Photo: Michael Sam with his 2014 ESPY Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
History often comes full circle, and Michael Sam signing with the Montreal Alouettes is yet another example.
Sam joins the Canadian Football League franchise this week, a year after he was the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team, the St. Louis Rams. The Alouettes have held the rights to the Missouri defensive end the past year, waiting for him to give the CFL a try. Sam was cut by Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, but he put off the CFL until now after he was invited as a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.” The Als' season begins June 25.
“I don’t look at him any differently than our other players,” said Montreal Alouettes general manager and vice president Jim Popp. “He has other opportunities, but he wants to play football. He has stayed in touch with us. When he was offered a chance to be on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ he asked if we would frown upon that. I said, ‘No, I’d do it if I was invited.”
Sam breaks social ground no matter where he plays, but to be signed by a Montreal team with a general manager that has Popp’s background is fitting and historical.
Jim’s socially progressive father, the late Joe Popp, was an assistant coach at Wake Forest and Georgia Tech when they were among the first southern football schools to desegregate; Jim was recruited out of Mooresville, N.C., by Michigan State, a school that led the integration of college football with head coach Duffy Daugherty's Underground Railroad teams in the 1960s; and Jim has worked the past 20 years in what he calls a “trailblazing city.”
“My Dad was an unbelievable person,” Popp said. “He saw everybody as equal and treated them that way. Michigan State is a great school, and Michael Sam will love Montreal.”
Montreal is where Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey launched his road map to break Major League Baseball’s color line with Jackie Robinson. He played in 1946 for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ Triple A franchise, to prepare him to make history with Brooklyn in 1947. Rickey trusted the Canadian fans to accept Robinson. Without a smooth transition in Montreal, Brooklyn might have been a more difficult a challenge than it already presented.
Montreal also is where Sandy Stephens played quarterback for the Alouettes in 1962 and 1963. Stephens was the first black quarterback to win a college football national title with the Minnesota Gophers in 1960, inspiring Jimmy Raye to leave Fayetteville, N.C., in the segregated South for Michigan State, where he was the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title in 1966. Stephens was drafted in 1962 by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and the AFL’s New York Titans, but with plans to switch his position. Stephens instead signed with the Alouettes.
In those days, the walls to break down involved race. Now it’s to offer the same opportunities to an athlete that is openly gay. Sam finding success in Montreal should open doors as well as enlighten people that there have long been gay athletes, keeping their secret, in sports' locker rooms.
“He’s very good at rushing the quarterback,” Popp said. “But he doesn’t have the measurables of a 6-5, 280-player the NFL wants, and he’s not a player that drops as a linebacker. You’ve got to find tweener guys in our league.”
Popp believes Sam can develop and won’t be surprised to see him return to the NFL similar to Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake. Many CFL quarterbacks and skill positions players have jumped to the NFL over the years, but Wake, who is similar in size to Sam as a 6-3, 262-pounder, began his career with the CFL’s BC Lions in 2007. He is now a seventh-year NFL player and four-time Pro Bowler with the Dolphins.
Whether or not it’s true that NFL teams have denied Sam an opportunity for his sexual orientation, we’re at least still a long way from avoiding the subject. That was the case in 1947 with Jackie Robinson and into the 1960s with such figures as Sandy Stephens and Michigan State’s Underground Railroad.
Sam’s story, of course, has been widely reported in the media. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey planned a documentary on Sam’s bid to make the roster in the Rams’ training camp in 2014, but media coverage in part contributed to scrap the project following an outcry it would be a distraction.
What such attitudes failed to recognize is there is very little documentation of Robinson’s spring trainings with the Dodgers in 1946 and 1947. Most of what we now know was documented much later in historical accounts. From those landmark days, there are very few quotes (a young Dick Young was one of the few to broach the subject writing for the New York Daily News) and little film of Robinson’s opening day in 1947. Wouldn’t it be nice to see more film of Robinson and the reaction of teammates, opponents and fans -- good and bad -- than the same loops played over and over?
An Oprah Winfrey-produced documentary, of course, would be more about history and society and less about sensationalizing an NFL camp, which draws viewers to watch HBO’s annual “Hard Knocks” series.
Popp believes Sam has enough talent to break ground. And in Montreal, Sam has history on his side.