While Michael Sam would prefer to be just another football player, he knows there is a unique responsibility that comes with being the first openly gay athlete in the CFL and one of only a tiny minority in North America’s major professional leagues.
Signed to a two-year deal by the Montreal Alouettes last week, Sam tried to downplay the significance of the move during a news conference Tuesday, repeatedly saying he just wants to play football.
But when asked if he regretted coming out in February 2014, the defensive end was adamant it was the right decision.
“I’ve set in motion a lot of stuff,” he said. “I have a responsibility to handle myself the right way and carry myself the right way so future athletes who may be straight, gay, bisexual, whatever, they can be inspired just by what I’m doing.”
“If you’re afraid of what your family might think, if you’re afraid you think you might be disowned, I’m your family,” he added. “Come to me and I’ll be a part of your family.”
The 25-year-old Sam was selected in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams, becoming the first openly gay player chosen by an NFL team. He was later cut by the Rams and from the Dallas Cowboys’ practice roster.
Sam is part of a tiny group of professional athletes who have chosen to go public about their sexual orientation. Retired NBA player Jason Collins came out in April 2013 while Los Angeles Galaxy soccer star Robbie Rogers is the lone out player in Major League Soccer. There are no openly gay players in Major League Baseball or the NHL. Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay player in Division I men’s basketball last year.
Alouettes general manager Jim Popp was unequivocal about what Sam’s presence in Montreal means for the CFL and for sports in North America.
“Today marks a historic moment in Canadian sports, in the Canadian Football League, and across the world,” Popp said.
A star at Missouri in college, Sam earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honours in 2013 and set his sights on the NFL. That dream has been put on hold for now.
When pressed about whether or not his decision to come out affected his success in the NFL, he dismissed the question.
“I am happy with what I did,” he said. “I’ve helped so many people and given them so much inspiration and I have no regrets whatsoever.”
Popp, who had been scouting Sam for some time, said he believes the six-foot-two, 260-pound player can excel as pass-rusher in the CFL _ so much so that the NFL will regret letting him go.
“I would love nothing more for him to spend his whole career here,” Popp said, “(But) there is such a small window in a football career, I hope he does so extraordinary well that it’s a benefit for our team (and) he gets another shot (at the NFL).”
Sam is considered by NFL teams to be a “tweener,” not quite the right body type to be a defensive end or an outside linebacker for that league.
Popp said he believes Sam can follow a path similar to that of Cam Wake, who was converted from linebacker to end when he joined the B.C. Lions in 2007. Wake was the CFL Defensive Player of the Year in each of his two seasons before signing with the Miami Dolphins, where he has had a successful NFL career.
“My size fits as a pass-rusher,” said Sam. “I led my team in pre-season in sacks and that was in the NFL so I’m a pass-rusher. Doesn’t matter where I’m at.”
Sam looked nervous when he first took the stage Tuesday. He uttered a little nervous laugh after his brief opening statements, but warmed up quickly and became comfortable enough to talk about his fiance, and the infamous Montreal weather.
Being from Texas, Sam said he first got a taste of snow as a student in Missouri.
“I’m used to cold weather but my fiance hates it,” he said. “The snow doesn’t bother me.”
– The Canadian Press