MONTREAL (AP) _ In the city where Jackie Robinson made the jump to the big leagues _ and a country where gay marriage has been legal for a decade _ Michael Sam has come to restart his football career.
The first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team, Sam returned to practice with the Montreal Alouettes on Monday ready to resume his Canadian Football League career after a brief leave for undisclosed personal reasons.
Speaking for just a few minutes, Sam praised last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage and said he hoped to marry someday. Although Sam’s public coming-out and his efforts to make the NFL have been cited as a catalyst for Americans’ abrupt turnaround on gay rights, he deflected credit to those who have worked on the issue for years.
“I don’t think I did anything. … I’m just happy that I can get married and it would be legal,” he said, adding that he was focusing on football for now. “It was a historical day and I’m very proud and very happy to be an American right now.”
The 2013 Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year at Missouri, Sam was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh and final round of the 2014 NFL draft. He was cut by St. Louis and signed by Dallas to the practice squad, but he couldn’t make the Cowboys’ roster.
Sam agreed to a two-year deal with the Alouettes last month but left training camp on June 12, citing personal reasons. He missed the season opener on Thursday night but returned over the weekend and was back on the practice field at Montreal’s Parc Hebert on Monday.
“The door was open for him to come back,” coach Tom Higgins said, adding that Sam was treated the same as other players. “This was just more high-profile.
“He worked some things out that he needed to settle and he came back to us a much more dedicated athlete than he was before. He wants to prove that he can play on a high level.”
Neither Sam nor his coaches and teammates would comment on the personal matters that took Sam away from the team. Sam said there was never any doubt that he would return.
“I was always coming back,” he said. “I had to deal with personal matters when I was home. That’s all taken care of, so now I’m back.”
Higgins said Sam asked for and received permission to address his teammates on Sunday; the coaches left the room to the players, and Sam spoke for less than a minute. Higgins said applause could be heard through the closed door.
“He told us he’s all-in,” center Luc Brodeur-Jourdain said. “He missed the game for the short period of time he was away.”
Linebacker Kyries Hebert said Sam “got a pretty good welcome,” and predicted that he would have no trouble earning back his teammates’ trust. Higgins said Sam is trying to fit in with the Alouettes, but the attention he gets as a gay rights pioneer makes that difficult.
“He didn’t want to be standing here until he does something,” Higgins said. “Being put in the limelight doesn’t help him with any of his teammates. He hasn’t played one down in the CFL and he gets more attention than any one of his teammates. That bothers him.”
Among the adjustments for Sam are different rules in the CFL, which has a 110-yard field, three downs instead of four and offensive formations with more movement than in the NFL and American colleges.
“He still has to learn how to play the CFL game,” Brodeur-Jourdain said. “All we want to do as teammates is compete against him in practice so we can make him better as a player. Our general manager thinks he has potential. He’s part of the club. Let’s make him better.”
Sam signed autographs and posed for pictures after practice with the handful of fans waiting by the field. Among them was Mike Raimondo, who draped an Alouettes jersey with Sam’s name carefully over his arm.
“I’m new to CFL football. I’m a big hockey fan, but I’m a big Michael Sam fan,” Raimondo said. “When he signed here, I ordered the jersey right away.
“When he left, I had a heart attack.”