CLEVELAND -- As defensive end Michael Sam prepares to hear his name called some time during the NFL draft next week, he continues to draw support from peers, including several Hall of Famers, who applauded his decision to reveal his sexuality.
In predicting the type of support he expects Sam will receive once he enters the NFL, Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson drew on his own experience of playing with former offensive lineman Roy Simmons, who in 1992 announced he was gay on the Phil Donahue Show.
"I played years ago, and back in the early '80s, I played with a player named Roy Simmons," Carson said. "There was some speculation that Roy was gay. That never swayed anyone's opinion of him, the way that he played the game. It's something he lived with, but he didn't necessarily have to live with that by himself because he had teammates that were guys that supported him. He never said anything. We're a team, and guys on the team, they're going to support their teammate regardless of how they choose to live their life. I was a captain on that team and would have made certain that nothing would have happened; not on my watch."
Sam, an All-American defensive lineman at Missouri, said in a February interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that he is "an openly, proud gay man." If Sam is drafted, he'll become the first openly gay active player in the history of the NFL.
Hall of Fame cornerback Michael Haynes, speaking Saturday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan Fest, said the timing of Sam's decision to reveal his sexuality was ideal because the current generation of players, coaches, and personnel men seem to be more tolerant seems than those of previous generations.
"I think he'll get drafted. I think he'll have a great NFL career," Haynes said. "I think he's a very bold guy to come out, but the timing is good. If he would've come out in the '60s or '70s, things may be not so good because everybody was really struggling with how to understand differences like that in people. Diversity has become a critical topic. People are talking about it all the time. But I think the world is a different world."
Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders agreed.
"I assume there were gay guys [when I played]," Sanders said. "I've heard of guys that were gay back then. But certainly there's been a shift in public opinion and what have you. I'm assuming it may have been different [had a player come out during my career]."
Former Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell doesn't anticipate Sam experiencing difficulty with teammates in the NFL. But given all the diverse personalities in locker rooms around the league, Sam won't be immune to isolated incidents occurring here and there, Mitchell said.
"I'm not saying that some nut over in the corner just wanting to be an ass won't say something," Mitchell said. "You know how crazy we athletes are. And I know it was tough for him because he knows how crazy we are. He understands all that. It was tough for him to come out, I'm sure, because he doesn't know which faction is going to come out first. I don't think he's going to have any problem. I really don't, because guys have a tendency to say and do pretty well anything in the dressing room, and then they leave it alone. They don't take it out on the field. People have to understand the dressing room is home for athletes, and you get a lot of stuff coming out of there. That's why we try real hard not to bring the dressing room outside because the public can't understand; because we're saying and doing things that we wouldn't normally say and do."
The Hall of Famers agreed that ultimately, any judgment of Sam will be based on how he produces on field, not his sexuality. Hall of Fame cornerback Roger Wehrli, like Sam, played at the University of Missouri and expects teammates in the NFL to treat the defensive lineman the same way his peers at Mizzou did.
Werhli said Sam will "get along fine" in the NFL because in "locker rooms, people don't worry about your personal life as long as you produce on the field and you're a good teammate."
Sanders said most players, from the time they begin playing football, are ingrained with a single-minded focus that largely prevents them from worrying about what might take place outside the confines of the football field.
"That's well-ingrained in you," Sanders said. "I'm pretty sure that every guy in this league has been around gay individuals before. So I don't think that'll be much different."
Hall of Fame defensive end Fred Dean admitted that back when he played (1975-1985), Sam may have been viewed differently by peers around the league.
"They didn't look at it back in the day like they do today. With it being more open now and more in the limelight, I don't think they really put too much emphasis on [a player's sexuality] now," Dean said. "If you can play the game, get out there, take licks and give licks like anybody else, I don't see anything wrong with it."