It was a year ago – the Sunday after Super Bowl XLVIII at 8pmET – that Michael Sam turned speculation into reality: One of college football’s best players, and a top NFL prospect, was gay.

In the coming months he was showered with praise. Eric Dickerson would offer him congratulations. Michael Irvin would call him his friend. Robert Quinn welcomed him to the Rams. Even the President of the United States, Barack Obama himself, would laud him.

Yet amidst the celebration, the writing on Sam's 2014 NFL wall started three hours after his big announcement a year ago. Days earlier CBS Sports had ranked Sam their No. 90 pre-Draft prospect, projected to be selected in the third round. Simply based on the fact that Sam came out as gay – based on nothing but his sexual orientation – CBS Sports dropped him to pick No. 160 – Mid-fifth round.

In the eyes of CBS Sports, being gay in the NFL cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars and put your draft stock in jeopardy. They weren't the only ones.

Anonymous NFL sources poured it on in Sports Illustrated. "I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down," said one anonymous NFL scout. "I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," another anonymous source said. "Why are we going to do that to ourselves?" Yet still another anonymous NFL source worried.

Those sources foretold the 2014 season for Sam, who fell to the seventh round of the NFL Draft and was cut by two teams. After his week 7 release by the Dallas Cowboys, not a single team touched Sam, and not a single team brought him in simply for a work-out. Not one.

Spending a week in Phoenix for the Super Bowl, I talked to many people in the NFL about Sam. I asked questions of players, coaches, front-office executives and members of the media about why Sam wasn't with a team.

The answer I got the most, almost unanimously with a hint of "but I have my suspicions": I just don't know.

Yet even in those shrugs there were nuggets of information that spoke volumes. Coupled with some key facts from the last year, the ultimate conclusion isn't surprising.

The reality of Sam's 2014 season is this. Not only did he never make an active roster last season, but after Week 7 he wasn't even on a practice squad. Not only did he not make it back onto a practice squad, but he never even got a try-out – Teams can have players in for try-outs without signing them.

Even more surprising, since the season ended he has not gotten a single phone call from a single team about a futures contract – a simple agreement that locks up the player for an interested team and doesn't cost the team a dime. Not even a phone call.

Since the season, 25 defensive ends have been signed to futures contracts by a total of 17 different teams. Sam is not one of them.

Does that surprise people?

“Yeah it does,” former 49ers and Lions coach Steve Mariucci told me. Mariucci is now an analyst for NFL Network. “That surprises me.”

Mariucci isn't the only one.

"That's peculiar to me," Sports Illustrated's MMQB guru Peter King told me. "It's pretty odd that Michael Sam, who was a great guy in camp with the Rams, from all reports was a great guy on the practice squad with the Cowboys, can't get a sniff for the last 10 weeks of the season, and can't get a futures contract now, even though he wants very much to play and he's working out to play."

Numbers never lie: Michael Sam's play isn't the reason for his NFL snub

It's not hard to understand why the collective rejection of Sam might raise some eyebrows. You can dissect his college and nascent professional career many ways – But no matter how you look at it, the NFL snub Sam has experienced over the last six months is literally, statistically, factually unheard of.

Sam is the only drafted Defensive Player of the Year of any of the big five football conferences – ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac 12 and SEC – in the last 20 years to not make an active roster his rookie season (one – Anthony Poindexter – was on IR his rookie season and played the following year for the Ravens). Two decades of drafted DPOYs since 1994, and Sam is the only one to not make an active roster – The only one of 89 players. 100% of them not named Michael Sam made an active roster their rookie season. 100%.

Is it a coincidence that Sam is the only one? Is it possible that he is so much worse than all of these other players? It might be a consideration if it weren't for Sam's preseason performance.

In four games for the St. Louis Rams during the 2014 NFL preseason, Sam racked up 11 tackles and three sacks (though some count only two sacks, discounting his second sack against Johnny Manziel). That was second and first for the Rams respectively, and his three sacks was fourth-most in the entire NFL, according to

Of the 20 defensive ends with one or more sacks and eight or more tackles this preseason (again, less than Sam's numbers), all but two were on a season-long practice squad or on an active roster. Only Sam and former Saint-Raider-Cowboy Martez Wilson were not with a team in week 8 – and Wilson was a third-year guy who had simply not stood out after three seasons; After he was cut by Dallas, even Wilson got workouts. Sam did not.

Slicing the pie another way, of the 31 rookies since 2010 with two or more sacks and 10 or more tackles in the preseason (again, Sam exceeded those numbers), Sam is one of only three (10%) to not make at least a season-long practice squad. Frank Trotter out of Memphis is the only other defensive lineman with those numbers to not make it; He now plays Arena Football.

"Stats can be misleading," you might say. "He needs to pass the ‘eye-ball' test too."

Great. Let's take a look at Pro Football Focus' analysis of all of the 4-3 defensive ends in the 2014 preseason. They watch every play of every player in every game and grade them. Of their top-70 rated defensive ends from last preseason (Sam was rated No. 45), only three (4%) weren't on an active roster this season, a practice squad at the end of the season, or place on injured reserve:

  • Israel Idonije – A 33-year-old DE at the end of his career
  • Kris Redding – An undrafted rookie free agent out of Wake Forest
  • Michael Sam

Sam falls into such minorities – 1%, 4%, 10% – that no other player falls into even two of those categories. Sam hits all three.

Still have doubts that he should be with an NFL team? Let's look at guys who look just like him.

It’s interesting to compare Sam to Nick Reed, the 2008 Pac-10 Defensive Lineman of the Year. He was selected 247th in the 2009 NFL Draft (two spots ahead of where Sam was drafted five years later). Like Sam, Reed was a defensive end (for Oregon) who had an “undersized” label. In fact, Reed was an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Sam. The two players had about the same measurables – 40-time, vertical leap – coming out of college.

Unlike Sam, Reed made the Seahawks‘ active roster that season after a strong preseason. Sam was cut by the St. Louis Rams after his strong preseason in which he was fourth in the NFL in sacks.

When you look at the defensive ends who have been signed to futures contracts in the last couple of months, two things jump out.

First is how similar they all are statistically. They are all within four inches of height – 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-5. They're all about the same weight – 255 to 280 pounds. They all have about the same 40-yard-dash time: 4.70 to 4.90 seconds. Within a margin of error, they're about the same. Michael Sam fits right into the low end of most of these numbers, but within the margin: 6-foot-2, 261 pounds, with a best 40-time of 4.71.

The other piece is how similar their pass-rushing production was in college. 2.5 sacks, 6 sacks, 3.5, 4.5…. You know the only person whose production in that area is off the grid? Michael Sam. He had 11.5 sacks in his senior season alone, 18.5 for his Missouri career, and at least one every season he was at Mizzou. He had more sacks in one game his senior season than some players just signed by NFL teams had their entire senior season.

Take Zach Thompson. For the record, Thompson is three inches taller but the same weight as Sam. Their 40-yard times and vertical leaps are essentially the same. Yet Thompson recorded 10 sacks his entire college career at Wake Forest; Against stiffer competition, Sam recorded 11.5 sacks in just his senior season at Missouri. You can point to height and weight, speed and strength, but the stature of these two players are separated by little – three inches in height – yet a world of difference in actual production. In the preseason Thompson was graded a -1.9 (yes, that's a negative rating) by Pro Football Focus, compared to Sam's +0.6.

Thompson is a Raven and Sam is not.

When I talked to Gil Brandt, the former Cowboys personnel man who is now with Sirius XM's NFL Radio, he told me that Sam is just too slow and too small. "He's your 53rd guy is what he is," Brandt told me.

Yet just last year Brandt said of the PatriotsZach Moore that he “has some upside as a player due to his height/weight/speed combination (he ran a 4.84 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine).” He’s a couple inches taller, no faster and no heavier than Sam. Yet at Division II Concordia he finished with 4.5 fewer sacks his senior season than Sam did in the SEC. That guy has NFL potential, according to Brandt. Sam does not.

Moore is a Patriot and Sam is not.

Look at Leon Mackey, the defensive end who was signed by the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 6. Mackey is two inches taller than Sam but the same weight. Sam’s 40-yard Pro Day time was a little faster, Mackey’s Pro Day bench press number was one rep better. Size, speed, strength – they’re essentially the same player. The most glaring difference: Mackey had zero sacks his last two seasons for Texas Tech – zero. Sam had 16.

Mackey, after a stint in the Arena League, is a Viking and Sam is not.

Julius Warmsley. He's a defensive end out of Tulane. Same height and weight as Sam. He's slower than Sam but stronger. In Conference USA he had 14.5 career sacks, four less than Sam had in the SEC.

