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Michael Sam wants focus to be on football field

INDIANAPOLIS — He walked to the podium inside the club section of Lucas Oil Stadium, tracing the steps of dozens of other players invited to the NFL scouting combine.

Under normal circumstances, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, projected to be a mid round draft pick, would attract a small contingent of reporters during his media session. But Saturday, a large bank of cameras and lights encircled him and microphones were thrust like bayonets toward his face.

"I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player," he said.

That's the question, isn't it?

Ever since Sam's announcement Feb. 9, putting him on the cusp of becoming the first openly gay player in a major team sport, it's the query posed to NFL coaches, executives and players: Can they view the SEC co-defensive player of the year as something more than a distraction?

Sam wore a rainbow-colored pin on his lanyard that read, "Stand with Sam." It was given to him by a woman at a recent Missouri basketball game.

During a 12½-minute news conference, his first public comments since his announcement, Sam said he has been focusing exclusively on preparing for the combine and the battery of drills that await him.

Sam said questions about his sexual orientation were not asked during interviews with teams.

Certainly, there is much to like about Sam as a player.

He led the SEC with 11½ sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss. But at 6 feet 2, 260 pounds and questionable speed, some see Sam as a "tweener" — too small to play defensive end and not fast enough to drop into coverage as an outside linebacker. What's more, nine of his sacks came against inferior competition in Arkansas State, Vanderbilt and Florida.

Sam simply says, "I'm a pass-rusher. So if you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I'm going to get the quarterback."

But nobody knows how the conversations will play out in draft rooms. Typically, as a team's pick approaches, the club has three players targeted. But will the likely distraction created by media attention — and locker room conflicts that might arise — prevent teams from selecting Sam?

On Saturday, despite wanting to steer the conversation toward football, Sam addressed how he would handle confrontations that might arise.

Could he deal with a bullying situation similar to the one that reportedly existed in the Dolphins locker room between three players and fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin?

"If the Miami Dolphins drafted me, I would be excited to be a part of that organization," Sam said. "But I'm not afraid about going into that environment. I know how to handle myself. I know how to communicate with my teammates. I know how to communicate with my coaches and other staff; whoever I need to communicate with.

"Everyone could be normal around me if they wanted to. We joke around because it's a brotherhood. It's a family. We can say things to each other. No harm. We don't draw blood. It's all fun and games."

What if homophobic slurs were used by a teammate who had a problem with him being on the team?

"If someone wants to call me a name, I'll have a conversation with that guy and, hopefully, we won't need anything else," Sam said.

What about verbal attacks by fans of the opposing team?

"When I'm on the field, I really don't focus on fans," Sam, 24, said. "I focus on my responsibilities, which is the guy right across from me."

Ultimately, Sam will have to perform well in more interviews today and drills Monday to improve his draft stock. The 40-yard dash, shuttle run, cone drill and vertical leap outweigh the scrutiny tethered to being openly gay.

"We're going to evaluate him like any other player," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. "We're going to evaluate his talent level, his skill level and what he brings to our football team."

Finally, Sam was asked if he felt like he was blazing a path other gay players could follow?

"A trailblazer?" he said. "No, I feel like I'm Michael Sam."

The football player.

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@tampabay.com and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. Follow him on Twitter at @NFLStroud.

Michael Sam wants focus to be on football field 02/22/14 [Last modified: Saturday, February 22, 2014 9:43pm]

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