If there’s one thing Rams defensive end Michael Sam learned after making his professional debut Friday night against the New Orleans Saints, it’s this:
"I can play in this league," he said. "That’s what’s most important. I was kind of nervous and got some nerves out today. It was a very good learning experience. … But I can play in this league."
It’s obvious the media crowd around Sam, which included reporters from USA Today, NFL Network, ESPN, Yahoo! Sports and outsports.com, was there because history was made as he became the first openly gay player to participate in an NFL game, albeit of the preseason kind.
But when asked about making history and whether he tried to block that out at all or if he just embraced the moment, Sam said simply, "I was focusing in on the guy in front of me."
Football is what Sam wants this to be about, even though he understands how groundbreaking it is.
Sam saw the field for the first time with 4:57 left in the first quarter when he entered the game at left end with the Saints facing second-and-10 from the Rams’ 26-yard line. He stayed in on third-and-5 and then on the field-goal block team.
He played a significant number of snaps on defense after that until the 5:04 mark of the third quarter, after which he didn’t see the field again. But he was glad to get this game behind him.
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Asked if he considered this a successful debut, Sam said: "The hardest critic is going to be myself. I could have done a little bit better, but I’m not mad about my first game. I know I could have done better."
"He played hard," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "I saw a hurry and great effort outside the pocket. I saw him involved in a couple other plays. He slanted down, made a play in the run game that stood out. We’ll watch the tape and see how he did. I know he was tired. It seemed like (defensive line) coach (Mike) Waufle was pleased with his performance."
Sam was able to get some pressure on the Saints’ quarterbacks, and was disappointed he wasn’t able to take advantage of two sack opportunities.
On one, he used a spin move and chased quarterback Ryan Griffin toward the sideline. "I should have dove at his legs earlier," he said.
On the other, he appeared to have a clear path to Griffin, but slowed down and almost stopped. "I thought it was a screen," Sam said. "I think he thought it was a screen, but then thought, ‘Oh crap, I’m going to throw this away.’"
With 12:05 remaining in the second quarter, Sam officially got his name on the statistics sheet as he was credited with a tackle, grabbing running back Khiry Robinson by the legs. Robinson seemed to slip away, but right into the grasp of several teammates. There was applause from the crowd when it was announced the tackle was made by Sam, just as there was earlier when his name was mentioned because of his pressure.
The next game I’ll be more focused and more relaxed.
Sam said he didn’t hear the applause, but was grateful for it. He knows this is just the first step in trying to make the roster, which won’t be easy on such a defensive-line rich team. He’s also glad to be helped by those experienced linemates, including defensive end Chris Long.
"He was giving me some pointers, some techniques I could use against the tackle (Thomas Welch) I was going against," Sam said. "He gave me some good advice."
Said Long: "I told him once you show him one move, he’s going to be sitting on it, expecting it, so just to set things up and maybe come back with power or something like that. Pass rush is a fluid thing; it’s constantly changing through the game. You set your moves up. He’ll get more opportunities to learn that as he goes, just like a lot of these young rushers. It’s not like practice. It’s a game and you’re learning a new opponent."
Now, it’s about learning from this game and preparing for the next. But he’s glad to get the butterflies out.
"I did get those butterflies out early," he admitted. "Going out in that tunnel, there were some goose bumps. That was amazing. The smoke, the flames; just amazing. During the national anthem, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the big stage.’ As a child I never thought I’d be here. After I took my first snap, I felt this was a dream come true.
"The next game I’ll be more focused and more relaxed."
Now, he is also focused on what’s important: Making the team. It seems clear that will have to be for his play on defense, not special teams. He was in just a handful of plays on kick blocks and as a blocker on kickoff returns.
"Michael is a defensive end," Fisher said. "He plays defensive end with his hand down. It’s rare to find a defensive end playing special teams in the National Football League. They don’t do it. It’s the linebackers that do it and all the other position groups that do it. We have one that’s unique on our team right now. Gene Sims plays right guard on our punt team. He’s done it since he got here. And he’s done it very, very well.
"If Michael can find a way onto the core group of special teams, in which we are going to give him every opportunity to do so, that will help his opportunity to make this team. But there’s not a lot of defensive ends that play special teams."
That message has been sent loud and clear, contrary to some misguided perception. It won’t be special teams that lands Michael Sam a roster spot on the Rams. It will be his ability to play defensive end.
He has three more games to show that potential.
Howard Balzer can be heard daily on H & Friends from 9-11 a.m. on FoxSportsRadio 1490.