, and he’s also a family member to us and to me now.”
That reflects the Rams having taken a progressive, inclusive stance.
It’s not to propagate “a gay agenda,” as some critics like to say.
It’s to say that they won’t allow this bastion of discrimination to blind them to what they believe is a rich prospect.
In the context of the final round of the draft, the 249th pick, to be precise, “Michael’s value as a football player was off the charts,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.
As he spoke before Sam’s news conference, Fisher said, “We get the historical part. But that’s not why we did it.”
Even knowing there would be intense media scrutiny to manage and fallout with some fans.
“If you’re going to take a leadership position by drafting Michael, you have to expect the good and the bad,” said Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff. “We’re prepared for it, and I think we’ll shine through it.”
For the Rams organization, the process started Monday: Fisher had one of his former players, gay activist Wade Davis, speak with returning Rams players and front-office personnel about Sam.
Part of his message was that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. But talk about it, and remember that what Sam wants most is to be a football player.
The Rams in some ways are uniquely suited to this, starting with Fisher’s strong presence and convictions.
As he spoke Tuesday during a news conference, Sam spoke of the instant comfort he feels with the organization that has three former Mizzou teammates on its roster, is based fewer than two hours from Columbia, and whose stadium, the Edward Jones Dome, is where Sam played his first college game.
“It’s home to me,” he said. “It feels just like home.”
This is, of course, is the easiest part.
No one knows if Sam will make the team or what sort of derision he could face, potentially in his own locker room, and on the field.
Asked how he’d handle hearing a slur in a game, Sam said, “When I put my pads on and if somebody wants to say something, then you’ll see No. 96 running down that field and making good, big plays for this team.”
To that point, Snead later playfully interjected, “Hey, coach Fish, can you talk to him about 15-yard penalties? They always catch the retaliator, Michael.”
All of which also spoke to Sam’s own fundamental dilemma in this.
On one hand, he wants to be a beacon of hope to the shunned and abused, to send the message, “It’s OK to be who you are, whether you’re gay, straight, black or white. It’s OK to be comfortable in your own skin.”
He’s honored, he said, if his example has helped others come out of hiding.
And if “someone disowns you,” he later added, “hey, be a part of my family. I welcome you. Ram up!”
But he also wants to be just another football player.
It will be a process, one with no guarantees.
Yet the Rams have taken the first steps in giving him a fair chance that anyone should be entitled to — even if it comes with challenges to manage as “the world’s talking” about this, Snead said.
“It’s not like it’s a headache,” Snead said. “Logistically, there are a few things, but on the large timeline of things, one day this will be normal. And as quick as we can make it normal, that’s the goal.”