The St. Louis Rams made history Saturday selecting Michael Sam with the 249th pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
The synergy of the Rams franchise selecting this seventh-round pick is perfect, in many ways. As difficult as the road traveled for Sam has been — he burst into tears upon receiving the call that he was to become a Ram and the first openly gay man selected by the NFL — this pick simply makes sense on many levels.
Jeff Fisher, a seventh-round pick himself in 1981 is the right man for the job to handle this unprecedented occasion for the NFL. Entering into his 19th season as a head coach, Fisher also sits on the competition committee, further ascending his status from all the other coaches in the league.
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Fisher, who molds every team after his own standup-yet-tenacious personality that focuses on talent and character, couldn’t be a better coach to be in such a position with the first openly gay active player in NFL history.
The Rams have a connection with history on another front: Fisher mentioned that the franchise made another memorable selection 68 years ago when it signed Kenny Washington in 1946. Washington, a UCLA Bruin like me, became the first African-American to play in the NFL. In doing so, he actually played a year ahead of another Bruin, Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
I was in communication with Sam and his team throughout the draft process. The stress level was high and grew with each selection. The elevated stress won’t evaporate with Sam being drafted. However, the team that selected the 6-2, 255-pound linebacker/defensive end offers the comforts of home.
Sam will be playing in Missouri, the state where he went to college. The Show Me State loves Michael Sam and has supported him as he lived his truth in the public eye.
First-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known for maximizing the talent of his defenses. Williams implements a specialized system where players are used for situational football based on their skill set. Sam initially will not be used to cover running back or tights unless he proves proficient at this task, something he didn’t do in college. Right now he is seen as a situational pass rusher in the NFL as well as a special teams player. You can anticipate this is where Williams will utilize him. Along with great coaching, Sam will have standout players like Robert Quinn and Chris Long to help him mold his game.
The NFC West is ultra-competitive. Playing the 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals two times each, it will help to have thinkers such as Richard Sherman, Vernon Davis, and Larry Fitzgerald in his division setting a standard for fairness and critical thinking in the NFL.
What can Michael expect from his own teammates? The Rams are a young team, one of the youngest, if not the youngest in the league. That works in the favor of both Sam and his teammates as this generation of athletes continues to be open and progressive in many ways.
Fisher will hold a team meeting addressing and acknowledging acceptable behavior and language in the locker room. The coach stated he will address this issue with the veteran players this week before all the rookies arrive and he doesn’t anticipate it being a problem. The end-all, be-all is about getting back to football. Taking care of this watershed moment in a proper way so athletes can be the best players they can be and play the game they love regardless of race, religion, and sexual orientation is paramount.
The hard part isn’t over yet. Michael Sam has been chosen by the St. Louis Rams as the first openly gay athlete in the NFL. The challenges will continue and the stakes will keep getting higher and higher. Michael Sam must continue to use the work ethic and dedication that have brought him to this point to make him a successful NFL player.