Even the truest fans will admit the NFL Draft can be a drawn-out dog and pony show (just where the dogs and ponies are the size of T-Rexes). People will watch maybe the first round to see where the best-known college players wind up, but tune out once the marquee names are called.
This was not the case in 2014, when the “most-watched draft ever,” according to ESPN, had more drama than a “Real Housewives” catfight.
First, there was the suspense over who would be the very first picks—specifically Texas A&M quarterback and 2012-13 Heisman winner Johnny “Johnny Football” Manziel.
But a defensive player got the nod from Houston as first pick overall: South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, best known for one of the most exciting hits ever made in college football.
And Johnny Football? He waited. And waited. And waited. Even the Dallas Cowboys, for whom he was rumored a lock, passed. Manziel finally found his new home with Cleveland in the 22nd Round.
The story took another interesting turn the following day, when it was announced the Browns’ top receiver Josh Gordon faced a season-long suspension for marijuana use. The other Browns receiver, Nate Burleson, currently has a fractured arm. So the beleaguered Browns fans, who have had only two winning seasons since 1999, will have to wait and see.
But like any good reality show, the biggest story of all came at the very end. Missouri’s Michael Sam, Defensive Player of the Year for the Southeastern Conference (SEC, considered the most competitive college league) would seem a sensible early-round pick.
But Sam is also openly gay. And his February NFL Combine performance—where potential rookies demonstrate their speed and strength in really tight underwear—was also lacking. Sam became the first SEC defensive player of the year since 2006 not to be taken in the first round. His Missouri teammate Kony Ealy was chosen in the second round by the Carolina Panthers.
Was it his performance? Was it his sexual orientation? No one knew for sure as round after round went by, and Sam waited by the phone.
In the seventh and final round, finally the call came. Sam was selected by the St. Louis Rams as the 249th pick overall—and the first ever openly gay professional football player. He nearly collapsed with emotion as he cried and kissed his boyfriend on national television. Other ESPN cameras showed fans at gay bars celebrating. (I sense a Saturday Night Live skit coming on this one.) Only seven more players were chosen, then the draft was over.
Coincidentally that night, the Brooklyn Nets’ Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player, shared his support of Sam, then helped the Nets defeat the Miami Heat in a playoff game. Social media also went bonkers for Sam with celebrities, new teammates and respected athletes showing their support, including Deion Sanders, hall of fame Rams running back Erick Dickerson, and President Obama.
“I’m using every ounce of this to achieve greatness!!” tweeted Sam.
But he wasn’t completely nice.
“I knew I was going to get picked somewhere,” he said. “Every team that passed me, I was thinking how I’m going to sack their quarterback.”
Will he make it? Who knows. Just being drafted does not guarantee you a spot on the 53-man roster. And last season’s Miami Dolphins bullying scandal shed light on what might really go on behind locker room doors, even among straight players.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher fully supports Sam, noting that the Rams actually signed an African-American football player a year before Jackie Robinson entered major league baseball. Fisher believes the Rams, near Columbia, Mo. where Sam went to college, are the perfect fit and does not expect tension.
“We’re in an age of diversity,” he said. “Players understand that. They know that.”
Had Sam not been drafted, he could have signed as a free agent and attended a team’s training camp (roughly a third of NFL players last year were undrafted).
But the fact that he was drafted—even though so late in the draft I expected Jeff Probst to pop out and issue Sam some “Survivor” challenge—it’s a good sign the NFL can overlook the possible distraction his sexual orientation may cause and focus on the skills Sam, and eventually others like him, bring to the rainbow-colored table.