The scouts labeled Michael Sam weeks ago.
The smoking gun still sits on the CBSSports.com website, with content from NFLDraftScout.com. Experts like trusted colleague Rob Rang knew that Sam was fighting to overcome an issue that would seriously affect his draft stock, one that would slide him down some boards and off others. "Sam could earn the dreaded 'tweener' label," Rang wrote, "from scouts who may see him as too short for defensive end and a project as a stand-up outside linebacker."
Before Michael Sam was "the openly gay NFL prospect," Sam was simply another NFL prospect. Now, he is a 21st century Jackie Robinson, a young man whose every step will be scrutinized and every utterance parsed. He will be hailed, rightfully, as a trailblazer, as a role model for courage, and as a harbinger for social progress. He will also be vilified or denounced for his "sinfulness" by a large segment of the American population, a segment whose voice will be heard in some locker rooms and front offices (as well as message boards, barbershops, pulpits, radio shows, teacher's lounges, press rooms …). On Sunday, Sam officially became bigger than Johnny Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney or even Peyton Manning or the Seahawks defense. From the deep recesses of the draft guides to the front page to the annals of sports history in one terrifying leap: Sam is truly brave.
But he is still a tweener: too small for defensive end and too inexperienced for outside linebacker. The obstacles facing the NFL's first openly gay player are difficult to anticipate. But we know the obstacles that face tweeners in this league. Life is hard for tweeners, unless they have 4.5 speed or the agility of a samurai (Sam has neither), regardless of their personal lives.
You are going to read a lot of articles speculating about how coming out of the closet will affect Sam's draft stock. This is not one of those articles. You don't need anyone else's hand-wringing equivocations of the "some teams will think he is a potential distraction, others will not" variety, because you live on planet Earth and know how these things go.
You will read a lot of articles hailing Sam's groundbreaking decisions to come out of the closet, first to his teammates at Missouri at the beginning of this season, then to the world via interviews leading up to next week's Scouting Combine. This is also not one of those articles, because you are well aware that ground is being broken, and you are thrilled, outraged, or too self-actualized to worry about a defensive lineman's sexual orientation. (If you are the third thing, please take the rest of us with you.)
Sam's announcements became public on Sunday, and by Sunday night all parties were heard from: the NFL ("We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014"), NFLPA president Dominique Foxworth ("I think we learned a lot about football players, and we will soon learn something about the NFL"), and outspoken retired punter Chris Kluwe, who previously accused his former coaches of anti-gay bigotry ("seems like a good kid"). Soon, everyone from Barack Obama to Phil Robertson will offer an opinion. A few of them may even have heard of Michael Sam 36 hours ago.
Before he became a groundbreaker, Sam was a defensive end for a powerhouse Missouri defense that also featured fellow defensive end Kony Ealy, defensive back E.J. Gaines, and last year, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson. Sam led the Tigers with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 2013. He was a first team All-America selection. He played a full season in the SEC with a locker room full of teammates that knew he was gay. That not a peep was heard, through a 12-2 season and a Cotton Bowl victory, says more about football's readiness to accept gay players than thousands of speculative words.
Before he was an All-America selection, Sam was one of six children raised by a single mother in the small town of Hitchcock, Texas, on the Galveston Bay. Sam went from eighth-grade waterboy to two-way star for tiny Hitchcock High School, finishing each series at defensive end, then turning around to play left tackle. His coaches remember the game when he shut down Michael Brockers, now a starting defensive tackle for the Rams. "He rocked this ol' boy all night long," his high school coach Craig Smith told the Kansas City Star last year.
Before his sexuality came to be his defining characteristic, placing him on the chessboard of our culture war, Sam was nearly indistinguishable from dozens of other major college prospects entering the NFL draft. His hobbies are hunting and fishing. Quotes from coaches were about his maturity, intensity and leadership. When Sam gave an interview just days before coming out, he spoke about pass rush technique, dropping into coverage, and the other boilerplate of pre-draft conversations. You could fall asleep reading pre-Sunday articles about Sam, particularly if you have read dozens of similar articles about strapping, motivated young guys every year for the past decade.
