The St. Louis Rams pushed the pause button on Michael Sam's NFL dreams Saturday, waiving the rookie defensive lineman in their final wave of cuts in advance of their season opener.
Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, failed to make the 53-man roster but could still be signed to the club's 10-man practice squad.
"It was a football decision and it was no different than any other decision that we make," Rams Coach Jeff Fisher said Saturday in a news conference to announce the final roster trims. "It was a football decision back in May to draft Mike. And once again, it's been about football."
The Rams opted to keep nine defensive linemen, and they awarded the final spot to undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks, former NCAA Division II defensive player of the year at West Texas A&M.
"He was very productive in the preseason for us and played all four spots," Fisher said of Westbrooks.
Fisher said he had face-to-face meetings with each of the released players except Sam, who opted to attend Saturday on the Missouri sideline, watching his alma mater play South Dakota State. Fisher said he was looking forward to speaking to Sam in person Sunday.
Fisher described their phone call as cordial and professional.
"He said, 'Yes sir,' " the coach said of informing Sam of his release. "And he said, 'I understand.' He said, 'Thanks for the opportunity.' I said, 'Mike, I'm looking forward to visiting with you tomorrow.' He goes, 'I am, too.' That was really all that was said."
In a series of tweets Saturday, Sam thanked the Rams and the City of St. Louis "for giving me this tremendous opportunity and allowing me to show I can play at this level. I look forward to continuing to build on the progress I made here toward a long and successful career."
Sam, a seventh-round selection who was chosen with eight picks left in the draft, compiled 11 tackles and three sacks in four exhibition games.
"I was pulling for Mike, I really was," Fisher said. "I don't say that very often, but Mike came in here and did everything that we asked him to do. He got a chance to play a lot of snaps. He had the second-most snaps on the defensive line, to Ethan Westbrooks. He had well over 120, 130 snaps and was productive. But as we said on the front end of the whole... when we drafted Mike, on the front end, we mentioned that this was going to be a tough road."
Sam tweeted: "The most worthwhile things in life rarely come easy, this is a lesson I've always known. The journey continues."
According to NFL rules, a released player cannot be re-signed to that club's practice squad until he has been exposed to waivers — made available to the 31 other teams — for 24 hours.
Fisher declined to say whether the team would sign Sam to the practice squad were he available.
"I can't go there right now," the coach said. "We don't, coaches don't talk about practice squads because we have to see what happens as far as the claims and things are concerned. We'll know better tomorrow afternoon. The practice squad is heavily dependent on what you do in other positions."