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Michael Sam is ready to be judged on his merits on football field

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INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Sam stepped onto stage and looked into what might have been the largest media gathering in the history of the NFL scouting combine. Hundreds of reporters clustered in, and there were three rows of TV and video cameras.

"I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player," the Missouri defensive end said, "instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."

Then again, it was Sam who generated the story with his announcement two weeks ago he is homosexual, telling his story to the New York Times and ESPN. He is on track to become the first openly gay professional athlete in a major American team sport, and he acknowledges the significance of his place in history.

"Everything that my Mizzou family has done for me has been amazing," he said, wearing a small, rainbow-colored "Stand With Sam" button on his NFL-issued sweatsuit. "I walk around campus and dozens of students and faculty give me hugs or kisses, start crying in my arms. It's unbelievable."

It's clear now, though, that Sam is ready to shift gears, to stand out to NFL teams only because of what he can do on the field, rather than being viewed as a pioneer, or the Jackie Robinson of the gay community, as some people have suggested.

And many NFL coaches and executives seem beyond ready to move on and get back to Xs and O's.

"Someone put it this way," Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said, "He's been a good player and he's been in a locker room. It's what you, the media, what are you all going to do with him? Once he gets in and he can rush the quarterback and get the quarterback on the ground and make tackles, he's going to be a good teammate. The biggest thing is how the media is going to deal with him. ...

"This is something that's new to the league. We all will have to adapt to it. What I was talking about is I think our locker room has had the tendency to adapt to things a lot smoother than maybe the media does."

An openly gay player is new to the league, but the issue isn't. Asked whether he has ever coached a gay NFL player, the Arizona Cardinals' Bruce Arians said: "Yeah, I think so. And I think all players are different. When you have a role on a football team, you're there for a reason, and that's to help a team win. None of that matters in the locker room. We're all in it for winning. Every locker room I've ever been in was all about winning, so if you had a hand in us winning, and you were different, guys accepted it."

However, Arians said, Sam should steel himself for some intolerance from fans.

"I've walked into stadiums where gentlemen are teaching their sons how to moon the bus and moms are teaching their daughters what their middle fingers are for and it's not a ring, so that scares me more. ... The locker room won't be a problem."

Sam, who has been thoroughly embraced by fans since making his announcement, said he isn't worried about encountering a different reaction.

"I've been getting a lot of great positives from all kinds of fans," he said. "And you know, when I'm on the field I really don't focus on fans, so I just focus on my responsibilities, which is the guy right across from me."

Likewise, he said he would have no problem playing for the Miami Dolphins, whose bullying scandal and locker-room culture is the focus of recent NFL scrutiny.

"If the Miami Dolphins drafted me, I would be excited to be a part of that organization," he said. "But I'm not afraid of going into that environment. I know how to handle myself. I know how to communicate with my teammates. I know how to communicate with the coaches and other staff I need to communicate with."

Before last season, Sam told Missouri players he is gay, and word neither leaked out nor did it negatively affect his friendship with teammates.

"It wasn't our place to tell people his story," said offensive tackle Justin Britt, a college teammate of Sam also working out at the combine. "It was our place to protect his story."

Asked how he would react if he were to run into harassment or hostility in the locker room, Sam said: "If someone wants to call me a name, I'll have a conversation with that guy and hopefully it won't lead to anything else."

Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff said he's confident Sam's sexual orientation wouldn't be an issue in the Falcons locker room.

"I think it's widely known that every locker room has a number of gay individuals," Dimitroff said. "Quite honestly, it speaks to the evolution of acceptance in our society. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the next 10, 15 years in general.

"I really believe that the NFL is quite evolved, and I think it continues to be progressive and I think it tends to be at the front end of the curve in many ways, as far as sport and as far as approaches. Our commissioner [Roger Goodell] is at the front of that. We take his lead, and it's been a really good league as far as being open about the next generation."

What kind of impact Sam might make on the field is up for debate. He was the 2013 co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, no small feat, but he's not considered an elite NFL prospect, primarily because he's shorter than the prototypical defensive end and hasn't shown — or hasn't been asked to show — the coverage ability required of a pro linebacker.

Mike Mayock, NFL Network draft expert, said Sam is "not an every-down player but a situational pass rusher that also can become a core special teams player, and I think he goes somewhere in the third to the fifth round."

Sam might not find that assessment overly flattering, but at least he's being evaluated as a football player. That's what he wants.

He bristled at the suggestion he's a trailblazer.

"A trailblazer?" he said. "I feel like I'm Michael Sam."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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