He may not have posted the blazing 40 time or dominated any of the on-field drills, but for just a moment, he got his wish — to be Michael Sam the football player and just Michael Sam the football player.
He knelt down onto the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium for several seconds before slowly moving his hands closer to his feet, taking a deep breath as he prepared to fire away in a 40-yard sprint.
It wasn’t effortless. He didn’t explode off the blocks. In fact, he had a false start in his first attempt and was officially clocked at 4.91.
During on-field drills, his hips and ankles looked stiff and he didn’t show the short, change-of-direction speed needed to play linebacker in his three-cone drill.
Throw in the fact that he mustered just 17 reps in the bench press — although long-limbed guys tend to struggle in this area — and one would say that Sam didn’t do a whole lot to impress from a physical standpoint.
But in so many ways, Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine, and quite possibly the NFL, owned his moment in Indianapolis, and for that, he is a winner.
“Are you a trailblazer?” One reporter asked. “No…I feel like I’m Michael Sam.”
He stood tall at the podium wearing a rainbow-colored button adorned with the words “Stand With Sam.” He was confident, he was assertive and most of all, he was authentic. There was no hesitation whatsoever in his 12-minute press conference, the first since his announcement two weeks ago.
“Oh heck yeah, I just wish you guys would just say, ‘Hey, Michael Sam. How’s football going? How’s training going?’ I would love for you to ask me that question. But it is what it is, and I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player and not Michael Sam the gay football player,” he said.
But it’s the first time the league has had to deal with this, which meant there were questions about how he’d handle being the first, about the locker room, how he’d handle himself if he encountered slurs or bullying.
His answers were spot-on.
“Ya know, I’ve been in locker rooms where all kinds of slurs have been said. I don’t think anyone means it. I think [it’s that they’re] a little naïve and uneducated, but as time goes on, everyone will adapt,” Sam responded.
“If someone wants to call me a name…I will have a conversation with that guy, and hopefully it won’t lead to nothing else.”
The timing may never be perfect, but it’s never been a better time for a gay player in the NFL. The league has gradually seen a shift from uber-machoism to progressive-mindedness and understanding. It continues to investigate the impact of head injuries and at some point, may explore medicinal marijuana. With a global push for equality, sexual orientation isn’t far behind.
Still, the combine itself is unlike anything else, making Smith’s feat an admirable one.
Scouts and front office executives pick, poke and prod. Prospects stand on a stage in practically nothing, their bodies scrutinized at every angle. Even those on the other side of the equation admit that the process can be a little inhumane.
The fact that a young man bared his soul publicly and revealed the truth, his truth, prior to entering a world that favors the Richie Incognitos over the Jonathan Martins, a world that frowns upon those who are different or show even the slightest hint of perceived vulnerability, and you start to understand the magnitude of Sam’s mere presence.
The numbers may not show it, but the impact was certainly felt.