The NFL at last has drafted its first openly gay player, and he'll be headed to St. Louis.
The Rams selected defensive end Michael Sam with pick No. 249 Saturday night, ending months of speculation to when – or if – Sam would hear his name called in the draft.
"Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis. I'm using every [ounce] of this to achieve greatness!!" Sam wrote on Twitter shortly after the draft ended Saturday night, while posting a picture of himself wearing a Rams ball cap and a huge grin.
Sam became the first openly gay athlete drafted into one of America's major professional sports leagues. Veteran NBA player Jason Collins came out last summer and plays for the New Jersey Nets.
Sam was drafted of the seventh and final round of the draft, and only seven players were drafted later.
"For Michael, it's a little bit of relief that it's over, and you can finally say you're part of the NFL family. That is a dream come true for so many football players. That's a realization that all his hard work has paid off," gay former NFL player Wade Davis, the executive director of the You Can Play Project, told USA TODAY Sports. "Now he can really start to focus on his new journey."
Sam, who allowed ESPN cameras to document his historic moment, began sobbing after receiving the phone call from the Rams. He hugged and kissed his boyfriend, whom Outsports.com identified as a man named Vito, in video that aired moments later on national television.
Sam was a first-team USA TODAY All-America selection at Missouri last fall after leading the SEC with 11.5 sacks. He did that after having announced his sexuality to his teammates prior to his senior year. It clearly wasn't an issue for the Tigers, who won the SEC East and the Cotton Bowl.
Sam's sexuality was big news three months ago, but his football acumen seemed to be more of an issue for NFL teams in the lead up to the draft. He was considered to be small by NFL standards, just 6-foot-2 and 252, and had a disappointing showing at the NFL scouting combine in February. His 40-yard dash was slow, at 4.91 seconds, and he didn't jump as high or lift as much as the top pass rushers in the class.
Sam's measurables improved at his pro day in Columbia, Mo. in March, and Sam was widely considered to be a third-day pick, with projections that he would come off the board anywhere in the later rounds of the draft.
"As much contact I've had with teams and owners and general managers over the past couple of months, I have no doubt that teams are evaluating him strictly on his football ability," Davis said. "That's not to say there aren't one or two that were scared off by it, but the vast majority of teams really are just saying hey, if this guy can help us win, and he has a body of work that we all respect, then we're going to take him."
Yet as Saturday afternoon turned to evening, and the seventh round began with Sam still undrafted, his status became the most compelling storyline in the final stage of the three-day draft.
ESPN, who had a camera with Sam in San Diego, had reporter Shelley Smith broadcasting live from a watch party at a gay bar in West Hollywood, while the hashtag #SamFans united Sam's supporters online.
"It's good that Michael Sam was drafted. I think there's still very much a problem in that it took for so long for it to happen. But, baby steps," former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, one of the first active players to publicly advocate for gay rights, told USA TODAY Sports.
With the Rams' decision to draft Sam, the NFL might be able to dodge serious questions that Sam's sexuality affected his draft status had all 32 teams passed on Sam.
Sam made his public announcement in February in a series of interviews with The New York Times and ESPN and then spoke about sexuality at a press conference at the combine in Indianapolis. He has largely avoided the spotlight since, eschewing interviews with large and small media outlets.
Sam spent draft weekend in San Diego, watching the draft unfold in private, inviting only one television camera from ESPN to record his reaction. The video of Sam and his boyfriend, their hugs and kisses, and their playful exchange as Sam smeared a cupcake on his partner's face, went viral by Saturday evening, and might wind up being the iconic images from this entire draft.
The media attention will certainly return as soon as he arrives in St. Louis, where he'll participate in his first minicamp next weekend.
"If you draft him, or you sign him as a collegiate free agent, then you need help on the public relations front. You're going to face public relations issues with him that will be different from what your PR director is used to facing," former Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said last week. "It becomes an all-encompassing media issue that you as a club need to be able to handle. That's not the GM's concern now. He's trying to grade Michael Sam as a football player. I believe in my humble opinion that he's a draftable player."
Davis is working with the NFL to help executives, coaches and players better understand LGBT issues in pro sports -- not just to help the league prepare for Sam's arrival, but to make the NFL a more welcoming environment for future gay players.
Davis met with league officials, including commissioner Roger Goodell, in New York City and gave a presentation to league owners, general managers and head coaches in Orlando in March.
Now Davis is working with NFL vice president Troy Davis to put together a series of presentations with teams and players as part of the league's Respect at Work program.
"This really is a reassurance that all the work that we've been doing is impactful, that it's been paying off for so many other LBGTQ individuals, and those who are straight as well, who can look to the NFL and see that it is welcoming," Davis said. "Young kids can now turn on their televisions and see that Wow, I can say that in my lifetime I saw the very first openly gay NFL player."
Contributing: Tom Pelissero