INDIANAPOLIS — Missouri defensive end Michael Sam answered questions calmly Saturday, displaying candor and a natural sense of humor at the NFL scouting combine.
One of the most scrutinized draft prospects in NFL history, Sam was surrounded by hundreds of reporters at an overflow news conference at least as well attended as last year's with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.
Sam, poised to become the first openly gay NFL player, is hoping he'll become better known for his ability to rush the passer than for his sexual orientation.
"A trailblazer?” Sam, the Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year, said with a smile. He wore a button with a rainbow background that read “STAND WITH SAM." "I feel like I'm Michael Sam.
“I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam, the football player, instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player," Sam said. “There's a lot of support out there. I just want to do what I do, and that's play football."
He’s projected to go anywhere in the draft from the third to fifth round.
Sam was asked whether he would have a problem playing for the Miami Dolphins after their bullying scandal involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin.
"If the Miami Dolphins drafted me, I would be excited to be a part of that organization," Sam said. "I'm not afraid of going into that environment. I know how to handle myself. I know how to communicate with my teammates. I know how to communicate with the coaches and other staff I need to communicate with.
Sam said that if a teammate uses anti-gay language toward him or in his presence, he would handle it diplomatically.
"I've been in locker rooms with all types of slurs have been said, and I don't think anyone means it," Sam said. "I think [it’s] a little naive and uneducated, but as time goes on, everyone will adapt. ... Everyone can be normal around me. We joke around as a brotherhood, as a family, so we can say things to each other."
When asked whether he would fight back if he encounters harassment in the locker room, Sam replied: "If someone wants to call me a name, I would have a conversation with them. Hopefully, there wouldn't be nothing else."
Sam conducted a formal meeting with the Ravens on Friday night at the NFL scouting combine, according to a league source.
Both Ravens coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome have said the organization would have no issues with Sam and would evaluate him as a football player.
"He's been a good player, he's been in a locker room," Newsome said. "It's what you, the media — what are you all going to do with him? Once he gets in and he can rush the quarterback and get the quarterback on the ground and make tackles, he's going to be a good teammate. The biggest thing is how the media is going to deal with him.
"This is something that's new to the league. We all will have to adapt to it. What I was talking about is I think our locker room has had the tendency to adapt to things a lot smoother than maybe the media does."
NFL teams recently were issued a memorandum reminding them about league workplace policies and that teams were not allowed to ask prospects about their sexual orientation.
Sam said all questions from NFL teams so far have been appropriate.
"All football questions," Sam said. "They asked me about my size, they asked me about if I have ever played linebacker, general questions like that."
Sam said he feels as though he could be a strong fit for either a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive scheme.
"I'm a pass rusher," Sam said. "If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I'm going to get the quarterback. This league is a passing league. I view myself as a good pass rusher. I can drop back in coverage as well and rush the passer."
Former Ravens linebacker and special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo recently told The Baltimore Sun that he believes Sam isn't a great fit for the Ravens' defensive scheme, but expressed confidence that the organization would otherwise be a great fit for Sam.
"It has to be a conducive environment," said Ayanbadejo, a vocal LGBT rights advocate. "If it's not a fit in terms of everything, including football and the organization, then it makes no sense to go there. I look at how progressive the state of Maryland is and the leadership in the Ravens' locker room, but he doesn't really fit the scheme, so I don't think that's where he'll go. [Team president] Dick Cass and John Harbaugh are amazing people, but this has to fit from a football and organizational standpoint."
Sam began the press conference Saturday with an opening statement that drew laughter.
"Good afternoon, my name is Michael Sam,” Sam said. “I play football for the University of Missouri. As you may know, Missouri is 'The 'Show Me State,' and you'd think I'd have shown you guys enough these last couple of weeks. But I'm learning with the media [that] you guys still want more, so ask your questions and I'll answer them the best I can."
Sam told Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and his teammates about his sexuality last August. The team kept it a secret, accepting Sam and going on to win the Cotton Bowl.
"Coach Pinkel really preaches family and stuff like trust and accountability," Missouri offensive tackle Justin Britt said. "It wasn't our place to tell people his story. It was our place to protect his story."
Sam said he simply wants to be accepted as a football player and a person. He discussed his decision to announce his sexual preference during interviews with the New York Times and ESPN.
"I think I did it on my time and my terms," Sam said. "It's out there now."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun