Michael Sam, No. 96 in his white practice jersey and blue helmet, stretches with his teammates on the perfectly mowed green field.
This is at the St. Louis Rams’ practice facility, in the wonderfully named suburb of Earth City, Mo., and it is the first day of training camp late last month.
Soon there are drills, and Sam blocks and sheds blocks with the other defensive ends.
He touches men. He grabs them. He hits them. And no one dies.
You could be forgiven for thinking Sam is the first gay man on the planet, an unknown, possibly dangerous and corrupting alien, instead of one of somewhere between 7.2 million and 12.6 million gays, lesbians or bisexuals in the United States. The number depends on whether you go with the recent federal survey, with the Gallup Poll of 2012 or with a lot of other estimates.
These polls rely on asking people their sexual orientation. You think somebody might lie? The recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, released two weeks ago, polled 34,557 adults, and about 400 of them said they are something else, didn’t know or it’s none of your business.
Thus, gay people are everywhere.
News? Hardly. But Sam, recently of the University of Missouri — where he was named co-defensive player of the year last season in the rugged Southeastern Conference — is the first openly gay man to join the NFL.
Players have come out after their careers — think Dave Kopay, Wade Davis, Esera Tuaolo — but Sam’s journey is new and, many people feel, fraught with turbulence. Maybe even danger.
TV commentator and former NFL coach Tony Dungy famously stated just before camps opened that he wouldn’t have drafted Sam, who lasted until the seventh and last round — the 249th overall pick — in the 2014 draft, because he ‘‘wouldn’t want to deal with it all.’’
He meant distractions. But with his position of influence and his many statements about living ‘‘right,’’ according to the Bible, it was unclear if Dungy also meant he wouldn’t want an openly gay man on his team. He has, after all, raised money for an antigay Christian family group, one that believes homosexuals can be ‘‘cured,’’ comparing them to dogs trying to moo like cows.
Jason Collins, the first openly gay man in the NBA, was asked about Dungy’s comments on a recent TV show.
‘‘I kind of laugh every time I hear a code word being used,’’ Collins said, refusing to get riled up. ‘‘You’re like, ‘I know what you’re really saying,’ and I’m above that.’’
But Rams coach Jeff Fisher picked Sam because he thought it was the right thing to do, probably not expecting to see Sam tearfully kiss his college boyfriend, a swimmer at Mizzou, in front of draft-day watchers and TV cameras. But if the undersized ‘‘tweener’’ can play, Fisher couldn’t care less about his sexual orientation.
‘‘He’s a motor guy,’’ Fisher said, ‘‘but he’s also a good learner.’’
Fisher saved the NFL from a lot of embarrassment — no SEC defensive player of the year had missed being drafted — but he swears he isn’t protecting Sam from anything.
‘‘We’ll treat him like any other player,’’ he insisted.
Would Fisher summarily cut Sam? He nods.
‘‘I’ll be honest with him,’’ Fisher said. ‘‘I wouldn’t do anything else, and he wouldn’t want me to.’’
Sam’s not commenting about anything right now, having been just about run dry talking about his sexuality and its role in a hurting, macho business such as pro football.
On the field, though, he works hard — like all the other players. At 6-2 and 257 pounds, he isn’t the biggest, strongest or fastest player at his position, which borders on standup linebacker. He isn’t a guaranteed keeper — not on the Rams, who have a superb defense.
But as for the ‘‘distraction’’ side of Sam? Where is it? There aren’t that many media members at Rams camp on this day. The players, all trying to make the team or keep lucrative veteran jobs, couldn’t care less.
‘‘You can see there was no distraction, see how our season went,’’ said Rams rookie cornerback E.J. Gaines, one of Sam’s former teammates at Missouri, who was drafted one round before Sam.
Gaines means the Tigers’ 12-2 record last season, including a victory in the Cotton Bowl. This all occurred after Sam told the team in training camp that he was gay. And the players never told anyone outside their group.
Another of Sam’s teammates at Missouri, Rams receiver T.J. Moe, actually rolls his eyes when he is asked about the ‘‘problem’’ caused by a gay teammate.
‘‘There aren’t homophobes in my generation,’’ he told this old writer, with just a touch of disdain. ‘‘I really think, ‘No, it’s your generation that’s so concerned.’ ’’
Well, that would include Dungy, one supposes, considering he’s part of this Baby Boomer pig-in-the-python.
Moe isn’t done, though.
‘‘You ever see the TV show ‘Prison Break’? The star, Wentworth Miller, is gay,’’ he said. ‘‘Ellen [Degeneres] is on TV every day. Movie stars everywhere are gay. People just don’t associate big, strong men with homosexuality. To us [he gestures at his teammates coming off the field], it’s nothing, meaningless.’’
What about, you know, getting naked in the locker room?
‘‘This is all about football,’’ Moe said. ‘‘You’re not thinking about a gay man. You’re thinking about getting better, about running the right route. It’s his private life. And he’s a great guy. He’s one of us.’’
Renteria on leadoff spot
Cubs manager Rick Renteria talks about rookie Arismendy Alcantara’s role in his plans for the top spot in the lineup.
Practice recaps from Bears camp
Go to Inside the Bears at voices.suntimes.com for reports after every training-camp practice in Bourbonnais.