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Sam poised to make history, even if he never plays in the NFL

Michael Sam might have most to lose by coming out at start of his NFL career, but he seems to have the guts to be successful.

St. Louis Rams rookie defensive end Michael Sam stretches during the team's NFL football rookie camp Friday, May 16, 2014, in St. Louis. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
St. Louis Rams rookie defensive end Michael Sam stretches during the team's NFL football rookie camp Friday, May 16, 2014, in St. Louis. (Jeff Roberson/AP)Read more

THE OTHER NIGHT, "42" came on for, like, the zillionth time, and my finger stuck on the channel changer for, like, the zillionth time. Yeah, the film is hokey at times and the two main characters, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, are not as developed as I would have liked, but it's about sports and American history, my two favorite subjects, in that order.

Which brings me to Michael Sam, the recently drafted, openly gay defensive end from the University of Missouri, whose life was playing out like a real-time movie even before Oprah Winfrey's network decided, and then undecided, to make it the subject of a documentary series.

Whew. See how long that sentence is even without including the nationally televised kiss with his partner, the nationally televised cake smush, the homophobic tweets from college and pro players that followed, and the Washington lobbyist who has called for a boycott of a) all things Rams, b) a federal law banning gay players from the NFL, and, c) because of a recent endorsement deal with the company, destroying your Visa card.

(Even the most hardened homophobe might have trouble with that third one.)

Sam is not the first gay professional athlete to come out. But a strong argument can be made that he is already the loudest and proudest.

And an even stronger argument can be made that he has, at age 24, with his entire career ahead of him, the most to lose.

Maybe that's why Oprah suspended the documentary series yesterday, to spare him the vitriol that has already surfaced about him being a bit too loud, and a bit too proud.

Me? The more I thought about it, the more I liked the Oprah idea. You're already suspicious of a draft process that made you one of the last picks, despite your status as SEC defensive player of the year. You think you should have gone in the third round.

What if the Rams, based in Missouri were just avoiding post-draft criticism with the pick? Seventh-round picks are habitually cut during NFL training camps. What if he was being set up to fail?

I know that would have crossed my mind. And if someone like Oprah came to me before the draft about doing a training-camp documentary? What better way to keep them honest, right? And since NFL money is connected to draft order, I might not have told anyone, either, until after the draft.

OK, I might not have even said yes to the documentary.

But I'm not Sam. All right, I am Sam, but I'm not Michael Sam.

I don't have his, um, guts.

Or mission.

Sam isn't just out. He's in full tackle mode. He has little interest stepping from the closet, waving to the public, and receding back in.

"It's OK to be who you are," he said at the crowded news conference that followed his selection by the Rams. "Whether you're gay, straight, black or white, it's OK to be comfortable in your own skin."

It's a great and overdue message, and, if the last few months are any indication, Sam would seem the perfect vehicle. He's gay, black, has a white partner and has already used a variety of media forms to convey how comfortable he is with it all.

"Distraction" is a powerful word in sports, and particularly the NFL. To be a playing "distraction," one must have elite talent or be invaluable. Sam believes that he should have been taken at least four rounds higher than he was and that he will prove it this summer.

And if he's wrong? Some have argued that it will hurt the LGBT cause, that a mostly supportive public will turn on him the way it might have on Robinson had he responded to the taunts and insults 67 years ago.

I believe baseball's integration could have been set back another decade, had that occurred. That won't happen here. Michael Sam won't be a historic footnote, even if he's never a professional football player. The door opened by the NBA's Jason Collins last year has been knocked off its hinges over the last few months.

More gay players will follow his lead. Some, many perhaps, might even have more talent.

But none will have more, um, guts.

On Twitter: @samdonnellon