INDIANAPOLIS - When Michael Sam was presented with a rainbow pin at a University of Missouri basketball game last week, he was deeply touched by the show of support.
"I wanted to cry," he said. "But I was like, 'I'm a man.'"
Sam is in the process of tweaking that traditional definition and changing perceptions. Two weeks after announcing publicly that he is gay, he was here at the NFL's Scouting Combine where all 32 teams will be giving him the once-over to see if they will select him in May's draft. If he is chosen by one of the teams - and as the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year he is projected by many to be a mid-round pick - he would become the first openly gay player in NFL history.
And yet, speaking to the fully assembled media at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday afternoon, his first press conference since coming out, the defensive end said he does not see himself as a trailblazer, is not focused on becoming a celebrity endorser, and is indifferent to any type of potential attention paid him by the movie industry. He doesn't feel like any of those things, he said.
"I feel," he said, "like I'm Michael Sam."
These days, that in itself is enough to draw a crowd. Sam was prepared for his press conference and opened it by reading a statement.
"As you may know, Missouri is the 'Show Me' State," he said. "You'd think I have shown you guys enough over these last few weeks, but I'm learning with the media that you guys still want more so ask your questions and I'll answer them the best you can."
Sam made his announcement two weeks ago, but he had told his teammates that he is gay at the beginning of the 2013 season. He said most of the students on campus at Missouri knew as well, and they accepted him. That his sexual orientation did not reach the media, he said, was a testament to them. "We protect one another at Missou," he said proudly.
Since he went from nearly anonymous mid-round prospect to national headliner, though, Sam has been overwhelmed with support from those around him. He said some come up to him as he walks around campus to give him hugs and kisses, some of them crying on his shoulder. At the Missouri basketball game, the school gave him a standing ovation and those rainbow pins were distributed. Sam wore one on the lanyard that held his Combine identification badge in place on Saturday.
Not every place will be as welcoming and supportive as Columbia, Missouri, of course. Some players, coaches and executives have wondered aloud whether an NFL locker room is ready for an openly gay player. Last week the NFL released the Wells Report that illustrated a pattern of homophobic harassment towards players and staff members on the Dolphins. Sam knows that could be what awaits him.
"Everyone can be normal around me if they wanted to," he said of his experiences in the Missouri locker room. "We joke around because we're a brotherhood, it's a family, so we can say things to each other. No harm. We don't draw blood. It's all fun and games."
And when it isn't?
"If someone wants to call me a name, I'll have a conversation with that guy and hopefully it won't lead to anything else," he said.
Sam said when he was at the Senior Bowl and met with some NFL teams, the topic of his sexuality never came up even though most scouts who dug into his life just a little bit knew about it. At the Combine, he said, he has yet to be asked about his announcement by any team in any interview.
"What people do with their personal life, I'm not concerned about that," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said.
That's just the kind of reception that Sam was hoping to receive. He was practically overjoyed when asked football questions during his press conference, saying he wants to rush the passer, aspiring to be the kind of player that Hall of Famer Michael Strahan was, and expressing no preference to playing defensive end in a 4-3 scheme or outside linebacker in a 3-4.
"I'm not focusing on anything else but to earn my spot on an NFL team," he said. "(I want NFL scouts to know) that Michael Sam's work ethic is just like or better than the guys who are here."
That would be the second way that Sam could stand out at the Combine. And in his mind, the most important.