Michael Sam leaves Alouettes for personal reasons; will he be back?

Michael Sam, newly signed defensive end for the Montreal Alouettes CFL football team talks with defensive line coach Keith Willis during rookie training camp in Sherbrooke, Quebec May 27, 2015. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

The story of Michael Sam, the first openly-gay player in the CFL, took an unusual twist Friday afternoon. Sam didn't appear for the team's workout (to the apparent surprise of head coach Tom Higgins), and was later spotted in the airport by Montreal radio broadcaster Rick Moffat. Moffat tweeted that Sam said he was heading home to Texas for personal reasons, but only had a small bag with him, suggesting he wasn't leaving for good:

Sam's agent, California-based Joe Barkett, told Herb Zurkowsky of The Montreal Gazette that Sam missed Thursday's practice as well with a migraine headache, but appeared at Thursday night's meetings. It seems highly unusual that Sam would leave without talking to Higgins, but Higgins said after Friday's practice that "“This surprises me right now. I thought he would have been out here." Perhaps Sam discussed this with Als' GM Jim Popp and Popp didn't pass the message along to Higgins quickly. In any case, this is certainly unusual, and it could even potentially lead to Sam's exit from the CFL.

If there's a legitimate personal reason for Sam to return home (and there's no reason to think there isn't), CFL teams are often pretty good about letting players go to do what they need to do, but that still means that Sam's task of adapting to the Canadian game gets even more difficult with the practices and pre-season games (the Alouettes' first one is Saturday) he'll be missing. While Sam is an excellent CFL prospect given his college and pro production, adjusting to the Canadian game can be difficult for anyone, and perhaps especially so for defensive linemen given the full-yard neutral zone and the different responsibilities of the position. The Alouettes also had nine defensive linemen in camp, so there was plenty of competition at the position to start with, and Sam was initially taking reps with the third team, so he's far from indispensable.

None of this means that Sam's CFL career is definitively done. As Moffat reported, he didn't seem to be abandoning the team for good, and the Alouettes have substantial on-field (his production in the college and NFL ranks, his seemingly-perfect fit as a CFL edge rusher) and off-field (he's drawn more positive attention to them than anyone else, and cutting him would make for a wave of awful publicity) reasons to keep him around if he wants to return. This does mean that Sam is much less likely to play a big role with Montreal for at least the first few games of the season, though, as the practices and games he's missing are incredibly valuable learning opportunities. We'll see what this proves to be about and when (or if) he returns, and it may prove to be only a slight bump in the road for him. It's certainly an unusual occurence, though, and one that may not bode well for Sam's CFL career.

Update: The team issued a statement on Sam Friday afternoon:

The Montreal Alouettes organization would like to clarify the situation surrounding international defensive end Michael Sam. Friday morning, Michael asked the team a special permission to leave training camp and return home for personal reasons.

With all due respect for Michael Sam, the nature of this decision will remain confidential.

The Montreal Alouettes fully respect Michael Sam's decision and rally around him to offer him all time and support needed. The team has left the door open and Michael is welcome to come back whenever he feels ready.

The organization will have no further comment on this matter at this time.

That makes it clear that Sam did ask for and receive permission to return home, and that's positive for his CFL future. It's also positive that the team sounds enthusiastic about his potential return. However, the time he misses may still affect his chances of being an effective contributor at the CFL level. We'll see how this plays out.