Fisher said he was proud to have made the landmark pick, but he made clear from the start that he chose Sam because he thought he had the talent to make it.
The cameras followed, but the extra attention did not seem to faze Sam or his teammates. Veteran defensive end Chris Long noted rosters are always made up of players from different backgrounds. Players said Sam was part of their family.
Fisher called the draft pick a “second historic moment” for a franchise that signed running back Kenny Washington in 1946 as the league’s first black player in the modern era, but he was most interested in describing Sam as a way to upgrade the Rams’ defense. So was general manager Les Snead, who referred to Sam after the draft as a “designated pass rusher.” Sam shed weight to be faster for special teams duty, reporting at 257 pounds, but Fisher said after the preseason opener that Sam would have to make the team based on defensive end play.
Sam had a sack in that game and said afterward, “You know, I can play in this league. I can play in this league.”
Sam came out publicly following his final season at Missouri, though he had told his teammates before it began. The Tigers went on to tie a school record with 12 wins. Sam had 11 1/2 sacks and the lightly-regarded Tigers won the SEC Eastern Division, a huge step forward after going 5-7 during the first season in their new conference.
“If you look at our season, it didn’t hurt us at all,” recalled cornerback E.J. Gaines, a fellow rookie and former Missouri teammate. “If anything, it brought us closer.”
Sam was lightly regarded out of Hitchcock, Texas, a town of about 7,000 along the Gulf Coast about 40 miles southeast of Houston. His first two years at Missouri, Sam backed up Aldon Smith and Jacquies Smith, both of whom are in the NFL.
From the start, teammates seemed to like having Sam around. His energy was infectious and, if there were problems, they stayed behind closed doors. Publicly, Sam was just another late-round pick trying to make the Rams, which, like other NFL teams, held sensitivity training early in camp. The Oprah Winfrey Network put off a planned documentary on Sam, saying it would allow him to focus on his dream of making the team.
At one point, Sam’s Rams jersey was the No. 2 seller among rookies online, trailing only Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel, and Sam was among just 10 draftees selected by the NFL to be featured on commemorative coins. Sam headed to the ESPY Awards to pick up the Arthur Ashe Courage award. He got a hug from Hall of Famer Jim Brown on his way to the stage and fought back tears throughout his speech.
He told the audience: “Great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself.”
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