ST. LOUIS (AP) — Not long after Michael Sam waved to an adoring crowd at Missouri’s season opener, he looked down at his cell phone.
It was 3 p.m. CT, the deadline for NFL teams to pare rosters to 53 players. And the Rams coach was talking to the players who didn’t make the cut.
He headed into the locker room. At some point, his phone rang with the bad news: He didn’t make the cut.
Twenty others were cut by the St. Louis Rams on Saturday, all of them mere footnotes. For Sam, it meant a roadblock in his journey to become the first openly gay player to make an NFL roster.
Over and over, coach Jeff Fisher said, it was purely a football decision.
“I will tell you this: I was pulling for Mike,” Fisher said. “I really was, and I don’t say that very often. Mike came in here and did everything we asked him to do.”
The seventh-round draft pick projected confidence while scrutinized at least as closely as Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel. He’s been cheered by athletes and celebrities, denigrated by just a few.
In the end, the defensive end couldn’t make a team stocked with pass rushers and lost out to undrafted Ethan Westbrooks, who proved more productive and more versatile.
Fisher believes Sam has an NFL future, and it still could be with the Rams. If he’s not picked up by another team, he could land on the St. Louis practice squad.
“I can’t go there right now,” Fisher said. “Coaches don’t talk about practice squads because we have to see what happens. We’ll know better tomorrow afternoon.”
Wherever he lands, Fisher said “there will be no challenge, no challenges whatsoever.”
“He’s not about drawing attention to himself,” Fisher said. “He kept his head down and worked and you can’t ask anything more out of any player for that matter.”
On Twitter, roughly an hour after he was cut, Sam wrote “The most worthwhile things in life rarely come easy, this is a lesson I’ve always known. The journey continues.”
He also thanked the Rams and city of St. Louis on Twitter, adding that he looks forward to a long and successful career.
Sam was introduced to the Missouri crowd in the end zone alongside defensive E.J. Gaines, a sixth-round pick who made the team. He blew a kiss and waved before returning to the sideline, then posed for a few pictures before starting to look at his phone, and then headed for the locker room.
Fisher personally delivered the news to the 20 others released in meetings Friday and Saturday, but didn’t seem to mind that Sam was out of town, visiting his alma mater. The conversation was perfunctory, with plans for a face-to-face meeting on Sunday.
“He said ‘Yes sir,’ and he said, ‘I understand.’ He said, ‘Thanks for the opportunity,’ and I said, ‘Mike, I’m looking forward to visiting with you tomorrow,’ and he goes, ‘I am, too.'”
Sam was the SEC co-defensive player of the year at Missouri and had been projected as a mid-round draft pick. His stock fell after a poor combine showing not long after he came out as gay in February, and the Rams took him with the 249th overall pick out of 256.
He kissed his boyfriend as a national television audience looked on, and arrived brimming with confidence and with a quick retort for anyone who contended he was in the NFL only because he came out. Fisher was proud to have made the landmark pick, but made clear from the start that Sam would be judged on talent.
The cameras followed, but the extra attention did not seem to faze Sam or his teammates. Veteran defensive end Chris Long noted rosters are always made up of players from different backgrounds. Players said Sam was part of their family.
Sam shed weight before training camp to be faster for special teams duty, reporting at 257 pounds. But after the preseason opener, Fisher said he’d have to make the team based on defensive end play.
Sam came out publicly following his final season at Missouri, though he had told his teammates before it began. It was no distraction. Missouri tied the school record with 12 wins and won the SEC Eastern Division and Sam had 11 1-2 sacks.
Sam was lightly regarded out of Hitchcock, Texas, a town of about 7,000 along the Gulf Coast about 40 miles southeast of Houston. His first two years at Missouri, Sam backed up Aldon Smith and Jacquies Smith, both of whom are in the NFL.
From the start, teammates seemed to like having Sam around. His energy was infectious and, if there were problems, they stayed behind closed doors. Publicly, Sam was just another late-round pick trying to make the Rams, which, like other NFL teams, held sensitivity training early in camp. The Oprah Winfrey Network put off a planned documentary on Sam, saying it would allow him to focus on his dream.
At one point, Sam’s Rams jersey was the No. 2 seller among rookies online, trailing only Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel, and Sam was among just 10 draftees selected by the NFL to be featured on commemorative coins. Sam headed to the ESPY Awards to pick up the Arthur Ashe Courage award. He got a hug from Hall of Famer Jim Brown on his way to the stage and fought back tears throughout his speech.
He told the audience: “Great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself.”