ST. LOUIS -- Like most rookies playing in their first NFL game, St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam was nervous as he ran down the tunnel before the preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints.
But by the time his night was complete, Sam walked away with plenty of takeaways -- none more meaningful than this:
"That I can play in this league," Sam said. "That's the most important. I was kind of nervous. I got some nerves out today. It was a very good learning experience, and I can play in this league."
Sam entered the game with 5 minutes, 13 seconds to go in the first quarter and in the process became the first openly gay player in league history to participate in a preseason game. Now that the preseason is here, Sam is finally getting his long-awaited opportunity to simply play football and prove whether he belongs in between the white lines.
After entering the game, Sam, who lined up at left defensive end, played the rest of the first half and about halfway through the third quarter.
At first glance, there were some good moments.
"Mike played hard," coach Jeff Fisher said. "I didn't watch him individually but I saw him on the hurry and the great effort outside the pocket. Saw him on a couple other plays. He slid down and made a play in the run game that stood out. We'll watch the tape and see how he did."
And, of course, there were plays that Sam would like to have back.
"I could have got two sacks, but one sack I thought was a screen and it wasn't," Sam said. "I was upset."
The unofficial press box statistics had Sam down for one tackle and one quarterback hurry, the two plays Fisher mentioned specifically in his instant reaction to Sam's debut. Those plays also drew rousing ovations from the home crowd when Sam's name was announced.
Beyond the contributions to the defense, Sam also got some work on special teams. He got a couple of reps as a blocker on kickoff return and a few more on the kick-block units.
With other contenders for a potential ninth defensive lineman roster spot, such as Ethan Westbrooks (three tackles) and Sammy Brown (two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry), flashing their ability, Sam's best route to the roster is still through combining potential as a pass-rusher with special-teams contributions.
Asked about Sam's progress on special teams after the game, Fisher made it clear that what he's attempting to do isn't easy.
"Michael is a defensive end," Fisher said. "It's rare to find a defensive end playing special teams in the NFL. They don't do it. It's the linebackers that do it, all the other positions do it If Michael can find a way into the core group of special teams -- and we will give him every opportunity to do so -- that's going to help his opportunity to make this team. Again, there's not a lot of defensive ends that play on special teams."
All in all, Sam wasn't upset about his debut performance but came away wanting more.
"The hardest critic is me, myself," Sam said. "I think I could have done a little bit better. I'm not mad about my first game, but I know I could have done better."
With the first preseason game out of the way, Sam will have three more chances to prove not only that he can play in the league but that he can do it on the Rams roster.