TEMPE, Ariz. – Michael Sam's window of time to make an NFL team is getting shorter, and perhaps his patience is, too.
Sam was here at the Arizona Cardinals' training facility on Sunday for the first NFL veterans combine, one of 105 players invited for a tryout for scouts and team officials, including Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly and Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman.
Sam is the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL, but auditions with the St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys didn't vault him to an active game day roster. On Sunday, he ran the 40-yard dash in an unofficial electronic time of 5.10 seconds and then in 5.07 – not spectacular numbers for a defensive end, and slower than his original rookie scouting combine time of an official 4.91.
Sam said he felt he was "just as good if not better than the other guys here," but that's up for debate. A few of the other members of his position group, like Caesar Rayford and Rakim Cox, looked faster and stronger than the former SEC defensive player of the year.
Sam didn't seem eager to answer reporters' questions after the workout, shooting down a query about "Dancing With the Stars" with a sharp, "Next question." And even though the NFL set up a media backdrop that was basically for him to use, Sam never made it there.
Still, he spoke with great self-assurance, saying, "I am very confident I will be playing somewhere."
He did not rule out the CFL. "If there's an opportunity," he said, "I'll take it."
The opportunity is slim for Sam and every other player at this new event, which is designed to give veterans a second or third or last chance at the NFL. Teams are already working with expanded rosters for the offseason, so it's not like there's a dearth of options. And while the actual rookie combine provides new information on players just out of college, pretty much every athlete here has been seen on tape. So in order to stick in the mind of a personnel official here, a player has to stick out here. It's not clear if Sam did that.
Sam and 18 other defensive linemen were put through several agility drills without pads or helmets. It became quickly obvious that as difficult as it has been for Sam to get this far – the pressure of coming out, the difficulty of the draft process, the ordeal of team tryouts, and all the media scrutiny – the latest barrier is one of the toughest: the other players on the field with him Sunday.
Cox, for example, is 6-foot-4, 268 pounds, and faster than Sam. He's been close to the league as well, playing in a preseason game with the Miami Dolphins last year. He showed plenty of quickness and power on Sunday. As outstanding as Sam was in college at Missouri, scouts may lean on raw numbers more than the kind of feel for the game Sam consistently showed.
And yet one other thing has consistently showed: the idea that Sam is a distraction is silly. There were certainly more media here for Sam than there would have been otherwise, but after a season of domestic violence incidents and the Johnny Football frenzy, it's harder than ever to argue that Sam on an NFL team would impede a team from concentrating on winning. In fact, Sam did the NFL an enormous favor here, bringing attention to a new event that otherwise would have drown in March Madness. Sam has done more for the NFL in a day than most active roster players ever will.
And still he's not on a team. Not even a practice squad.
Sam was asked about the Dallas Cowboys' decision to let him go last year. He called it "a business decision."
"I was not surprised," he said, before hedging. "A little bit."
The debate over whether Sam is good enough for a place in an NFL organization is right alongside the debate over whether coming out has hurt his cause. No, he's not the fastest or the strongest, but it's hard to fathom why the defensive player of the year on one of the best teams in college football fell to the last rung of the draft and then fell to this brink of football oblivion.
"It's very difficult to argue that him coming out didn't hurt his football career," said Cyd Ziegler, the co-founder of OutSports.com, who was here at the veterans combine on Sunday.
Ziegler added, "The NFL set back other gay athletes, now that Michael has been left off an NFL team."
Whether Sam wasn't really given a chance, or if he got every chance, it's clear now that he's almost out of chances.