ST. LOUIS -- As if from an assembly line, the labels have been thrown at Michael Sam.
Since Sam announced publicly that he’s gay in an interview with ESPN in February, he’s heard them all. He has been called a pioneer and trailblazer. He has been compared to Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks and Kenny Washington.
But the St. Louis Rams rookie defensive end isn’t as interested in living up to a label as he is attaining an occupation. Every time he has been asked about helping current or future gay athletes or his legacy, his response is the same.
"I'm a football player," Sam has said again and again.
The refrain has remained the same since before Sam, who started playing football in seventh grade, and was drafted by St. Louis in May. His natural intensity, chance to develop by playing linebacker in high school and college choice all factored into his development. Sam hopes to take the next step, impressing the Rams enough to make the roster.
Sam remains on the roster after the team made the necessary moves to get to the league maximum of 75 players Tuesday afternoon. He will get his final chance to make an impression against the Dolphins on Thursday.
“Michael is making plays,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ve moved people around and because of the flow of the game we played guys a little bit long so he didn’t get as many reps as we would have liked. He’ll probably get plenty of time to play this week.”
Before Sam knew he was going to play football, the head coach and defensive coordinator at Hitchcock (Texas) High were well aware. By the time Sam was in seventh grade, coach Craig Smith and defensive coordinator Morris Tuck had made plans for his arrival.
According to Smith, Sam was a head taller than the rest of his classmates, not to mention a few steps faster. Tuck also knew Sam came from good athletic genes after seeing two of Sam’s older brothers play sports before him.
“Obviously Michael stood out,” Smith said. “He was a big kid, super friendly, kind of loud, fun-loving kind of kid and he just stuck out.”
When Sam arrived at the high school, bigger than most of his 300-plus classmates, he only had a couple of years of junior high football under his belt but there was little doubt he’d start on varsity. After some experimenting with Sam as a ball carrier, the coaching staff settled on defensive tackle, adding offensive tackle duties as a sophomore.
“A huge part of it was effort and intensity,” Tuck said. “Michael is a guy that turns on a different switch on Friday nights. The intensity was just what really made him stand out early on.”
Sam was also faster, regularly outrunning skill position players in drills. For the better part of his first two seasons, he got by on speed and effort.
During his sophomore season, Tuck experimented with using Sam as an inside linebacker during summer seven-on-seven tournaments around the state. He was athletic enough to get by at inside linebacker but coaches decided it wasn’t where he was best suited. Still, it offered the chance to see the game from a different perspective. Sam got a better understanding of gap control and other mental aspects of diagnosing plays. When he moved back to defensive tackle, Sam carried those lessons.
Any doubt about Sam’s talent was erased on Oct. 4, 2008. That was the night Class 2A Hitchcock hosted 5A Houston power Chavez High. A defensive lineman by the name of Michael Brockers, who was one of the top-rated players in the state and headed to LSU, led Chavez.
Brockers hadn’t grown to the 6-foot-5, 326-pound behemoth he is now -- as Sam’s Rams teammate. But he had 15 pounds and a couple of inches on Sam at the time.
Playing offensive tackle, Sam was charged with blocking Brockers, who played defensive end. Brockers managed a sack against Sam, but for the most part, the future teammates played to a draw.
”He was clearly the main guy and they kept me at bay with just him following me,” Brockers said. “He would switch the line before the play and follow me wherever I go. For the most part, he did a great job. Everywhere I went there was Michael Sam, right there.”
Sam’s performance led to early interest from schools such as Houston, Colorado State and Iowa State. Soon enough, Arizona State, Baylor and Missouri began calling.
“That night left little doubt that either he could play big-time college football or Michael Brockers was way overrated, one of the two,” Smith said. “Obviously the second part of that wasn’t true.”
Though the Tigers got into the bidding late, Sam chose Missouri. And with the move from Texas to Columbia, Missouri, his maturation process began.
For all the progress Sam had made on the field, his high school coaches believed college would help him grow as a player and a man. College would provide stability and a support system to help him thrive.
“As you get him up here, you get into a little bit more of the day-to-day things going on in his life,” Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “So to help him continue to grow and mature not only physically but emotionally and mentally. That was a big process for Mike and it is for a lot of guys in terms of trusting people and doing the right things and being responsible and accountable.”
Kuligowski is known for getting the most out of underrated players with upside. Sam was rated as the nation’s No. 75 defensive end by ESPN’s recruiting nation and Rivals.com gave him two out of five stars.
The Tigers have made a habit of molding those kinds of recruits into NFL players, especially defensive linemen. Eight former Missouri defensive linemen are currently in the NFL and most haven’t been highly touted prospects like reigning NFL defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson. Defensive tackle Ziggy Hood, a three-star recruit in 2004, became a first-round pick in 2009.
Sam was raw when he arrived in Columbia but wasted little time making an impression. The first order of business was moving Sam to defensive end, which meant a crash course on technique.
“It was just constant, probably tiring work on fundamentals and hand movement and working coming off the corner and all the different things that a well-coached defensive end does,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Because he has great work ethic, he just kept working and working and working and gotten better and better.”
After a redshirt season spent in the weight room, Sam had seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception, a safety and a blocked kick in his first season. He followed with solid sophomore and junior seasons, in which he developed a knack for coming up with big plays at opportune moments, including a last-minute interception to preserve a win against Texas Tech.
Sam burst onto the scene his senior season. He put on the weight and muscle his upper body lacked and weighed in at 255 pounds, important gains for a player transitioning to the more physical Southeastern Conference. Still, nobody predicted Sam would become an All-American and co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, when he racked up 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
“Would I have ever guessed after his junior year that he could play at that level? I would have questioned that,” Pinkel said. “I thought he could be a really, really good player. Could he be a great player? I thought he could be, but I think he was a pleasant surprise for everybody. But his focus that last year was at a whole different level than I had ever seen.”
Through three preseason games, Sam has five tackles, including three sacks. Two of those sacks came against Browns rookie Johnny Manziel on Saturday. Sam mimicked Manziel’s “money sign” after the first play.
"If you're going to sack Johnny, you've got to do that once," Sam said.
But unlike Manziel, Sam isn’t guaranteed to make the 53-man roster when final cuts are made on Saturday. While Sam hasn’t been overwhelmed by the players across from him and has made enough plays to at least raise some eyebrows, it’s a numbers game with the Rams.
The top eight defensive linemen for the Rams -- Chris Long, Robert Quinn, William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Aaron Donald and Alex Carrington -- are virtually locked in. Undrafted free agent Ethan Westbrooks is competing with Sam for a ninth spot if the Rams decide to go deeper.
“The roster may look a little bit different than years past because we may have more depth at one position,” Fisher said. “We may go a little heavier at one position versus another position. So [players] can’t waste their time trying to figure out what’s going to happen because things can change on a daily basis.”
No longer the biggest, strongest or fastest, Sam’s biggest task is refining his pass-rush moves. One NFC scout referred to Sam as a “chase player,” explaining he can get by on guile and effort but doesn’t have much in the way of pass-rush moves or counters.
Sam has worked with defensive line coach Mike Waufle to develop those moves in training camp. He is also attempting to contribute on special teams after playing a little early in college. Both transitions are challenging but it’s the mix of Sam’s ability to do both that will determine his fate with the Rams.
"Michael is a defensive end," Rams coach Jeff 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.
“If Michael can find a way into the core group of special teams, and we're going to give him every opportunity to do that, then that's going to help his chances of making this team."
“I’m a football player,” Sam said. “This is football. It feels natural.”
Being a football player has come easy for Sam. Staying one is his next challenge.