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HACKENBERG: St. Louis a good landing spot for Sam

05/12/2014, 12:00am EDT
By DAVE HACKENBERG BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

St. Louis a good landing spot for Sam


Missouri defensive end Michael Sam speaks during a news conference at the NFL football scouting combine. ASSOCIATED PRESS

With the final pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans turned Memphis safety Lonnie Ballentine into Mr. Irrelevant.

Seven picks prior to that, the St. Louis Rams made one of the most relevant selections in the league’s history.

Last season, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam were the co-defensive players of the year in the talent-rich Southeastern Conference. Mosley was the 17th player drafted in the first round by Baltimore. Sam was the 249th pick in the seventh and final round.

There is a lot to read into this, not the least being that Sam is openly gay and now has the opportunity to be the first — with the emphasis on openly — to play in the NFL. But there is more. He measures 6-2, 260 pounds, maybe not big enough to be a full-time defensive end in the NFL, maybe not quite athletic enough to log lots of playing time at outside linebacker.

Still, as the draft grinds seemingly forever before the end comes into sight, as they get to rounds five and six and anonymous players from places like Bloomsburg and McGill and Lindenwood and Marist come off the board, didn’t you just have to wonder if there wasn’t a spot somewhere for the co-defensive player of the year in the SEC?

It turns out there was, thankfully, and St. Louis was probably the perfect place. It is less than two hours east on I-70 from where Sam played his college football. There are Mizzou alumni stacked on every street corner and they long ago accepted Sam and his sexuality. The Rams have a loose and diverse locker room, and a strong one, and one where coach Jeff Fisher has a very large finger on the pulse and a lot of clout.

It is a mellower media market where there should be fewer distractions and where Sam will be free to prove himself as a situational pass rusher and a special teams force.

Still, wasn’t pick No. 249 a long way to fall, a long time to wait? Wasn’t that a loud sigh of relief from commissioner Roger Goodell, who otherwise would be brushing up on his rah-rah speech few might believe about how the NFL is inclusive and not rife with homophobia?

Fisher admitted, “Michael was graded much higher on our board, then he fell. But we weren’t going to miss the opportunity … In the world of diversity we live in now I’m honored to be a part of this.”

Who knows how many others were not. General managers talk about taking the best available players and about the best fits, but in this case those targets might have been interpreted as mutually exclusive.

Thank goodness, for Sam, that he didn’t end up somewhere like Miami, where the bullies may still be running the locker room. A cornerback named Don Jones tweeted “OMG” and “horrible” after watching Sam’s emotional response to being drafted, which included long hugs and a couple kisses with his boyfriend.

Jones’ tweets have since been deleted and the Dolphins general manager expressed disapproval, saying, “That’s not what we stand for as an organization.” Really?

It’s easy to talk the talk, but the Rams went the next step.

Sam will get his chance, and it will be talent and work ethic, not sexuality, that determines what his future holds.

In 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier, a running back named Kenny Washington was the first black to reintegrate the NFL, which then was adamantly lily-white. He faced some of the same cruel challenges of being accepted that Sam will face.

The organization that signed Washington, we will note, was the Rams.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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