ST. LOUIS – Jeff Fisher has never been afraid to buck a trend, draft a troubled player or grant a second chance.
The coach of the Rams stuck with Adam "Pacman" Jones and Kenny Britt when he was at Tennessee, despite their off-field problems. Britt is now reunited with Fisher in St. Louis.
Fisher recently rehired Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator who was given a one-year suspension by the league for the bounty scandal with the Saints.
It was not a surprise that it was Fisher who helped Michael Sam make history as the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team.
"He is an amazing leader, and even better, he's a better man," said Wade Davis, the head of an advocacy group for lesbian and gay athletes. Davis currently is doing some work with the NFL. "He looks at everything from all angles and he's not afraid to take on a challenge."
The 56-year-old Fisher deflects any praise for being a trailblazer, insisting it was simply a football decision to upgrade one of the NFL's top pass rushes by taking Sam at No. 249.
"In our world, nobody's going to agree with what you do 100 percent of the time because everybody has opinions, and that's fine," Fisher said. "I'm concerned about what's going on in the building, with the staff and players, the direction we're headed. That's always been the case."
At least on the field, Fisher can relate to the challenge for Sam. He also was a seventh-round pick, the fourth wheel of a star-studded Southern California secondary that featured Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith and Joey Browner.
He then carved out a career playing under Mike Ditka for a Super Bowl winner in Chicago and is entering his 19th season as an NFL head coach.
Lott, a Hall of Famer, recalls Fisher smoothly making the switch from wide receiver to cornerback.
"To me, it's easy to play wide receiver because you know where you're going," Lott said. "Having to react, respond and do it with confidence and knowing you're not going to win every play, that's the mindset on defense. The determination he had then has stayed with him."
Not long after Sam came out in February, Fisher said he'd have no problem having him on the team, that this was an age of diversity.
Turns out it wasn't just talk. Several picks before the Rams took Sam, Fisher broached the subject with owner Stan Kroenke and general manager Les Snead.
Ditka said he wasn't surprised it was Fisher who stepped up when every other team was backing away from Sam. Ditka, who once traded all his draft picks to land Ricky Williams, called it a "pretty gutsy move."
Players have fallen in lockstep with their coach on the question of picking Sam. Defensive end Chris Long called it a "football move" and so did linebacker James Laurinaitis.
"I don't think it was courageous," Laurinaitis said. "I think it's a calculated move by the organization. ... If you have the opportunity to draft a guy that you think is extremely productive and maybe you had a higher grade on him than where he is, you go ahead and take that. I think football-wise, it was a very smart decision."
Fisher wouldn't say how far Sam slid on the Rams' draft board. The coach joked that divulging that information might affect Sam's rookie contract.
Titans broadcaster Thom Abraham remembers Fisher in 2009 after Tennessee's 0-6 start removing his sport coat, tie and shirt at the podium of a civic function to reveal a Peyton Manning jersey underneath. The punch line: "I just wanted to know what it felt like to be a winner."
"Picking Sam did not surprise me one bit," Abraham said of Fisher. "He's confident in his ability to be out front, and almost represent the NFL."
Sam has had several offseason workouts and more practices are on tap this week with the veterans. Long said Sam was working hard and former Missouri teammate, receiver T.J. Moe, said the team viewed Sam simply as someone trying to make it in the NFL.
"He is on the team. There's a 90-man roster, it doesn't go 89 and then Michael Sam's over there, this is the gay team, this is the straight team," Moe said. "Michael Sam is on this team and he's treated just like anybody else."
And if Sam struggles, nobody that knows Fisher well doubts the coach will have any problem cutting him loose.
"He doesn't like doing that part of it," said Brad Hopkins, a former Pro Bowl offensive tackle who played his entire NFL career under Fisher. "But he knows it has to be done, and that you can't make everybody happy."
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