Warmsley is a Seahawk and Sam is not.

Ryan Robinson. Sam Montgomery. The list of comparable defensive ends in height, weight, speed and strength to Sam who are with a team right now goes on and on. What are the two most distinguishing factors between Michael Sam and all of these men? 1) Sam had considerably more production in college than any of them, and 2) Sam is openly gay.

So far Sam, a similar player to all of these men, has not been given an equal opportunity to any of them.

The question no one I've spoken to seems to want to answer: Why?

The pink elephant in the room

We have to take the anonymous NFL team front-office sources at the words they offered a year ago:

"I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down."

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet."

"Why are we going to do that to ourselves?"

They said it. It happened.

Bruce Arians, the Arizona Cardinals coach who has risen to the top of the NFL coaching ladder, has been one of the many people to speculate on the reason more pro gay athletes don’t come out. Arians, for his part, had open, honest conversations with his team about having a gay player in the locker room last season, one of the few head coaches to have reportedly done so. He has also been supportive of Rob Brakel, the gay Cardinals executive who came out late last year. Arians even told me that despite their 3-4 defense they’ll be looking at Sam in the next few weeks.

Yet 18 months ago, Arians blamed the lack of out pro male athletes squarely on the fans.

"I don't think the locker room would have any problem with it. The problem would be with the fans. I think especially opposing fans. Some of the things that are said are over the top and out of control that I can imagine what some fans would say to an openly gay player."

The mountain of evidence to the contrary – from polls to jersey sales to the ruckus applause Sam's name received at the NFL Draft – is too large to enumerate here.

New York Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas disagreed with Arians, pointing the finger directly at the players.

"In the locker room, it's different," Thomas said. "There's a lot of talk and joking around, and some guys walk around completely naked all the time, and they might not want to do that anymore."

I was in the Patriots locker room after the Super Bowl. There were women in the room. I'm gay, I was a gay man in the locker room, and I know for a fact I wasn't the only one. Most of the players know it too. And guess what: Guys were naked. They didn't even have their socks on. Nobody gave a crap. Why? Because the idea of a gay man in the locker room just might be the most over-blown issue in sports since – and before – those deflated footballs.

"If he's a good football player, he'll fit in," Patriots defensive end Zach Moore told me when I asked him about Sam finding a place in the locker rooms of Gillette Stadium. "I don't think sexuality has anything to do with it. I don't think it would be an issue at all. Not one bit."

You might think Moore was just giving me a line if Sam hadn't already broken the NFL locker-room barrier. Twice. Not only did he spend three months – brace yourselves – showering in the Rams locker room, but then another team – the Dallas Cowboys – invited him to shower with them for another two months to start the season. Quelle surprise!

The truth is, no matter where Sam, or any other gay athlete, has gone, the players accepted him, the team welcomed him, they showered together and no one freaked out.

In fact, teams with Sam on the roster during the regular season over the last two years have thrived. The Cowboys and the Missouri Tigers are a combined 19-3 with him there. He didn't play in the Cowboys' seven regular season games this year, but the idea that he would be some insurmountable distraction to the team was proven to be poppycock. (Coincidentally, the Cowboys lost their first two games – both at home – after cutting Sam this season.)

“No one thought different about it,” Cowboys offensive lineman Zack Martin, who went up against Sam in practice, told me. “The coaches did a great job. He was there to make the team and try to make us better. That was it.”

Sam did his part to minimize the media attention as well. He turned down countless interview requests and business opportunities. He stayed out of the limelight. Reporters – including yours truly – wrote about him, but that was more attention than distraction.

"I do not know how anybody could have handled the tsunami of attention – positive, negative, ignorance and then at the end trying to get back into this tornado of a game – better than Michael Sam did," King said. "He hasn't ripped anybody, he hasn't made any excuses.

"Even going back to the Oprah thing, he just wanted this historic occasion documented, and good for him. And when he found out it wasn't cool he said I'm not doing a damn thing that could affect my chances of making this team. He did everything right."

The players were cool with it – by all accounts he was very well-liked by the Cowboys, Rams and Missouri Tigers players. The fans were cool with it, Sam receiving applause from his home fans and during away games and selling lots of jerseys. While there was plenty of media attention on Sam, there was no media distraction from having him on the teams.

"He wasn't available to the media that much during training camp," said Howard Balzer, a St. Louis NFL stalwart and Pro Football Hall of Fame voter. "There were a couple times national media came in and they didn't make him available."

