INDIANAPOLIS -- Acceptance of his homosexuality won't be nearly as easy for Missouri defensive end Michael Sam in the real world as it has been on campus, but he appears prepared for the challenge of becoming the first active, admittedly gay player in NFL history.
Days after coming out, Sam got a rousing ovation from the crowd at a Missouri-Tennessee basketball game.
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"I love my fans," the 6-foot-2, 260-pounder said Saturday in front of a media throng as large as any in Scouting Combine history. "I love Mizzou, one of the best schools in the nation, and after what they did this past weekend, it was just amazing.
"I wanted to cry, but I'm a man. So I just want to thank everyone who supported me, especially Mizzou; the students, my coaches, the whole organization and every Missouri fan. M-I-Z-Z-O-U. I'm a Tiger forever."
Considering the enormity of his situation, Sam seemed relatively comfortable and casual behind the podium at Lucas Oil Stadium, laughing frequently, although some of it may have been the nervous kind.
But some worry Sam may be a marked man forever. Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians voiced concern that the co-defensive MVP of the SEC might incur the wrath of opposing fans.
"I've been getting a lot of great positive (reaction) from all kinds of fans," Sam said. "And you know, when I'm on the field, I really don't focus on fans. I just focus on my responsibilities, which is the guy right across from me."
Then there's the whole issue of the locker room, which has been brought under scrutiny recently because of the toxic, bullying atmosphere in the Dolphins' locker room.
"If the Miami Dolphins drafted me, I would be excited to be a part of that organization," Sam 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 that I need to communicate with.
"I've been in locker rooms where all kinds of slurs have been said, and I don't think anyone means it. I think (some players are) a little naive and uneducated, but as time goes on, everyone will adapt."
While many of the league's decision makers have been quick to claim Sam's sexual orientation won't affect how they evaluate him as they prepare their boards for the draft May 8-10, it remains to be seen how anxious any personnel man will be to actually pull the trigger on such a controversial player when the clock is ticking.
Because he's undersized for an NFL defensive end and doesn't have much experience playing in reverse as a linebacker must do in pass coverage, Sam comes with the dreaded "tweener" tag, a player too small for the defensive line and not agile enough for linebacker.
"I'm a pass rusher," said Sam, who had 11½ sacks last season. "If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I'm going to get the quarterback. This league is a passing league. I'd like to believe in myself as a good pass rusher."
But 9 of Sam's sacks came in three games, prompting one questioner to raise the question of inconsistency.
"Winning is hard, buddy," Sam cracked, drawing laughs. "There's going to be games when I might not get a sack. Throughout the games I did have some inconsistency there. But, for the most part, we as a defensive line did put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks, made them uncomfortable in the pocket to have to go and run away or throw the ball out of bounds."
Although it probably won't happen for a while, Sam hopes some day to be known for his pass-rush ability instead of his sexual preference.
"I wish you guys would just say, 'Michael Sam, how's football going? How's training going?' " he said. "I would love for you to ask me that question. But it is what it is. And I wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."
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