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Saints fall under Michael Sam's 'distracting' spell as rookie earns respect in Game 1

NFL rookie defensive end Michael Sam played well in his first preseason game despite some 'butterflies,' silencing anyone who asserted he isn't 'NFL material.'

Dilip Vishwanat

In the end, many of Michael Sam's detractors were right.

For the last six months "experts" like Tony Dungy said what a distraction Michael Sam would be for a team that drafted him. Various NFL teams seemed to agree, letting the draft stock of one of the SEC Defensive Players of the Year drop to an historic level.

Little did they know, the team being distracted would be Michael Sam's opponent.

In his first game with the St. Louis Rams, Sam appeared about 10 minutes into the game and played about half of the defensive snaps, all at left defensive end. He recorded three pressures (the stats may say two), stopped a runner in the offensive backfield and sealed the edge on a couple runs.

All in all, he had a "good" game. You might even classify it as "very good" for his first outing on an NFL game field.

Either way, it must have been that damn distraction that helped him in the end.

Maybe it was the fairy dust Sam surely keeps tucked in his pants. He must have sprinkled a little of it on the right tackle before every play, lulling his opponent to sleep with visions of sugar plums.

Sam surely resorted to blowing kisses at his opponents. Like Lance Stephenson with LeBron James, there must have been sweet nothings exchanged on the line of scrimmage.

"Hey baby, how you doin'?"

It must have been a wink and a pass that distracted the guard and tackle in the second quarter and let Sam run unabated at the quarterback through the B gap.

Or maybe the Saints were so distracted by distracting questions about the distracting Michael Sam in the days leading up to their distracted game that their right tackle couldn't help but be distracted.

Whatever it was that led to Michael Sam having at least a "good" first preseason game, it must have all been that distraction Dungy talked about. Sam was used by the Rams to distract the right side of the New Orleans Saints offensive line for much of the game, and when he was in it paid off.

Funny, though, that Sam's teammates weren't affected by the fairy dust tonight.

I watched Sam's interactions with teammates throughout the night. Sometimes it was Chris Long offering advice. Sometimes it was a trainer pushing Sam to stretch before he took the field. Other times a teammate was chatting with him on the bench as the offense took the field.

When he wasn't talking with someone, he was pointing the water boys to teammates who needed hydration. When he was watching the defense from the sideline he stood as close to the restricted zone as possible, the kid who itching for coach to put him in. He was the first person to greet the defensive players as they exited the field.

On Friday night, in his first NFL action, Michael Sam was a good teammate. He was a good defensive end. In his lone kick-return duty he whiffed, but as coach Jeff Fisher said after the game about Sam's special-teams play, "Michael is a defensive end."

What Sam wasn't Friday night was "slow," "undersized" or "overmatched" - some of the buzz words the "experts" used to explain away the late round he was selected in the NFL Draft. He was never going to be perfect tonight, and he wasn't. Sam himself knows that.

"The hardest critic is going to be myself," Sam said after the game. "I'm not mad about my first game, but I know I could have done better."

But for those who said he just wasn't "NFL material," that storyline should be buried for good.

Also seemingly buried in this stadium on this night was that Sam's participation in the game was another chapter of his increasingly historic journey. The fans - heck, the commentators for NFL Network - didn't even notice when Sam came into the game with five minutes left in the first quarter. On his second play the home crowd cheered loudly, suddenly understanding what the play had meant.

For most of the people in St. Louis, this was an NFL preseason game with a little historical asterisk. There was no flood of gay fans. I didn't see a single "Sam" jersey in the stands - Though, admittedly, I couldn't see Sam's boyfriend Vito Cammisano and his family as they were seated under the press box. Michael Sam did not trend on Twitter in the Show-Me State.

For Sam, for St. Louis, this was just another football game: No was thinking much about Sam being different from anyone else in blue and gold.

Will Sam follow up this chapter with an appearance for the Rams in week one of the regular season? Will he make the regular-season roster? No one knows.

But as long as he sprinkles around the fairy dust for the regular season like he did tonight - and particularly the way he did in the first half - his chances are pretty good.