If rejection by the fans or players, and the projected media distraction, simply didn't materialize in Dallas or St. Louis, where was the Armageddon that, by the admission of SI's anonymous sources and the CBS Sports rankings, would befall any team that brought Sam in? Where was the discord that would suddenly erupt in the locker room?

When I was a kid, I always outsmarted myself in multiple-choice tests. I'd always get it wrong because I over-thought the question every time. In my adult life I've learned that the most obvious answer is generally the right one.

The answer to the question I've posed to so many – Why is Michael Sam not with an NFL team? – is also likely the most obvious one: because he's openly gay. Defensive ends with the same size and the same speed – yet with less production in college and the NFL preseason – are in the NFL and Sam is not because he's gay and he just won't stop being gay.

Harsh, right? The reality of the 2014 NFL season for Sam was harsh. If he had never come out, he would be in the NFL right now, just like every player like him. After all of my conversations, after all of the reasons and rationalizations, after examining all of the facts, that's the conclusion I've arrived at.

Yet even as an out gay man, there is hope for Sam.

The key to the kingdom

Opportunity is the operative word going forward for Sam.

When I was at the Super Bowl I asked a lot of people about those opportunities and why Sam hasn't gotten his. Many people pointed out that "lots of college players don't pan out in the NFL." Tim Tebow is the touchstone thrown out there more than any other. Tebow was 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and two-time BCS National Champion quarterback for the Univ. of Florida who was widely panned for his talent and is no longer in the NFL.

The big difference between Tebow and Sam? Tebow got his chance. He was on the Denver Broncos‘ active roster for two seasons and the New York Jets for one. It didn’t pan out for him – but he got his chance. For Tebow, throwing forward passes at the NFL level was clearly a challenge, even if there was that miracle win over the Steelers. But he got his chance.

Some people say Sam got his chance – in the preseason and on a practice squad. Yet these same people are the ones dismissing his preseason production because "it happened against backups."

In year one, Sam didn't get the same chance that every other player in his position has gotten before him. Every single one.

There are certainly some in the football world who aren’t surprised by this. Charley Casserly has been working in the NFL for decades. He was the general manager of the Washington Redskins from 1989 to 1999, then the GM of the Houston Texans from 2000 to 2006.

"I think [Sam's] best chance to play pro football is in Canada," Casserly, now an analyst for NFL Network, told me. "For an NFL player he is undersized for a defensive end and he isn't athletic enough to be a linebacker. His greatest asset is his effort."

That effort has been Sam’s calling card. Watching him in the preseason, I never saw Sam give up on a play until the whistle blew. He got better and better with each passing game. By the fourth preseason game against the Miami Dolphins he looked like a man on a mission tallying a QB hit, a hurry and six tackles. He didn’t miss a single tackle the entire preseason, according to Pro Football Focus.

"Michael did a great job for us," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of Sam's time on their practice squad. "He came in, he worked hard every day. I think he got better, he made us better. He was a good addition to our team."

While Sam was in camp with the Cowboys, it was revealed that they even had him playing on offense a bit. Sam truly did everything they asked him to do, despite Cowboys COO Stephen Jones insinuating that Sam didn't want to play special teams.

So how does Sam take the next step, from working out on his own to making an active roster?

"Like a lot of young players, he just needs to keep playing," Garrett said. "He just needs to learn his trade more, and that comes with experience and practice and continuing to work at it."

Yet without a futures contract, Sam cannot get the NFL experience he needs.

How does Sam break through in 2015?

Short of a Branch Rickey-type owner stepping up and forcing his front office to add Sam to their roster, he's going to have to do it the way so many others have: Hard work and determination. Times 10.

"It's not easy to get cut," New England Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly said. "It's not easy to bounce around, potentially week to week, from one team to another. It's not easy to be out of the game and still maximizing your preparation without a team to prepare with, so that once that opportunity comes you're loaded and ready to take advantage of it. That's not easy at all.

"The mental toughness to survive through that portion of a career is by far more important than how good of an athlete or a football player you are."

The NFL is rife with examples. You don't have to look any further than Super Bowl XLIX.

With about five minutes left in the game, the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl MVP award was Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Chris Matthews. He went undrafted out of the University of Kentucky in 2011. Much like Sam, Matthews was cut after the preseason – in Matthews’ case by the Cleveland Browns.

