By Ernie Palladino
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Of all the memories and feelings Bill Parcells covered in his Hall of Fame induction speech in August, one concept remains of particular importance today.
“Now, we’ve got all kinds in this place,” he said, meaning any NFL locker room. “We’ve got white, we’ve got Latin, we’ve got Asian, we’ve got Samoans, we’ve got Tongans, we’ve got Native Americans.
“…I’ve played and coached with all of them, and the only thing that made any difference is, are you willing to help? And if you are, come on in. If you’re not, get the heck out of here.”
Had he given that speech six months later; say, this week, he might have added one more group.
Let’s hope his philosophy holds for Michael Sam, the Missouri defensive end who stands to become the first openly-gay player drafted in the NFL. If it fails to hold, simply because of a man’s professed choice of sexual partner, then the NFL will reveal itself as nothing more than a collection of well-conditioned cavemen, incapable of tolerance and devoid of humanity.
This is not meant to get all sociologically mushy over Sam’s lot. He made the decision to come out publicly, ostensibly to control the narrative of what could still turn into an explosive story. That’s for the news organizations, human interest and all that.
What happens when the cameras and microphones and notebooks leave the locker room is what is important. And if you believe anything, believe this. Things could get awfully dicey in there, especially if Sam doesn’t live up to his current mid-round draft projection.
Understand that locker rooms are not touchy-feely places by nature. Along with Parcells’ sentimental stew of ethnicities, a locker room could also feature a delightful sampling of players from gang backgrounds, jail stints and deep emotional troubles. A good team might present itself as a brotherhood of men. But behind closed doors, there may exist a constant tension among those Boston-Brahmin sons, corn-fed Midwestern farm boys, Deep South rednecks and ghetto-hardened African-Americans.
They may play well together, but many would not have the others as neighbors, much less dinner partners.
Throw an openly-gay athlete with all its stereotypes into the mix and one can imagine how things might get uncomfortable.
That’s under the best of circumstances. Now, imagine if Sam turns into a busted pick.
To that, some NFL players agree with Parcells’ philosophy.
“Will he be accepted?” asked Carolina’s Steve Smith, a wide receiver not exactly known for controlling his emotions on or off the field. “I think his ability to play football will determine his ability to be accepted. If you can play football, that’s what you’re there for. The other things, unless it carries over into a human-resources issue, I think no business has a problem with it.”
It’s the right thing to say, and it’s accurate. If Sam turns into a run-stopping, pass-rushing demon, his teammates will look upon him with the same reverence as any star. If he proves incapable or, heaven forbid, fainthearted, he won’t have a chance.
In that respect, he’ll be like anyone else in the NFL. Back in the early 1990s, Giants running back David Meggett once walked through the locker room in front of his teammates and press and declared he was “going on strike” until the team released a busted 1992 first-round tight end. Derek Brown’s career had gone downhill almost immediately when Lawrence Taylor broke his facemask — and nose — on the first play of his rookie training camp.
He lost his intestinal fortitude that day.
“Man’s got no heart,” Meggett cried out.
Brown was as straight as an arrow, but he wasn’t willing to help make the Giants great. If Sam falters under that same responsibility, his teammates could make life unbearable.
But if he’s a winner, chances are he’ll fit right in with Parcells’ whites, Latins, Asians, Samoans, Tongans and Native Americans. He’ll be just another part of the melting pot that is an NFL locker room.
Sam can control that much.
The other stuff? It could all make for an interesting and controversial rookie year.
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