IRVING, Texas (AP) — Michael Sam waded through a crowd of reporters and was settling in front of yet another bank of cameras when someone asked if this was what it was like in St. Louis.
“The heat?” Sam said, drawing laughter from two dozen or so people surrounding him as he stood in front of a large Dallas Cowboys star on a wall just outside the locker room.
No, the latest version of the circus after the league’s first openly gay player signed to the practice squad of America’s Team. He’s unlikely to get into the opener Sunday against San Francisco and might still face long odds of joining an active roster anytime soon.
But Sam got his second chance to make it in the NFL four days after the Rams released the seventh-round pick when they had to cut the roster to 53 players.
“You guys follow me around like hawks,” Sam said after going through his first late-morning workout with the Cowboys. “I’ve been tired of it since February. I expected it.”
The Cowboys, who are seeking help with their pass rush because of injuries and the offseason release of franchise sacks leader DeMarcus Ware, expected it, too. Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten said coach Jason Garrett addressed the signing with the team.
“I think he does it as good as anybody I’ve ever been around, of addressing issues and moving forward and putting our focus on what it needs to be and that’s a good 49ers football team,” Witten said.
Garrett said the move was “about football” and deflected any questions about the impact of bringing in Sam or how it might affect the locker room.
“That’s your decision what question you want to ask,” Garrett told a larger-than-usual crowd at his daily news conference. “We’re focused on football. That’s where our attention is, and what people say outside this organization is really up to them.”
Owner Jerry Jones said Rams coach Jeff Fisher spoke highly of how Sam fit in with his teammates there.
“He was exemplary,” said Jones, speaking at a Texas Lottery news conference in Austin. “He’s relentless as a worker. He’s relentless as a pass rusher. He is going to have to make up for a little speed. He’s going to have to make up for size, but how many times have we seen that? That’s what makes football.”
Sam went through stretching and individual drills with his fellow defensive linemen during the brief portion of practice that reporters could watch. Dallas made room for him on the 10-player practice squad by releasing rookie linebacker Will Smith.
Any team can sign Sam off the Cowboys’ practice squad, but would have to put him on the 53-man roster for a minimum of four weeks.
“I just want to do anything I can,” said Sam, who faced long odds to make the St. Louis roster because of the team’s depth on the defensive front. “On special teams, left end, right end, whatever. If you want me to hold the ball, I’ll do it to perfection.”
Being on the Dallas roster means Sam is returning to his home state. He was a lightly regarded recruit out of Hitchcock, Texas, a town of about 7,000 along the Gulf Coast about 40 miles southeast of Houston. Sam came out to his Missouri teammates before his senior season, when he was the SEC defensive player with 11 1/2 sacks. He told the rest of the world three months before the May draft.
The Cowboys didn’t have Sam on their draft board, with Jones saying his size and skill set had him somewhere between defensive end and outside linebacker. Dallas passed on him with three of five seventh-round picks before the Rams got him at pick No. 249 out of 256.
But Dallas heads into the opener with serious questions about its defensive line after giving up the most yards in the NFL last year — and third-most in league history.
Defensive end George Selvie, who has been battling a shoulder injury in recent weeks, is the only Dallas lineman who had more than two sacks last year. Tackle Terrell McClain, one of the key free agent signings, is likely out of the opener with a sprained ankle. The other major free agent pickup, tackle Henry Melton, missed all the preseason games with a groin injury. He hasn’t played since tearing a knee ligament with Chicago in Week 3 last year.
Rookie DeMarcus Lawrence, who was drafted in the second round with the hope that he could at least partially fill Ware’s void, can’t play until after the eighth game. He’s on short-term injured reserve with a broken right foot. And while the Cowboys will get defensive tackle Josh Brent back, he faces a 10-game suspension over his conviction in an intoxication manslaughter case involving the 2012 death of teammate Jerry Brown.
“We are looking are looking for pressure, for pressure players and that’s his position,” Jones said of Sam. “We hope that he can refine his skills. He’s not ready to go at all but can he come in and learn?”
If the answer is yes, his teammates are ready to support him.
“It’s not a big deal,” running back DeMarco Murray said. “If he’s here to help us win, treat him like any other guy. Doesn’t matter.”
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