At the Senior Bowl, Sam was just a face in the crowd, another pass rusher lining up in drills and slamming into offensive linemen. And that's a problem. Before anyone else had formed an opinion on Sam, NFL scouts had done so. Analysts like Rang and our own Russ Lande had formed them. Even I had formed some.
Sam is a quick defensive end who often moved inside on passing downs. He can quickly penetrate the line of scrimmage, and he will also sometimes beat an offensive tackle to the outside. Sam finds cracks to slip through on the offensive line, battles hard against the run and hustles until the whistle. But he is short and small for a defensive end at 6-foot-1 and a half, 260 pounds. Sam could move to outside linebacker, but he almost never dropped into coverage for the Tigers: he was much more likely to move to the interior line, a place where he would get steamrolled in the NFL.
"Overall, I think he lacks the top end pass-rush skills to warrant being a high selection by a team that runs a 4-3 defense," Lande told me (he will write a full scouting report for Sports on Earth later in the week). "Additionally, his stiffness and lack of front-line pass-rush skills would cause me to not draft him high if I was going to ask him to play outside linebacker in a 3-4."
So Sam is a young man without an NFL position -- a tweener -- and observers have known it for years. Teammate Ealy is a better prospect, despite fewer sacks. I rank Sam below many of the other smallish pass rushers, like Auburn's Dee Ford, BYU's Kyle Van Noy and Arkansas' Chris Smith, players who were more impressive at the Senior Bowl and did not rack up as much of their sack production against opponents like Arkansas State. Despite All-America status and 11.5 sacks, Sam had no real chance of getting drafted in the first round. He is likely a mid- to late-round pick, and his status did not change on Sunday.
Sam is destined to be taken in the part of the NFL draft that only draftniks usually care about. Except that everyone will now care. Presses will stop and social networks will explode on a Friday night or (more likely) Saturday afternoon in May. Trolls will name-call, viciously, and Facebook threads will be published with suitable outrage over their homophobic content. Columnists will reach for new synonyms for "courageous." Hundreds of homosexual teens and collegians -- athletes and non-athletes -- will feel emboldened and empowered, the one outcome that truly matters most.
And then, Sam the tweener will go through minicamp and training camp, another mid-round pick trying to make a roster. It will be a tough road. I will be rooting for him. Some of you may root against him. Neither opinion will make any difference. If Sam becomes a backup and special teamer, an off-the-bench pass rusher on 3rd-and-15 for a small-market team, we may even forget about him. Which may be the greatest outcome of all.
It may sound trivial to focus on Sam the Tweener when Sam the Trailblazer is making all the news right now. I find it trivial to focus on Sam the Trailblazer, an empty vessel we now pour our Groundbreaking Gay Athlete narrative into, and forget that Sam is one of hundreds of professional sports hopefuls we come across every year as we process our prospect lists, examine carefully for a few days, then toss into the rummage bin of backups and role players we rarely notice.
Sam is a football player like many others, indistinguishable except for a matter of sexual orientation we have turned into a cultural obsession. His relative ordinariness may turn out to be his greatest gift. An openly gay superstar quarterback might only pave the way for other openly gay superstar quarterbacks. An openly gay pass rush tweener opens the door for nickel cornerbacks, left guards, kickers and depth chart fodder. Even Jackie Robinson only cracked the race barrier open wide enough to allow one black superstar and one roommate per team through in the early years. Sam is almost certain to start his career as the NFL's first openly gay backup. That's not an insult or a gag, but a reality that may have deeper implications than if Sam were Manziel or Clowney.
Sam is an unexceptional prospect doing something exceptional. Ideally, the exceptional will someday become the ordinary. In the next few days, the folks at NFLDraftScout.com and every other draft site will hurriedly update Sam's prospect page to note his uniqueness and significance. But 10 or 15 years from now, when a gay defensive end in the 260-pound range enters the NFL draft pool, perhaps the only label he will have to cope with is "tweener." If so, he'll have Michael Sam to thank.