INDIANAPOLIS -- Spring came early here on Saturday. The typical sideways sleet, the kind that makes Lucas Oil Stadium feel like a research station on the Baffin Island coast in mid-February, gave way to dazzling sunshine and unzipped-windbreaker temperatures.
It felt like an omen. Michael Sam was here, interviewing with teams and the media. Perhaps the sunshine was a high-pressure system caused by the opening of hundreds of minds at once. The veils fell from the eyes of NFL coaches and executives, and the clouds parted. Men of my father's generation -- brought up to believe homosexuals were dangerous social deviants -- and men of my generation -- many content to marginalize homosexuals with lazy sassy interior designer stereotypes and mumbled slurs -- spoke to Sam during NFL team interviews and suddenly saw through their (our) preconceptions. With sudden cataclysmic perceptual shift, perhaps, comes sunshine.
OK, the Sam-brings-sunshine metaphor is a just a ripe morsel of mythmaking hogwash. In many ways, Combine Saturday was an ordinary Combine Saturday. Offensive linemen and tight ends grunted through drills on the Lucas Oil playing field. Coaches lounged in little clutches in the stands, like sleepy lions sizing up distant prey. General managers gave rote press conferences while third-tier prospects muttered through interviews with journalists who barely knew their names.
But this was no ordinary Combine Saturday. You could take a walk outside without freezing rain flensing the first layer of skin from your face, for one thing. Also, the first openly gay player to enter any of the four major American professional sports was beginning his journey toward history.
Story fatigue set in around Sam almost immediately two weeks ago; the hours after his public announcement were a period of mass-media hyperventilating that left the national sports (and non-sports) world gasping. Even after a few puffs on an inhaler, the story remains culturally seismic. A young man who publically announced that he prefers the sexual company of other men plans to join the most aggressively macho professional organization in America. A 24-year-old openly-homosexual athlete would spend Saturday meeting male executives in their 30s-through-70s to explain how he could help win football games while sharing a locker room with 300-pound behemoths from the Bible Belt and tattooed country boys of unpredictable temperament. Sam spent his weekend telling men of past generations, who chose an occupation drenched in old-fashioned perceptions of manliness, how he has spent his high school and college career fitting in to a culture which, superficially, appears custom-designed to reject him like an unfamiliar antibody from an old boys' bloodstream.
The magnitude of what happened on Saturday was dulled by its status as social networking Hot-Take of the Month. The prevailing opinion of a half-century ago -- read an original printing of 1969's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) if you want insight into the sexual science of the Merv Griffin era -- dismissed homosexuality as an almost alien subculture populated by desperate, misguided (or, more progressively) improperly wired individuals. Gay jokes were so acceptable in the NFL world as recently as a decade ago that some of the most ardent Sam crusaders in my profession don't want you looking too deeply at the more florid humor in their blog archives. On Combine Saturday, a gay American (a gay Texan) stood before the NFL and its media and asked to be accepted on his own terms, as an All-American defender with a middle-round draft grade.
And here is the miracle of sunny Combine Saturday: The NFL (and its media pool) strived to do exactly that. Sam and the NFL fought the status quo with the status quo, using business as usual to change the way business is usually done. Michael Sam: first openly gay NFL player, or just another high-interest controversy-scented prospect on Podium B, like Jadeveon Clowney, Manti Te'o, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow before him? It was difficult to tell. The difference between 50 cameras waiting on tripods and a hundred is a matter of quantity, not quality.
When Sam finally took the stage, he argued confidently, convincingly and a little defiantly that he should be treated not as a hero or symbol of social change, but just like everyone else. "Heck yeah, I just wish you guys would say: 'Michael Sam, how's football going?'" he said. "But it is what it is, and I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the gay football player."
Sam's words crossed the vast gaps between generational and ideological stereotypes of homosexuality, not because he spoke passionately about being a gay football player, but because he spoke passionately of being a football player who loves his sport, his family, his college and his opportunity. Making the Archie Bunker crowd look foolish was a no-brainer, but he dashed other lazy misperceptions as well: that Sam would be a likely target for Incognito-caliber bullying, that he relishes becoming a Jackie Robinson figure, or that homosexuality is any more a defining characteristic of his career than heterosexuality is for some other defensive end's, or coach's or sportswriter's career.
Sam is ready for locker room remarks and whispers, perhaps as ready as any prospect in NFL history. "I've been in locker rooms where there were all kinds of slurs. I don't think anyone means it," he said. "If someone wants to call me a name, I will have a conversation with that guy. And hopefully, it will lead to nothing else." He also assured that "everyone can be normal around me." If Sam is insulted, he will defend himself. If he is ribbed or criticized by people he trusts, he will not be insulted.
Sam sounds downright eager to disappear into the NFL culture. He has been ignoring the media and working out to improve his 40-time and vertical leap. When asked a pure football question -- and he was asked several -- he gave pure football answers, the kind that lull the listener to sleep.
And when asked if he felt like a trailblazer, Sam answered simply: "I feel like Michael Sam."
Sam ripped away the First Gay Football Player curtain and revealed a young man starting his career on his own terms. He does not expect to be drafted because he is gay, or to not be drafted because he is gay. He does not expect extra product endorsements, or to be shut out from endorsements. He is a pass rusher who would prefer to play in a 4-3 system and is seeking an opportunity to sack quarterbacks. Mizzou gave him that opportunity. He expects to earn the same chance from the NFL. "I just want to do what I love to do," he said.
It will happen. NFL teams appear to be going about their business. Sam has heard nothing noteworthy about his personal life from scouts or coaches. Even during the Senior Bowl, when his sexuality was a secret to the world at large but well known to insiders, Sam dealt with no leading questions. "It was all football questions," he said. "It was all about my size, about whether I played linebacker. General questions."
The gang in the press pool is adapting to the new routine as well. Long before Sam spoke, the fishing expeditions for pro-or-anti gay sentiments from NFL personnel dwindled. The number of "would you draft a 5-foot-11 quarterback like Johnny Manziel" questions aimed at coaches and execs equaled or exceeded the number "would your locker room welcome a gay athlete" questions. Some of the "we're just looking for great football players" responses were nearly interchangeable. The NFL wants us to believe that the first openly gay player is no big deal. They want to believe it themselves. The desire to believe it may be a bigger step toward acceptance than actually believing it.
The First Gay Football Player is a big deal of meteorological size. Michael Sam wants to make it smaller. He and the NFL will use routine to deflate the story. Sam disappeared from Lucas Oil Stadium to prepare to run drills. Coaches and executives watched and interviewed dozens of other players once they finished with him. The press pool began to type away at stories like this one, but a few moments after Sam's presser, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater stood behind podium B and revealed his love for video games.
A video game-loving quarterback? That's pretty good copy. Sam may have to compete for headlines. He will be overjoyed.
Hours after Sam's press conference, Combine Saturday returned to normal. Except that the sun was still shining. The Richie Incognito's of the world won't always have the last word. New generations correct the mistakes of the old. There is hope that the extraordinary will soon be as ordinary as Sam and the NFL want it to be.
The second, third and 100th gay athletes to enter the NFL will not have to feel like trailblazers. They should strive to feel like Michael Sam: a young man with the confidence and conviction to be himself and pursue what he loves to do. Those who follow him will not have to prepare for interrogations, intolerance, misunderstandings and outdated beliefs. Though if they are smart, they will prepare for sleet.