ST. LOUIS — St.. Louis Rams rookie defensive end Michael Sam hopes his status as the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL is a step toward greater equality for everyone.
"It's OK to be who you are whether you are gay or straight, black or white," Sam said of the message he'd like to send to anyone looking for the strength to deal with personal issues. "It's OK to be comfortable in your own skin."
But, he also hopes to be known more for his performance on the football field.
"I will always support equality, period," Sam said. "But my job is to focus on football and help this team win a championship."
Due to Sam's presence, the Rams' meet-and-greet with their 2014 draft class on Tuesday afternoon was the most highly attended press conference ever at Rams Park.
That includes the press conferences prior to the NFC Championship games in the 1999 and 2001 seasons, and the press conference to announce the hiring of coach Jeff Fisher.
The parking lot at Rams Park was full an hour prior to the press conference.
Inside a packed auditorium, there more than 25 TV cameras and more than a dozen still photographers.
CNN, ESPN, NFL Network, Fox Sports 1 and CBS Sports all were on hand.
There also was extra security on hand.
Kevin Demoff, the Rams' executive vice president of football operations, said the club has received both positive and negative feedback since drafting Sam.
"I think we've heard a lot of praise, a lot of people excited about the leadership and the step we took," Demoff said. "Certainly, we've heard some negative as well. You're going to get both throughout the process and that's something we knew and discussed on Saturday as this was going to come to be. If you are going to take a leadership position by drafting Michael, then you have to expect both the good and the bad. We'll prepare for it, and I think we'll shine through it."
Sam said he didn't think all the extra attention, especially when training camp opens this summer, would be a distraction for him.
"Not at all, I'm determined to be great," Sam said. "I'm going to train hard and try to make the team."
The Rams have one of the deepest defensive lines in the NFL They added to that depth by taking Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald with the 13th overall pick in the first round.
Sam was taken out of the University of Missouri with the 249th overall pick in the seventh round.
"As people do as they select in the sixth or seventh round, they're picking players who have a higher grade than the round they are picking," Fisher said. "And, they're picking value players. Shortly before we got to our pick, Michael's value as a football player was off the charts. We drafted Michael as a football player, and he has the opportunity now to come in and compete to try make our football team."
Rams General Manager Les Snead said the team was well-aware of the magnitude of the decision to select Sam.
"Michael is the first, but somewhere in the future he's just going to be name and a dot that some kid in middle school has to memorize and we won't think that is anything special because it will be normal," Snead said.
Sam said he had no idea whether being gay was a factor in how late he was drafted.
"I know by the seventh round and pick 249 that Michael Sam's name got called and here I am," Sam said.
Sam said wasn't worried about how he would be received by his new teammates, and he said he has already been welcomed into the locker room.
"They came to me actually, like 'Hey, welcome to the family and let's get to work,"' Sam said. "And, that's what we are going to do."
Miami Dolphins backup defensive back Don Jones was fined an undisclosed amount and barred from team activities until he undergoes sensitivity training for his comments on twitter after Sam was shown kissing his boyfriend on TV after being drafted by the Rams.
"You want to know how I handle it?," Sam said of negative comments about him. "I don't read them."
Sam said he's no opposing player in college ever said anything derogatory to him about being gay because they didn't know.
And, if it happens in the NFL, he'll use it as motivation.
"I have ever confidence in myself that I will make this team, so when I do make it and I put my pads and if somebody wants to say something, then you'll see No. 96 running down that field and making big plays for this team," Sam said.
Fellow Rams rookie Lamarcus Joyner, the team's second-round draft pick out of Florida State, said he's never had a gay teammate before.
"Not that I know, that's why I respect Michael Sam so much," Joyner said. "He's a courageous young man. You would never know that unless a guy comes and be a man about it and lets the world know. He's a brave young man, and we need that in this organization."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.