By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - Michael Sam has already made a significant impact on the National Football League, even though his long cherished dream to become the league's first openly gay player may never materialize.
Though the 24-year-old defensive end failed to make the St. Louis Rams' final 53-man roster for the 2014 regular season on Saturday and cleared waivers the following day to remain on the outside looking in, he achieved one of his primary goals.
Ever since he ended his 2013 senior season as a University of Missouri standout by being awarded co-defensive player of the year honors in the Southeastern Conference, he has yearned to be judged purely on his merits as a football player.
And that is exactly what he got during his brief spell with the Rams during the preseason where his impressive work ethic and burning desire to simply be "one of the team" made a lasting impact with the entire coaching staff and his fellow players.
"Mike came in here and did everything we asked him to do," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said after the defensive end was cut amid 21 other roster moves before the NFL deadline.
"He got a chance to play a lot of snaps, he had the second-most snaps on the defensive line to Ethan Westbrooks, and was productive. Mike played well. He has the ability to play someplace. It's gotta be the right place, it's gotta be a fit.
"As someone told me years ago, the difference between a good player and an average player in this league is just snaps, it's reps. He's a much better player now than he was when he got here."
The 6-feet-2 (1.88 m), 260-pound (118 kg) Sam became the first openly gay player to be selected in an NFL Draft when he was taken in the seventh round by the Rams in May, a significant moment for the league.
"America is ready for its first openly gay NFL player," Sarah Kate Ellis, president and chief executive of the group GLAAD (formerly Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), said in a statement.
"Sam's strong preseason performance leaves us confident that he'll be wearing an NFL jersey come the regular season kickoff."
That confidence in Sam, however, may well turn out to be misplaced.
Despite his success at Missouri, talent evaluators have said he might struggle in the NFL, perhaps too small to play regularly on the defensive line and not athletic enough to play in space as a linebacker.
A day after he was unclaimed off waivers by other league teams, Sam failed to make the Rams' 10-player practice squad on Monday, mainly because their defensive line is such a strong unit.
He had been vying with the undrafted Westbrooks for the last of nine defensive line spots with the Rams, and Westbrooks made the roster after displaying greater energy and big-play potential than his rival.
Fisher said the final roster choices hinged not only on Sam's competition with Westbrooks but also on the luxury of having nine defensive linemen on a team that utilizes a four-man front.
St. Louis went into the pre-season training camp with eight defensive linemen already inked in on the roster: Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Alex Carrington and first-round pick Aaron Donald.
"Nine is a number that we looked at to start the season," Fisher said. "If you go with 10, then you're going to be short someplace else, and we're just not there.
"It was a football decision back in May to draft Mike and once again it's been all about football. I will tell you this, I was pulling for Mike, I really was.
"Unfortunately we let go some really good teammates, some close friends. Some may be coming back, you may see them on practice squads, some of them you may never see again."
For Sam, the long journey continues but he was quick to thank the Rams organization and the city of St. Louis for giving him "this tremendous opportunity and allowing me to show I can play at this level."
Sam said in a statement: "I look forward to continuing to build on the progress I made here toward a long and successful career. The most worthwhile things in life rarely come easy, this is a lesson I've always known. The journey continues."
Battling to prove himself has been the norm for Sam, one of eight children from a disadvantaged, broken home in the small town of Hitchcock, Texas, who has impressively overcome the odds.
"Adversity hits everyone," said Sam. "I wanted to do great things. I wanted to play sports. I got better at football. I got better in my grades. I was the first in my family to graduate. I want to keep on fighting."
Asked earlier this year if he wanted to deliver a message to anyone dealing with their own personal struggle, Sam said: "It's OK to be who you are, whether you are gay or straight, black or white. It's OK to be comfortable in your own skin."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Gene Cherry)