Michael Sam draws a crowd, other players put on show

Thursday, March 20, 2014 | 10:18 p.m. CDT; updated 5:30 p.m. CDT, Friday, April 11, 2014
Former Missouri football players Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Max Copeland, Henry Josey, E.J. Gaines and others performed in front of NFL scouts during Missouri's Pro Day on Thursday at Devine Pavilion.

*Section added to explain that the increased interest in Michael Sam was because of his recent announcement about being gay.

COLUMBIA — At first, it was about Michael Sam. 

At 9 a.m. Thursday, satellite trucks from ESPN, FOX Sports 1 and NFL Network had set up outside the Devine Practice Facility for Missouri's Pro Day. Of the 32 NFL teams, 31 made the trip to Columbia.

By 10 a.m., scouts, coaches, current Missouri players and national media were packed inside the weight room at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex. The room was decorated with signs that highlighted Missouri's success developing NFL talent. Dozens stood on the balcony overlooking the weight room to see 13 of Missouri's NFL hopefuls get measured in and perform the bench press, with a special focus on Sam.

The crowd gathered for Sam because just over a month earlier he made the announcement that he is gay and put himself in position to become the NFL's first openly gay player.

Even as the group made its way from the training facility to the indoor practice facilities, it was all about Sam. Cameras followed him down the hallway and over to the field where he hoped to improve on his uninspiring workout numbers from the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. 

Just a few minutes after workouts started, it was no longer about Sam. When Kony Ealy stepped to the line with his neon cleats glowing, the mood inside the facility grew hushed. Ealy crouched down, his 6-foot-5-inch frame hovering inches from the ground. In a few short strides, Missouri's Pro Day became about Ealy.

Ealy crossed the finish line of the 40-yard dash, and a smile spread across his face. His agents began checking their phones. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski and former Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson were already grinning ear-to-ear.

The unofficial time was a 4.77 seconds, nearly two tenths of a second faster than Ealy ran in Indianapolis. Ten minutes later, and after Sam had tweaked his hamstring running his 40-yard dash, Ealy ran even faster. This time, Ealy was clocked at 4.57 seconds. 

"I know I'm faster than what I showed at the combine," Ealy said afterward. 

Ealy showed that and more on Thursday.

He ran through linebacker drills with representatives from the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles paying close attention to him. By the time he was done working out, he was being ushered around the facility to do interviews with national television stations and meeting a long list of NFL teams. 

Richardson, who has become a mentor of sorts for Ealy throughout the pre-draft process, didn't have to do too much on Thursday.

"Just make sure he's enjoying the ride," Richardson said. 

Ealy wasn't the only one enjoying the ride.

Sam brought the crowd, but his 12 teammates may have benefited the most from the added attention at Missouri's Pro Day. While Sam chose not to do interviews with the media, Ealy did interviews on national television and wide receiver L'Damian Washington had a documentary crew following him around throughout the day. 

Quarterback James Franklin didn't mind the extra attention, either. As a junior, Franklin faced scrutiny from the media for his inconsistent play and inability to stay on the field. Now, after a bounce back senior season, Franklin just wants a look.

"This is really my only opportunity to get exposure nationally from all the television and all the other guys being here," Franklin said. "I'm kind of feeding off everyone else's attention."

As Franklin went through his throwing session, scouts were still huddled around Ealy and Sam, who were stretching in preparation for their own individual drills.

Franklin's throwing session wasn't just about him. It was about Washington and Marcus Lucas, the two wide receivers Missouri hopes to send to the NFL.

It was about Max Copeland, who has dropped 50 pounds since the end of the season in an effort to transition from guard to fullback.

And it was about tight end Eric Waters, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds and had a 39.5-inch vertical jump — numbers that would have been second and first respectively among tight ends at the combine. 

The entire spectacle was a whirlwind. For more than four hours, Missouri's NFL hopefuls worked out in front of more than 40 NFL scouts. Missouri's current players watched on along with the families and agents of the prospects. 

By the time the facility emptied out, it was all about Missouri. Yes, Ealy might be the program's seventh first-round pick since 2009. Yes, the 13 players participating in the Pro Day on Thursday was a high number for the Tigers.

But as two new banners hung from the rafters, one for the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division Championship and one for the Cotton Bowl, Thursday felt like what scouts are starting to expect when they come to Missouri. 

"It shows how much talent we have on this team this year and how much we can come together and have fun," Lucas said. "I feel like that's the main thing it was today. Everyone out here, having fun with smiles on their faces and performing, doing what we do."

Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.

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