Montreal Alouettes' Michael Sam plays first CFL game, quietly makes history as first openly gay player

Montreal Alouettes' Michael Sam plays first CFL game, quietly makes history as first openly gay player


It was about whether Michael Sam is ready for the CFL — not if pro football is ready for him.

Friday's debut of the Canadian Football League's first openly gay player had a certain low-keyness as Sam played 12 snaps at rush end, with no tackles, during the Montreal Alouettes' penultimate-minute 26-23 loss to the Ottawa Redblacks. One would have to be very blinkered and/or threatened by discussion about inclusiveness in pro sports to deny the significance of Sam playing. It is not for nothing the Als kept the media in the dark about their dress roster on Thursday. Only 14 months ago, two CFL players, including one whom Sam lined up against Friday, apologized for hostile tweets about him being drafted by the NFL's St. Louis Rams amid a sports-meets-sociopolitics firestorm. Concomitantly, it is no shock that a 6-foot-2, 260-pound athlete with the immense skill to have been 2013 Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year is now testing it at a higher level.

For now, Sam is another CFL defensive-line neophyte adapting to that yard off the ball and 65-yard-wide field, among other oddball Canadian rules. For both the rookie and those who were/are resistant to the idea of him playing, it's about football, refreshingly enough. Far from being the "sideshow" one Montreal radio personality described him as while tweeting during the game, Sam's post-game comments were team-first boilerplate.

"It was a football game, it was a tough loss for us," Sam, who had nearly one interviewer around him per down played after the Alouettes (2-4) fell two games behind the Redblacks (4-2) in the East Division. "This team is going through some adversity right now. We need to come together next week and come together as a team, to bounce back. Only the great teams can fight through adversity. We have a chance to have something special here."

Alouettes players rallied around the 25-year-old Texan on the sidelines during those last minutes of anticipation before kickoff in front of a sellout crowd of 24,534. Sam was also animated, practically jumping off the bench after veteran receiver S.J. Green made a highlight-reel 33-yard catch in the first quarter.

"It's a football game; I love football," Sam added. "When we make good plays, I'm going to cheer. When we make bad plays, I'm going to get pissed off. It's a game.

"I was focusing on  my performance. My assignments were what I was focused on. I won't lie; there were some big jitters on that first drive. As the game went on, I thought I played well. I didn't really get many opportunities to make some plays but I thought I had some good pass rushes. But close enough is not a sack. Hopefully we put this game aside and focus on Edmonton [which Montreal hosts on Aug. 13]."

It's a game was an apt phrase. There was no murmur with 4:58 left in the first quarter when Sam jogged on to the field with 11 teammtes during a TV timeout as Ottawa readied to scrimmage from its 35-yard line following a Montreal single on a missed field goal. Sam's first official CFL pass rush was against 6-foot-4, 319-pound left tackle SirVincent Rogers, who kept him at bay while Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris completed a shallow cross to Ernest Jackson for six yards. He rushed from left end three more times against right tackle Colin Kelly, who's 6-5 and 298, before Ottawa stalled and punted. Sam showed a good burst off the ball, but with that longer neutral zone, both tackles were able to push him beyond the protective pocket around Burris.

"In practice, it's different getting used to that," said Sam, who was a Dallas Cowboys practice squadder in 2014 after playing NFL preseason games with St. Louis. "Game speed is different than practice speed. Does that make sense?"

Sam was in for a two-and-out midway through the second quarter that consisted of a pitchout run away from him and an incompletion. He also worked in during the Als' second defensive series of the third quarter, subbing in on a play where Burris completed a play-action pass to fullback Patrick Lavoie for a touchdown and a 17-12 lead.

Alouettes coach Tom Higgins, who had said Sam would debut either against Ottawa or Edmonton, visibly brightened when asked about the rookie. If anything, it was a diversion from having to talk about how Montreal was beaten both by Ottawa and those old football bugaboos, penalties and turnovers, including two dubious Rakeem Cato interceptions.

"It's nice that he got his feet wet," Higgins said. "I was actually asked at halftime [during a radio interview] about him, which was rather interesting. You don't really get a feel for any a single individual. You really watch it as a whole. He got his first game behind him and hopefully it's not as big as a story and when he plays next week, hopefully he'll be even better when he will get a chance to play against Edmonton."

Adapting from the narrower gap betwene the offensive and defensive lines in American football to the one-yard restraining zone in the CFL is tough. But Sam does have similar physical specs to current Miami Dolphins contributor Cameron Wake, who came of age as a pass rusher with the B.C. Lions.

"It is an adjustment that quite a few athletes can make, some better than others," Higgins said. "It's going to be fun to sit back and see whether he can be better than he was on his first outing."

So that was that, in what was a seminal 24 hours for progressive forces and football. In the span of a newcycle, Arian Foster, a NFL star based in the buckle of the Bible Belt, acknowledged his atheism. The CFL rolled out a comprehensive policy regarding violence against women, lest it look as callous as the NFL has with its handling of the likes of Ray Rice and Aldon Smith. Thirdly, Michael Sam, who once said "(t)elling the world I'm gay is nothing" compared to the loneliness and isolation that were his childhood reality in rural Texas, suited up for a football game.

It's in line with the developed world getting smaller, making it easier to call out inequities and double standards. Part of football's pull, whether it's three downs and 12 players or four and 11, is that requires so many diverse personalities, each one of whom is fighting his own unique battle, to work toward one shared goal.

The big takeaway on Friday was that Michael Sam wanted that goal, which was the W. That was the grand political statement.

"My family is my team," he said. "Hopefully we get past this loss.

"It's a new game," he added as the media scrum moved en masse toward another corner of the Als' dressing room. "A new sport."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger.