By Greg Botelho
(CNN) — Early this year, Michael Sam made news by announcing he is gay. On Saturday, he made history as the first openly gay player to be drafted by a National Football League team. Seconds later, he made waves kissing his boyfriend in celebration as cameras looked on.
Now, Sam has one goal in mind — to make the St. Louis Rams’ roster.
“I’m determined to be great,” he told reporters Tuesday in St. Louis. “So I’m going to train hard and try to make the team.”
As a selection in the seventh and last round in the NFL draft, Sam playing for the Rams or any other NFL team this upcoming season is hardly a lock.
And with standouts like Chris Long and Kendall Langford, the fact that St. Louis boasts one of the league’s best defensive lines — the place where Sam starred at the University of Missouri — makes his task even harder.
That challenge isn’t lost on Sam, who some experts thought might not fit in the NFL not because of his sexual orientation but because they characterized him as a “tweener” — too small to play on the defensive line, too slow to be a linebacker.
Still, he sees the chance to learn from his Rams coaches and teammates things that can help improve his game. And he seemed careful Tuesday not to get too far ahead of himself, expressing thanks for being given “the opportunity to play” but professing no certainty that he will be on the sidelines come opening day.
“I still (don’t) really feel like I’m part of the NFL right now,” Sam said of the whirlwind of the past three days. “I’m blessed, really.”
The company around him during his first media availability Tuesday showed that he’s not the only prospective football player living a dream. Other late-round selections for the Rams joined him in fielding questions. And each had their own one-of-a-kind stories — like Demetrius Rhaney, who lost his grandmother and great-grandmother on the same day a few years after his mother died, or Maurice Alexander’s having worked at St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome to pay for college.
Yet the fact that Sam was the only player at the podium a few minutes later speaks to the fact that he was extraordinary, even among NFL draftees.
Not every would-be pro wins ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award, gets a phone call from President Barack Obama after getting drafted, or ranks second in jersey sales among rookies, after all. Sam has recently tasted the flip side of stardom as well — as a number of people, among them current and former NFL players, took to Twitter to rip ESPN for airing footage of him kissing his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, right after he got the call from the Rams.
Sam noted that he’d never experienced all this attention as an openly gay player at Mizzou because, while he confided his sexuality to coaches and teammates before the 2013 season, he didn’t announce anything publicly until February.
Now that he’s out, he said any jabs about his sexuality would fuel him on the gridiron.
“Thank God for you guys,” Sam said, referring to the media, “because it’s just going to make me even a better player than I am now.”
Kevin Demoff, the St. Louis Rams chief operating officer, said the organization discussed the ramifications of picking a man who could become the NFL’s first openly gay player.
“If you’re going to take a leadership position by drafting Michael, then I think you have to expect both the good and the bad,” Demoff said of the public reaction. “We’re prepared for it, and I think we’ll shine through it.”
Rams General Manager Les Snead acknowledged Sam’s selection is historic, comparing it to Kenny Washington’s becoming the league’s first black player, in 1946.
Moments later, though, head coach Jeff Fisher stressed that the team did what it did based on what Sam could do for the Rams on the field.
“Michael’s value as a football player was off the charts,” Fisher said. “So we drafted Michael as a football player. And he has an opportunity now to compete to try to make our football team.”
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