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Michael Sam makes history in NFL draft

In an emotional phone call Michael Sam is told he has been chosen to play for The St. Louis Rams, making him the first openly gay player selected in an NFL Draft.

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Over seven rounds of the NFL draft, teams chose more than 200 players, from sure-fire stars to kickers and all-but-anonymous players from tiny Division II football programs.

One player who kept being passed over was Michael Sam, a consensus all-American at Missouri and The Associated Press' defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, considered college football's most competitive conference. Sam was also the first publicly gay player waiting to be drafted.

Michael Sam was a seventh round pick by the St. Louis Rams.

Michael Sam was a seventh round pick by the St. Louis Rams. Photo: AP

Finally, after nearly seven numbing hours of picks on Saturday, the third and final day of the draft, Mike Kensil, vice president for game operations at the NFL, walked to the podium and read Sam's name. Cheers erupted among the several hundred fans left at Radio City Music Hall.

Sam, a defensive end, was the 249th player selected. Only seven players followed. Then the draft was over.

Sam's draft status was seen as barometer of whether the NFL was ready to accept an openly gay player, particularly in light of the NBA's having broken that barrier this year when Jason Collins joined the Brooklyn Nets.

"Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis," Sam said on Twitter not long after he was shown on television kissing his boyfriend. "I'm using every ounce of this to achieve greatness!!"

Reaction to Sam's selection was swift.

"Congrats to @MikeSamFootball on becoming a @STLouisRams," Eric Dickerson, a Hall of Fame Rams running back wrote on Twitter. "Welcome to the #Rams family."

"Football plays an important and valuable role in cultivating leadership and respect," Brendon Ayanbadejo, a former Baltimore Raven and an outspoken defender of same-sex marriage, said in a statement. "The St. Louis Rams just helped athletes everywhere feel more confident in their ability to be who they are and play the game they love."

Collins, who was preparing to play the Miami Heat in Brooklyn on Saturday, said he sent Sam a text message and was very happy that Sam was drafted. "I think it is great day for the NFL and Michael and his family," Collins told reporters.

But he said, "It takes more and more people just to come forward and show we're normal people and we're just trying to make plays to help our respective teams win."

Though Sam was chosen with just seven picks left in the draft, the Rams were a logical choice because he played college football nearby at Missouri, which Stan Kroenke, the Rams owner, graduated from.

Sam's selection should help the NFL, which has had to grapple with a host of uncomfortable issues including a bullying scandal and criticism that it has not done enough to promote black coaches. Members of Congress have called on Commissioner Roger Goodell to force Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, to change the team's name because some American Indians consider it derogatory.

Goodell has also been compared to other commissioners, most notably Adam Silver of the NBA, who two weeks ago barred Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, for making racist comments about blacks.

The league, though, has prepared for the emergence of an openly gay player for several years, and Goodell and other league executives will no doubt be happy Sam was drafted.

"The NFL was looking forward to this moment, and I think they're going to embrace it," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at Central Florida University. "Had Sam not been picked in the draft, it would have sent a signal that the NFL wasn't going to be as welcoming."

If Sam had not been drafted, he still could have been signed as a free agent, which is an invitation to attend training camp. About one-third of the players in the NFL last year were undrafted, and a handful of undrafted players have made it to the Hall of Fame.

But if Sam were not drafted, every NFL team would have effectively signaled that he was not worth risking a draft pick and might become a distraction in the locker room.

As it was, many teams re-evaluated Sam's status in February not long after he publicly said he was gay. Despite his honours last season at Missouri, Sam had a mediocre performance at the NFL's scouting combine in Indianapolis soon after he announced his sexuality. In the intensely data-driven NFL, some teams moved him down their draft charts.

As a result, Sam was not expected to be drafted in the early rounds of the draft. Indeed, his teammate and fellow defensive end Kony Ealy, who performed better at the combine, was chosen in the second round by the Carolina Panthers.

According to the NFL's draft tracker, Ealy had a 5.8 rating, which is given to those who are perceived to be good enough to start in the NFL, while Sam received a 5.1, which denotes having a better-than-average chance of making an NFL roster.

By being passed over early in the draft, Sam became the first defensive player of the year in the SEC to not be taken in the first round since 2006.

Another all-American defensive end, Jackson Jeffcoat of Texas, went undrafted.

While the first three rounds of the draft are broadcast in prime time over two days, the third and last day of the draft is typically followed only by avid fans and football insiders. The players chosen are often not collegiate stars; many never earn a spot on an NFL team.

But the tension at the otherwise quiet proceeding grew as the day wore on and other defensive ends were taken ahead of Sam.

Deion Sanders, a former player who is now a television announcer, wrote on Twitter, "Some team needs to Draft Michael Sam and be real the kid can play!"

Sage Rosenfels, a retired NFL quarterback, added on Twitter: "So the best defensive player in the best college football conference hasn't been drafted in the first 6 rounds."

Now that Sam has been drafted, the hard work will begin anew. There is no guarantee he will make the Rams, and he will have to impress coach Jeff Fisher and battle other rookies and veterans for a spot on the team's 53-man roster.

"You don't get excited about being a low draft pick, you get excited by making the team," said Bill Curry, a former college and NFL player and coach who founded AIM Sports Reputation Management. "If the guy can perform, then everyone should welcome him with open arms."

The New York Times