There are two contrasting elements in the story of Michael Sam coming to the CFL; his indisputable status as a trailblazer, the first openly-gay player ever to play in the league, and his desire to be treated as any other football player. Both were on display in Sam's introductory press conference in Montreal Tuesday, as he embraced the support he's received from the LGBT community and talked about how he wants to be an inspiration off the field, but also downplayed his role as a trailblazer and tried to fit in as just another football player.
It's smart of Sam to try and keep his own comments focused on football, as that should help him fit in with the Alouettes (and should alleviate some of the "He'll be a distraction!" criticism), but at the same time, he needs to know that the storylines about him being the first openly-gay CFL player aren't going anywhere, as that's what creates much of the interest in his story. Sam's wise to not try and play up that trailblazer role, instead letting the media do it for him, but that role is an essential part of the story here and cannot be ignored.
The perfect example of this came in the very first question Sam was asked Tuesday, about how some have compared him to Jackie Robinson (who played with the triple-A Montreal Royals in 1946 en route to breaking Major League Baseball's colour barrier the following season). Sam acknowledged the importance of Robinson, but downplayed the comparison, saying he isn't out to make history.
"Firrst off, Jackie Robinson was a baseball player," Sam said. "I'm a football player. African-Americans look at Jackie Robinson breaking barriers with regards to race. I'm just here to play football. I'm not trying to really do anything historic here by being with Montreal, I'm just trying to help the team win some games so we can bring the Grey Cup back home."
Whether he embraces it or not, though, Sam is doing something historic. It's highly unlikely he's the first gay player in the CFL, but he's the first openly-gay player, and that puts in him right in with the league's long history of trailblazers. Sam's smart not to reinforce the Jackie Robinson comparisons (if he did that, he would undoubtedly take plenty of criticism for daring to compare himself to a legend), but he's also not just your typical football player. It seems he realizes that, too, as evidenced by his comments about if he would do anything differently.
"I have no regrets whatsoever," Sam said. "I'm happy with what I've done in the past year. I've helped so many people and given them so much inspiration."
He said he plans to continue with that, but his focus is on football first.
"When I'm not training, I'm doing whatever I can to inspire people and help people," he said. "If you ever see me walking downtown, please stop me and say hello."
Sam also took the high road when it came to a question about the NFL's current lack of interest in him, making him the only one of 89 drafted NCAA power conference defensive MVPs in the last 20 years not to make an active NFL roster in his rookie season. He smartly didn't give the NFL an out for their treatment of him or buy into the myth that he's not capable enough for that league, but didn't publicly blast the NFL either.
"I can't answer that question," Sam said. "All I know is that the 2013 co-SEC defensive player of the year is up here now, and that's all that matters."
Some point to testing results as to why Sam didn't stick in the NFL, with Sportsnet's Arash Madani writing that the NFL's coaches only discriminated against Sam because "he just couldn’t play their game at the NFL level right now." That comparison falls flat when you look at the numerous players with inferior college resumes, inferior testing numbers and inferior preseason production to Sam who have been determined to be able to "play their game at the NFL level," though. Critics also love pointing out Sam's 5.07-second 40 time at the NFL's inaugural veterans' combine this year, substantially below the best of 4.71 seconds he clocked at his pro day, but that disregards how those veterans' combine times were slow across the board thanks to a different methodology than the typical combine. At any rate, Sam had a good response when asked about his 40 time Tuesday.
""I was told I'd never have to run the 40 again after my pro day, so I'm not surprised those were down," Sam said. "If defensive linemen have to run 40 yards to catch someone, that's pretty bad."
He's quite right there, as the 40 is a flawed metric that's often given too much credence. It has benefited the CFL greatly over the years, though, as this is a league that's excelled at finding talented football players the NFL doesn't want for one reason or another. Alouettes' general manager Jim Popp knows that better than most, as he's been building great CFL rosters since 1994 with Baltimore (which moved to Montreal in 1996). Popp said Tuesday that poor measurables have helped him grab some incredible players after the NFL passed on them.
"What we're always doing is trying to find someone who's a great football player who doesn't have all the measurables the NFL looks for," Popp said.
Another element there is size. Some consider Sam to be undersized at 6'2'', 261 pounds. Popp said that did make Sam stand out, but doesn't diminish his talent.
"Michael's not your typical-sized rush end, although he's as good as any of them are rushing the passer."
Sam said that his size didn't make him any less effective in the NFL, either.
"My size fits as a pass-rusher," he said. "I led my team in the preseason in the NFL in sacks. It doesn't matter where I'm at, I'm a pass-rusher."
Popp added that although he scouted Sam in college and had interest in him for several years, he didn't think it was likely the NFL would pass on him.
"I really didn't know if he ever would come north of the border," Popp said. "Someone who is the MVP of a league or a conference like the SEC is more likely to be under an NFL contract in some capacity."
Sam isn't, though, and so the CFL has an NFL-calibre talent. Now, that doesn't automatically mean he'll be successful; plenty have tried and failed to make the NFL to CFL transition, and it can be particularly difficult for defensive linemen, who have to adjust to being a full yard off the ball. Sam's versatility will also come into question; some don't think he's that strong against the run, and while rushing the passer's even more important in the pass-happy CFL, he'll need to be capable enough against running backs to stay on the field. Sam's also in a new city and a new country, but he said he's eager to learn about both. Perhaps most importantly, and most auspiciously for his CFL career, though, he said he's not focused on what went wrong in the NFL, and he's not focused on getting back there.
"I'm focused on Montreal," he said. "I'm here now."
It's not going to be an easy road ahead for Sam. In addition to the challenges of adjusting to a new team, league, city and country, he has to deal with the spotlight that will follow him thanks to his trailblazing status. He may want to be viewed as just a football player, and it's possible that he'll be treated that way inside the Alouettes' locker room (he said his conversations with teammates so far have been very positive and football-focused), but he's going to draw media attention for reasons that go beyond the football field. Tuesday's conference suggested he knows how to handle that, though; keep his focus on the field, and let others talk about the social elements for him. Sam's smart to not give credence to the criticisms of his play, which speaks for itself, and he's smart to not try and get everyone to ignore the trailblazing story. So far, he's walked the line well between football player and trailblazer. We'll see if that continues under the media spotlight this season.