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Combine spotlight finds Sam, Manziel

Posted Feb 22, 2014


INDIANAPOLIS – The lobby area just outside the NFL Scouting Combine media room at Lucas Oil Stadium provides a relative respite from the Grand Central Station-like conditions inside.

But Saturday around 2 p.m., that all changed. Suddenly, men and women armed with bulky cameras and itty bitty notepads virtually sprinted through the lobby toward the media room entrance, not threatening any Combine records for the 40 but perhaps logging personal bests.

As a Combine veteran, I knew it could only mean one thing.

Michael Sam had entered the building.

Most years at this event, among the 300-some media interviews conducted over four days, one stands above them all. With three podiums and six tables laid out for interview sessions, media members typically fan around the room. But when that signature athlete arrives, anyone within an Andrew Luck bomb of the stadium descends.

This year, that player figured to be Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who did pack 'em in Friday. Or perhaps South Carolina defensive end/freak of nature Jadeveon Clowney, who drew quite a crowd around 1 p.m. Saturday.
Two weeks ago, Sam wasn't on the radar for such a role – a role that some relish but some regret depending on why the media flocks to them. But Sam thrust himself into that role on February 9, when he made an announcement that put him on the precipice of becoming the first openly gay player in NFL history.

Not to say the limelight was Sam's intention.

"Heck yeah, I wish you guys would just be like, 'Michael Sam, how's football going? How is training going?' I would love for you to ask that question, but it is what it is," Sam said. "I just wish you guys will see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."

Sam did get some football questions, as the pass-rushing specialist should after being named co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year and helping Missouri threaten for a spot in the BCS National Championship.

"I think probably the big thing to point to is what happened at the University of Missouri," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "The young man came out in August, and it didn't seem to affect their team.

"Everybody needs to realize that this is not the story they're making it out to be. This is just about going forward, and whatever happens, happens."

As is often the case at the Combine, the legitimacy of some storylines is up for debate. Take Manziel, known for creating stirs but brought into a created storyline after he told reporters that he'd measure 6 feet tall, only to come in one-quarter of an inch short.

"A measurement to me is just a number," Manziel said in response. "I feel like I play like I'm 10 feet tall."

Manziel and Clowney had questions to answer for the media but more importantly for the NFL teams considering them in the draft. While Clowney's work ethic has been questioned by some coming off a season in which it would have been impossible for him to match outside expectations, Manziel must answer for his dizzying dose of off-field drama.

"It's a chance for them to sit and know me personally, ask whatever questions they want," Manziel said. "I'm not shying away from anything they ask me."

It's a different situation with Sam – or at least it should be. He's answered a question before it was asked, leaving decision-makers around the NFL with questions to ask themselves if anything.

"The bottom line is we're going to evaluate Michael as a football player," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. "If he's on the board when it's our turn to pick and he's the highest rated guy on our board, we'll take him."