He spent 2012 and 2013 in the Arena League – with the Iowa Barnstormers, of Kurt Warner Fame – and in the Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, where he was the 2012 CFL Most Outstanding Rookie of the Year. It was almost a year ago today that Matthews was working at a Foot Locker and got the call to try out for the Seahawks. Last weekend he caught his first four NFL career passes – all in the Super Bowl – and one of them for a touchdown.

On the other side of the Super Bowl field was Sealver Siliga, a nose tackle for the New England Patriots. Siliga went undrafted out of Utah in 2011. He signed with the San Francisco 49ers but was released before opening day. He was signed to the Denver Broncos practice squad, traded to the Seahawks and cut, then added to their practice squad. He was cut again and added to the Patriots’ practice squad. He was added to the Patriots’ active roster on Dec. 6 – the same day Matthews was added to the Seahawks’ active roster for the first time.

"Personnel people are churning through all of those players, practice squad, free agent guys, to find players they think can help them," Daly said.

Maybe most famously, Warren Moon went undrafted in 1978 at a time when NFL teams struggled to grasp the concept of a black quarterback. Moon went to the Canadian Football League for five seasons before landing with the Houston Oilers.

Moon is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I like to say you don't need all 32 teams liking you," fellow Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams said. "You just need one team liking you. And I want to encourage him and anybody else, to keep going after their dreams, keep working. This has happened to others. But history is written by guys who didn't get discouraged and kept working. Eventually somebody gave them an opportunity, and all of a sudden history was changed."

Sam's future in professional football at this point is in part up to him. Everyone I spoke to – except for Casserly – felt Sam would get a shot with an NFL team if he just kept working hard.

Adam Schefter told me he sent out hundreds of resumes when he was looking for his first job. He felt lucky to get any response, even a rejection. Through determination, years later he's now one of the most well-known people in the NFL media. Sam, Schefter believes, has the same opportunity.

Like so many others before him, this period in his career is another test for Sam.

"If he still wants it, if he still has a burning desire to compete and find a spot in the National Football League, then he should work out like crazy," Mariucci said. "Like a guy who's obsessed with getting back on the field and making a team, and let the chips fall where they may. He just needs to find the right spot."

The good news for fans of Sam – and there are millions, as witnessed by the meteoric rise of jersey sales the moment the Rams drafted him in May – is that Sam's biggest strengths are his mental toughness and his determination. You don't come out publicly in the NFL if you don't have both.

"Michael is so very hungry and passionate to pursue his dream of playing profession football," Sam's agent, Cameron Weiss of Empire Athletes, said. "He's working out every day at Michael Johnson Performance in Dallas. He absolutely has not given up on that dream."

As I talked to players – current and former – at the Super Bowl, that idea of chasing a dream was a recurring theme.

“He’s gotten this far,” said Sam’s 2013 SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year, C.J. Mosley, currently with the Baltimore Ravens. “Things didn’t turn out the way he wanted them to, but he’s just gotta keep chasing his dream.”

Aeneas Williams, who watched every one of Sam's senior-season games with the Missouri Tigers and a year ago told me Sam is an NFL-caliber player, is still a big supporter.

"There have been some guys who have been out of the league for two years. They didn't give up on their dream and they've been able to come back. It's happened. It's happened to guys who have been more talented than I thought I was. But the key is, you don't give up on your dream. You stay working out and you look forward to the opportunity to play this game."

In the coming months it will be important for Sam to decide which direction is best for his career over the next couple of years: pursuing what would likely be an entire season of playing in the regular season of the Canadian Football League, or trying to latch onto an NFL team either as a practice squad player or an active roster.

Brandt told me the CFL would be the best thing in the world for Sam. Casserly echoed the sentiment. King sees it differently.

"My hope for him is that he signs with somebody by April 1 so that he can have a complete offseason program with a team" King said. "That is when people really learn about players, in the offseason program. He needs to be around the coach and the D-line coach, he needs to be around them for 10 weeks so when they make a mental list before training camp, they're impressed so far with this guy when the rookies come in."

The story we write in a year about Sam's 2015 NFL season very well may be determined by what actions he and NFL teams take in the next four weeks.

You can follow Cyd Zeigler on Twitter @CydZeigler.

Also check out Out magazine's feature story on Michael Sam. And USA Today has a piece by Tom Pelissero detailing next steps for Sam.

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