NEW YORK -- Did you see the video of the moment Michael Sam heard Jeff Fisher tell him he was going to be a St. Louis Ram? When Sam folded into himself and began to weep, with exhaustion, probably, and also with relief? It was a seminal, if long overdue, moment for the major sports leagues in North America. An openly gay man had been drafted and with that the closet that was the locker room might finally be pried open.
But that moment when Sam got the call -- that's why it was important he was drafted. It is often true that players are better off being rookie free agents -- so they can choose their landing spots -- rather than being a late-round pick. And 31 percent of the active players in the NFL last season were not drafted as rookies. But signing with a team late on a Saturday night, after the klieg lights have been shut off and the cheering crowds have gone home does not carry the symbolism of being picked -- of being wanted -- by a team.
That is what that moment with Sam on the phone with Fisher was all about. A team wanted Sam, despite his slow 40-yard time at the NFL Scouting Combine, his lack of fluidity, and the hyper-focused attention on every decision that will follow him throughout his career. After enduring the unseemly months-long tearing down of prospects from top to bottom -- in that respect Sam has plenty in common with Jadeveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater -- to be drafted serves as validation. After waiting until nearly the end of the final excruciating day of the draft, someone thought Sam belonged with them. As a football player on the Rams' loaded defensive line. And as a gay man in the NFL.
"I feel like I am Clowney being the first draft pick in the draft," Sam told reporters in St. Louis.
When Sam announced that he is gay and would try to become the first openly gay NFL player back in February, one team's personnel executive made a telling comment.
"Look at teams and how they wait until the seventh round to address the 'character' guys," he said then. "If he doesn't get drafted, then there's a problem."
He wasn't implying that Sam had character flaws. He was saying that drafting Sam would be a decision freighted with so much import, and would come with so much scrutiny, that teams might view it as a negative -- but not enough of one to entirely shut out a player worthy of taking a flyer on.
For a while, a very long while, it appeared that there was a problem. It was impossible not to watch Saturday afternoon, as the picks kept going by, with a feeling of dread and incredulity that a moment, an opportunity was going to be forsaken, that the worst suspicions about the NFL were true. Even Fisher said that they had Sam ranked much higher on their draft board, as he suspected other teams did, too. But as Sam fell, the Rams decided they could not pass him up with the 249th pick -- a compensatory pick at that. With a sly smile as he called in the pick and waited for the reaction, Fisher saved the NFL from an embarrassing and painful look at how it values people.
"That's a football player with ability you just can't pass up," Fisher said.
Fisher knew, of course, that this was not just picking up another tumbling player. He called the Sam signing the second historic moment in Rams history, because it was also the Rams organization, then located in Los Angeles, that signed Kenny Washington, the first African-American player to a contract in the NFL's modern era. He also surely knows that because he is an NFL coach of longstanding, he has special insight into how to manage almost any situation, and that he commands a respect among players, among other coaches, even among owners that might come in handy right now.
He indicated Saturday night that he did not expect Sam's sexuality to be much of an issue in the Rams' locker room but that he would address it the way he would any other kind of discrimination. It is worth noting that Fisher is a co-chair of the league's Competition Committee, which just a few weeks ago delivered a report to owners that heavily emphasized the need for greater civility in the game -- for the reduction in taunting, for a return to respect. Fisher made it clear then that the effort would begin immediately. Now, he will be able to set the pace with his own team.
"We're in an age of diversity," he said. "Players understand that. They know that."
Out in California, Cyd Zeigler of Outsports, who had helped advise Sam on managing his coming out announcement, followed the proceedings Saturday in the company of one of Sam's publicists. Zeigler is a journalist and he said that while he began the day assuming Sam would be drafted, as it grew later -- and particularly when the New England Patriots passed on him in the seventh round -- Zeigler got worried and began writing a column based on the day that Sam would go undrafted. He was writing that for the NFL and the gay community, this was a loss.
"And at the last second we kicked a 50-yard field goal to win the game," Zeigler said Saturday night. "By a team in the middle of the country. Not San Francisco and not New York and not Miami. It is such a powerful statement. It reaffirms what I've been saying for a couple of years that the NFL is a place where gay people are welcome and wanted and flourish."
That might be another matter. The Rams are loaded on the defensive line. And though they have collected pass rushers, St. Louis -- under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who himself had to be welcomed back into the NFL -- plays an aggressive style of defense predicated on attacking the quarterback. Even Fisher conceded it will be very competitive for Sam to make the team, as it will be for the other later-round picks.
"It's about playing football," Sam said. "Can Michael Sam play football? Yes, I can."
It is naïve to think that there won't be pushback against Sam to some degree, despite the standing ovation the announcement of his selection at Radio City Music Hall received and his proximity to the Missouri campus that embraced him. Even on Saturday night, while new teammates like Robert Quinn tweeted their welcomes and texted Sam, there were people who angrily lashed out about the video that showed Sam, in tears, kissing his boyfriend in celebration. But that was also around the time that Sam said he was so excited that if the Rams were playing the Minnesota Vikings at that very moment, he would probably have three sacks. He sounded, in the end, like every other giddy, worn out player who just got drafted. That is the company Sam wants to be compared to now -- everything else is history he said.
"We're not even halfway through this yet," Zeigler said. "He has to go through minicamps and training camp and the preseason and the first round of cuts and the second round of cuts. This is not the end. This is the beginning. It's not over."
No. But, finally, what a start.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.