It's easy over the three days of the NFL draft to forget this is about football. Even in a year more boring than this one -- and most are -- the thing is festooned with celebrity and celebration. It lauds personality, however contrived.
That was never truer than last weekend, when Thursday became the day of Johnny Manziel, which everyone had forgotten by Saturday, which was the day of Michael Sam. As Sam waited (and waited, and waited some more) for the selection that would make him the first openly gay professional football player, tape rolled of his college career, of his hometown, of his friends from Missouri extolling his personality and his game. Talking heads chattered about whether his sexuality had caused his free fall into the seventh round -- there's no doubt in my mind it didn't -- and Twitter exploded with outrage as defensive linemen from such hallowed institutions as Marist and Concordia University-St. Paul were picked before the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Football, it seemed, was almost an afterthought, and rightfully so. Michael Sam Day was about enlightened thinking, about whether the NFL was mired in some backward mindset. Even as the picks advanced to the point that Sam might have been better off going undrafted and signing with the team of his choice, the notion that he simply had to be drafted, for the sake of progress, lingered strong.
And then he was. Late in the seventh round, Rams coach Jeff Fisher announced to his war room that the team would be selecting the former Missouri player with one of its two seventh-round picks, No. 249. The call was placed, and there was footage of Sam on national television answering, speaking, kissing his boyfriend. It was progress personified, beamed across the nation, and it was something. It brought goose bumps and chills, tears and applause.
And it's okay if the goose bumps linger, if you feel like smiling a little brighter after what transpired, no matter that the pick came late, that even Fisher and the Rams waited until the very last second.
But that second has passed, and the draft is over, and really, thank goodness. Thank goodness, because Sam can finally get what he wanted all along, a version of what he had at Missouri. He can play football, for a team that wants him. He can be just another defensive end in another locker room, clawing for a roster spot. Because for all the change, for all the greater good that came from Sam's selection, for him -- and funny how we can forget about tiny little him when the consequences are so large -- it's time to get down to business.
On Sunday, the day after Sam was selected, speculation arose that teams had shied away from him because of the attention, because of the spotlight -- because he seemed to have embraced the spotlight. And he did. Sam certainly positioned himself to get the biggest bang for his initial announcement, spurning local reporters for months to get the bigger stage, the bigger impact. That was certainly his right, but his life can no longer be a public relations campaign. He can no longer hide with his agents and keep his mouth shut, appearing as a name in the headlines and nothing more. Even at Missouri, Sam was shielded from the media for the most part, and that won't fly down the road in St. Louis. Going forward, Sam needs to be a football player, a player with the same duties as the men with the lockers around his.
That's the only way this will work, the only way this snowball will keep rolling forward. If Sam can be a football player who is gay, not a gay man playing football, then the next gay player will emerge, and the next. Sam has his place, has his jersey, had his kiss broadcast around the world. Now, he has to play football. Now, all the reasons that television commentators listed to justify him not being picked will loom a little larger, and it doesn't matter whom he chooses to hold hands with. He's just another football player on just another team -- at least, he should be.
Is Sam too small, a tweener? Prove it wrong. Is he too slow? Run faster. Is he limited in what he can do on the field? Push harder. Drafted by the Rams, the team with arguably the best defensive line in the NFL, Sam will have no shortage of role models at the lockers next to his, and his football impact will pale in importance to the likes of Robert Quinn, Chris Long and Aaron Donald. He'll need to push himself harder than he's ever pushed, and the Rams will be there to help, completely and totally. They made that promise when they called his name, when they assumed the trappings that will come along with having him in their locker room. They knew who and what they were taking on, and they took it on with open arms.
"I don't have any concern whatsoever," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said on the NFL Network Saturday. "We drafted a good football player, and I'm excited to get him on the practice field and get him going. It's going to be a little extra attention for a couple days."
There are so many things we will likely never know about what led to the pick, about whether there was pressure from up above, about how heavily Sam's sexuality weighed on evaluators. And you know what? It doesn't matter, not the politicking that led to this, not the machinations of millionaires that brought Sam to St. Louis. What matters is he's there, and a team with a million good reasons to pick him did so. The Rams have the Mizzou connection -- owner Stan Kroenke is a native of Columbia, Mo., and his son, Josh, played basketball for the Tigers -- and Sam can keep close ties to the school that supported his sexuality and let him release his message in due time. In fact, St. Louis might just be the best spot for him, too, at least to minimize the outside noise and focus on football. The state of Missouri has seen the fanfare and the attention that Sam brings, and it's also seen what he can do on the field, no matter the physical drawbacks that have been analyzed ad nauseam.
In the days to come, as every angle of Sam's selection is picked to pieces, ownership of this moment will be debated and claimed. It will be the NFL's moment, and the Rams'. It will be Missouri's moment, the moment of the state with a front-row seat to Sam's college career and now the first steps of his professional life.
But most of all, it is Sam's moment, no matter the bigger statement, no matter the far-reaching consequences. Let the young man who started this conversation -- or at least sent it into overdrive -- have his due, and for his sake, let it be about football. That's what he's wanted all along, isn't it?