After debut, Michael Sam says 'I can play in this league'

Michael Sam #96 of the St. Louis Rams pass rushes against the New Orleans Saints in a preseason...

Michael Sam #96 of the St. Louis Rams pass rushes against the New Orleans Saints in a preseason game at the Edward Jones Dome on August 8, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images/AFP)

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, Last Updated: 3:47 PM ET

The St. Louis Rams opened their preseason schedule with a 26-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints on a night when 18 players including nine starters did not dress because of mostly minor injuries.

There was a solid performance by backup quarterback Shaun Hill, an interception by defensive end Chris Long and the usual first-game assortment of missed tackles and penalties.

Amid all that was the professional debut, albeit in a preseason game, of rookie defensive end Michael Sam, the first openly gay person to play in a NFL game.

Since being drafted on May 10, Sam has been a part of a probable record of five press conferences for a seventh-round pick. Friday night's media in attendance included reporters from USA Today, NFL Network, ESPN, Yahoo! Sports and Outsports.com.

The magnitude of the moment wasn't lost on Sam, although most of the pregame jitters he felt was simply because it was his first NFL game no matter his sexual orientation.

Asked whether he had any butterflies, he said he did, adding, "I did get those butterflies out early. Going out in that tunnel, there were some goose bumps. That was amazing. The smoke, the flames; just amazing. During the national anthem, I thought, 'Wow, this is the big stage.' As a child I never thought I'd be here. After I took my first snap, I felt this was a dream come true.

"The next game I'll be more focused and more relaxed."

When asked about making history and whether he tried to block that out at all or if he just embraced the moment, Sam said simply, "I was focusing in on the guy in front of me."

Sam acquitted himself well in the 35-plus snaps he was on the field with the defense.

Said coach Jeff Fisher the day after the game, "Mike played pretty well, got tired as well. But, he was in the 35- to 39-play range. Played with effort, made some mistakes. I would expect him to play much better this week after he gets whatever it is behind him like the rest of the rookie class, first-year guys. First preseason game is a little nerve wracking but I think he'll settle down."

Sam entered the game at left end for the first time with 4:57 left in the first quarter. When he left the game with 5:04 remaining in the third quarter, he didn't return. But he was glad to get this game behind him.

Asked if he considered this a successful debut, Sam said, "The hardest critic is going to be myself. I could have done a little bit better, but I'm not mad about my first game. I know I could have done better."

Sam was able to get some pressure on the Saints' quarterbacks, and was disappointed he wasn't able to take advantage of two sack opportunities.

On one, where he did a good spin move and chased quarterback Ryan Griffin toward the sideline, he said, "I should have dove at his legs earlier."

On the other, he appeared to a have clear path to Griffin, but slowed down and almost stopped. He explained, "I thought it was a screen. I think he thought it was a screen, but then thought, 'Oh crap, I'm going to throw this away.'"

With 12:05 remaining in the second quarter, Sam officially got his name on the statistics sheet as he was credited with a tackle, grabbing running back Khiry Robinson by the legs. Robinson seemed to slip away, but right into the grasp of several teammates. There was applause from the crowd when it was announced the tackle was made by Sam, just as there was earlier when his name was mentioned because of his pressure.

Sam said he didn't hear the applause, but was grateful for that being the case. He said, "I didn't really hear the crowd. When I'm in game mode, I'm in game mode, but if the crowd was yelling for me, that's cool."

He knows this is just the first step in trying to make the roster, which won't be easy on such a defensive-line rich team. He's also glad to be helped by those experienced linemates.

Asked about a conversation he had with defensive end Chris Long, Sam said, "He was giving me some pointers, some technique I could use against the tackle (Thomas Welch) I was going against. He gave me some good advice."

Said Long, "I told him once you show him one move, he's going to be sitting on it, expecting it, so just to set things up and maybe come back with power or something like that. Pass rush is a fluid thing; it's constantly changing through the game. You set your moves up. He'll get more opportunities to learn that as he goes, just like a lot of these young rushers. It's not like practice. It's a game and you're learning a new opponent."

One persistent notion is that Sam's ability to make the 53-man roster could hinge on special teams. However, against the Saints, he played a few snaps as a blocker on kickoff returns and some on the kick-block unit. Fisher put a damper on the idea that Sam could be a strong coverage player.

Fisher said, "Michael is a defensive end. 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. It's the linebackers that do it and all the other position groups that do it. We have one that's unique on our team right now. Gene Sims plays right guard on our punt team. He's done it since he got here. And he's done it very very well.

"If Michael can find a way onto the core group of special teams, in which we are going to give him every opportunity to do so, that will help his opportunity to make this team. But there's not a lot of defensive ends that play special teams."

Sam knows he has to make an impact as a pass rusher, and he will have to show he can do that against top blockers, not backups. But for now, he is pleased with his first game and was clear about one thing.

When asked what he took away from his debut, Sam said, "That I can play in this league; that's the most important thing. I was kind of nervous. I got the nerves out today. It was a very good learning experience ... but I can play in this league."

 


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