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Despite release, Michael Sam proves he fits in NFL

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In his defeat, Michael Sam still scored a small victory Saturday afternoon. His release from the St. Louis Rams as they set their roster was strictly a football decision, with Sam a victim of numbers on a team that probably had only one open spot on a very strong defensive line before the summer even began and that had signed a rookie who was, it turned out, a bit more versatile than Sam. In its banality, the end of Sam's tenure made a statement.

That is what Sam had wanted since he came out just before the NFL Scouting Combine -- to be considered on his merits as a football player. He played the second-most defensive snaps in the preseason, and in the time that he was with the Rams, there were none of the distractions or difficulties that had long been imagined for the team that employed the first openly gay player in the NFL. All the players who, in the past, had proclaimed they would never be comfortable in a locker room with a gay man were proven to be a lot more weak-minded than the Rams' players who managed to go to work every day and function. Even this week, as a report about Sam's showering habits drew attention, the Rams -- in a blunt tweet by Chris Long that stated that everyone was over it -- and Sam proved that there was a place for a gay man in even the cloistered world of an NFL locker room.

Until there wasn't Saturday, just as there wasn't for the hundreds of other players -- straight or gay -- who were released on Saturday. Sam had three sacks and 11 tackles in the preseason, perhaps outperforming some expectations for him. But coach Jeff Fisher said it was not a difficult decision to release him. The defensive line is the strength of the Rams, and none of the four seventh-round picks or the sixth-round pick are on the Rams' roster. Sam was undone not by concerns about how he would fit in the locker room, but by the fact that he was not a good fit for this defensive line -- he can play only defensive end, while Ethan Westbrooks, the undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M, wowed coaches with his versatility to beat Sam out.

"It was a football decision in May to draft Mike," Fisher said Saturday afternoon. "Once again, it's been all about football. I'll tell you: I was pulling for Mike. I don't say that very often."

Of course, even if drafting Sam and releasing Sam were football decisions, he was -- is -- much bigger than football for now, because of the symbolism he is freighted with. One member of the Rams' organization told me after the draft that he had never before been part of a pick that brought tears to his eyes.

Sam's trail with the Rams is ended for now, but it has been blazed nonetheless. The next openly gay player won't face anywhere near the scrutiny he did, and perhaps the next time, there won't be any concern about his impact on the delicate chemistry of a locker room. Fisher, in fact, seemed to offer Sam the best recommendation to future employers he could.

"There was no distraction," Fisher said. "If someone perceived or thought there may be a distraction, they weren't in the building. Mike fit in very, very well. He was fun to be around. He was a good teammate. There was no issue there. I was pulling for him. It didn't work out. It just didn't work out."

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Later, Fisher added: "There will be no challenges whatsoever. He's not about drawing attention to himself. He kept his head down and worked. There is no challenge with respect to Michael Sam."

It was worth noting that Fisher spoke in the past tense, and there is certainly no assurance that as the rosters continue to churn for the next few days that Sam will be brought back to the Rams' practice squad. Sam could be picked up by another team now, although that team would have to put him on its 53-man roster, perhaps making that unlikely even for the most defensive-desperate teams. But if he is not picked up, the Rams could put him on the newly expanded 10-man practice squad starting Sunday. That would seem like a good thing -- Sam could continue to develop where he is already comfortable and with coaches who already know his game and strengths. And it would be another signal to many that the Rams are comfortable with Sam, too. But perhaps not.

"It's only a victory when he makes a roster and plays in a game. Period," said Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports who helped Sam orchestrate his coming out. "There are no moral victories for football players or for our community."

Zeigler added: "I don't believe for a second that Sam was cut because he's gay. They made a football decision. He was the victim of being on a team very deep at defensive line. Now I'll be watching to see if the other 31 NFL teams will all pass up on him again. He proved in the preseason he can play at a high level. For him to make it through waivers would tell me a very different story about the rest of the NFL."

Sam was at a game at his alma mater, Missouri, on Saturday when Fisher spoke to him by phone. They will meet on Sunday so that Fisher, as he does for all players, can explain why he did not make the team. Sam did not speak to reporters on Saturday -- he was on the Tigers' sideline -- but he did tweet his brief thoughts.

"The most worthwhile things in life rarely come easy, this is a lesson I've always known," Sam wrote. "The journey continues."

Where it will continue, with the Rams or elsewhere -- or maybe, eventually, not in the NFL at all -- is the next question right now. Sam has said several times that he believes he has proven he can play in the NFL, and Fisher concurred on Saturday, praising the motor that made him SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year and noting that he was better now than when he arrived because he had gotten so much work in practice and games.

"He's learned to use his hands better," Fisher said. "He's gotten better on the pass rush. The plays he made were effort plays. I think he's got the skills to fit in some place." In the most important way, even as he was set loose Saturday, Sam had proved he already fit in.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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