The NFL at last has its first openly gay player, and he'll play for the Saint Louis Rams.
The Rams drafted defensive end Michael Sam, who came out publicly in February, with the 249th pick Saturday, ending months of speculation to when – or if – Sam would hear his name called in the draft.
Sam becomes the first openly gay athlete drafted into one of America's major professional sports leagues. Veteran NBA player Jason Collins came out last summer and plays for the New Jersey Nets.
"For Michael, it's a little bit of relief that it's over, and you can finally say you're part of the NFL family. That is a dream come true for so many football players. That's a realization that all his hard work has paid off," gay former NFL player Wade Davis, the executive director of the You Can Play Project, told USA TODAY Sports. "Now he can really start to focus on his new journey."
Sam's addition to an NFL roster is a watershed moment for the league that has taken significant steps in recent months to prepare for its first openly gay player.
Davis met with league officials, including commissioner Roger Goodell, in New York City and gave a presentation to league owners, general managers and head coaches in Orlando in March.
Now Davis is working with NFL vice president Troy Vincent to put together a series of presentations with teams and players as part of the league's Respect at Work program.
Sam was a first-team USA TODAY All-America selection at Missouri last fall after leading the SEC with 11.5 sacks. He did that after having announced his sexuality to his teammates prior to his senior year. It clearly wasn't an issue for the Tigers, who won the SEC East and the Cotton Bowl.
Sam's sexuality was big news three months ago, but his football acumen seemed to be more of an issue for NFL teams in the lead up to the draft. He was considered to be small by NFL standards, just 6-foot-2 and 252, and had a disappointing showing at the NFL scouting combine in February. His 40-yard dash was slow, at 4.91 seconds, and he didn't jump as high or lift as much as the top pass rushers in the class.
Sam's measurables improved at his pro day in Columbia, Mo. in March, and Sam was widely considered to be a third-day pick, with projections that he would come off the board anywhere in the later rounds of the draft.
"As much contact I've had with teams and owners and general managers over the past couple of months, I have no doubt that teams are evaluating him strictly on his football ability," Davis said. "That's not to say there aren't one or two that were scared off by it, but the vast majority of teams really are just saying hey, if this guy can help us win, and he has a body of work that we all respect, then we're going to take him."
Yet as Saturday afternoon turned to evening, and the seventh round began with Sam still undrafted, his status became the most compelling storyline in the final stage of the three-day draft. ESPN, who had a camera with Sam in San Diego, had reporter Shelley Smith broadcasting live from a watch party at a gay bar in West Hollywood, while the hastag #SamFans united Sam's supporters online.
Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayenbadejo, one of the first NFL players to actively support LGBT rights, was among those hoping Sam would get drafted.
"I stand with Sam, but now I'm sitting. Teams keep passing on the SEC DPOY with less stats and tangibles. Crazy," Ayenbadejo wrote on Twitter.
Sam made his public announcement in February in a series of interviews with The New York Times and ESPN and then spoke about sexuality at a press conference at the combine in Indianapolis. He has largely avoided the spotlight since, eschewing interviews with large and small media outlets.
Sam spent draft weekend in San Diego, watching the draft unfold in private, inviting only one television camera from ESPN to record his reaction.
The media attention will certainly return as soon as he arrives in Saint Louis, where he'll participate in his first minicamp next weekend.
"If you draft him, or you sign him as a collegiate free agent, then you need help on the public relations front. You're going to face public relations issues with him that will be different from what your PR director is used to facing," former Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said last week. "It becomes an all-encompassing media issue that you as a club need to be able to handle. That's not the GM's concern now. He's trying to grade Michael Sam as a football player. I believe in my humble opinion that he's a draftable player."