NEW YORK – Michael Sam made history Saturday as the St. Louis Rams made him the first openly gay player to be drafted into the National Football League.
Sam had an agonizingly long wait for the milestone moment, which came as the seventh and final round of the three-day draft was winding down.
“I knew I was going to get picked somewhere,” said Sam, who starred as a defensive end for the University of Missouri and went public with his sexuality in February. “Every team that passed me, I was thinking how I’m going to sack their quarterback.”
The 24-year-old was taken with the 249th overall selection in the annual allocation of new talent for America’s most popular sport — seven spots before the draft concluded with pick number 256.
Cameras of broadcaster ESPN captured Sam’s emotional reaction to the telephone call he received from Rams head coach Jeff Fisher.
Sam — watching the draft on television with family and friends far from the event’s headquarters at New York’s Radio City Music Hall — broke down in tears speaking with Fisher before exchanging a hug and kiss with his boyfriend.
Soon after, Sam was beaming in a photo he posted on Twitter.
“Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis,” he tweeted. “I’m using every (ounce) of this to achieve greatness!!”
Fisher told ESPN that the team was mainly focused on what Sam can contribute on the field, but he acknowledged the groundbreaking nature of the selection.
“In the world of diversity we live in now, I’m honored to be part of this and I’m excited about his opportunity to help this football team win,” Fisher said.
President Barack Obama congratulated Sam in a statement released to US media.
“The President congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward today in our Nation’s journey,” the White House statement read, adding that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans “prove everyday that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are.”
Sam, 24, became the first openly gay man to be drafted into one of America’s major professional sports leagues.
Veteran NBA player Jason Collins wasn’t with a team when he came out as gay last year, but is now playing for the Brooklyn Nets.
In revealing his sexuality, already known to his university teammates, Sam had said he hoped to be judged not as a social trailblazer but as a football player.
But his presence among the prospects in the draft made the final day — usually the preserve of diehard fans — a widely watched affair.
“So proud of the @STLouisRams for showing there’s nothing to be afraid of,” gay comedian and chat show host Ellen DeGeneres wrote on Twitter.
Chad Griffin, president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, also welcomed the moment.
“Gay people are our neighbors and friends,” Griffin said. “They’re our United States senators and, starting today, they’re our professional football stars.”
As a senior at Missouri, Sam notched 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for losses as he earned first-team All-American honors and was named Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
However, his draft stock dropped after a disappointing showing at the NFL scouting combine, where teams evaluate potential new players.
At 6-foot-2 and 256 pounds (1.88m, 116 kg), Sam is also small for an NFL defensive end. That had draft pundits predicting Sam wouldn’t be taken until the sixth round of the draft.
At a post-draft press conference, Fisher said the Rams were lucky a player of Sam’s ability was still available in the seventh round, and added that he had no concerns that Sam’s sexuality — or media interest in him — would be a distraction to the team.
“People will try to make it a distraction, but it’s not a distraction,” Fisher said. “I’m personally proud of him for coming out. I’m sure it was a very difficult thing to do.”
Sam still has work to do to realize his NFL dream.
Although widespread interest in his story meant he had already inked his first endorsement deal — with Visa — he still has to compete for a place on a Rams team loaded with defensive line talent.
Sam said he’s ready for the challenge.
“I’m so proud to be a St. Louis Ram,” he said. “I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time, and I’m so determined to be great.”