MADISON - Jim Leonhard has played for five teams since entering the NFL in 2005 and during that time has been a part of many different types of locker rooms. Those experiences leave the former Badgers’ All-American safety believing that Michael Sam – who announced on Sunday that he was gay – will be accepted in whatever locker room he ends up in after May’s NFL Draft.
“I think for the vast majority it’s not going to be an issue,” Leonhard told ESPNWisconsin on Monday. “It’s a very professional group of guys. They might make a lot of stupid mistakes and say stupid things, but in the business of professional football it’s a group of guys that’s very close and they want to win. They don’t care what you do. There are types of people from all different backgrounds that come from all over the place and believe different things. But when it all comes down to it, everyone wants to have success as a team and win games, and that’s all that really should matter.”
Leonhard, who spent the 2013 season with the Buffalo Bills, admitted that he wouldn’t want to face the type of pressure Sam will be facing going forward. But he also saluted the former Missouri defensive end’s courage for speaking up.
“I think it’s great,” Leonhard said. “Obviously you want people to be able to live their life and not really worry about the consequences. I think he’ll have a great reception. Obviously there’s mixed reviews out there right now about him and what’s going to happen in the draft. I wouldn’t want that burden on my shoulders (but) I’m proud of the guy. Whatever your beliefs are, I think you have to be proud that he has the courage to come out and make the statement.”
In his nine years in the NFL, Leonhard has spent time with the Bills, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints. And he said it’ll be important for Sam to go to a place where there’s an established hierarchy in the locker room to quash any possible pushback to having the first openly gay player on the team.
“It’s real amazing how different each and everyone is,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot. So much of it comes down to leadership. Having guys in that locker room that can bring people together and have a positive atmosphere. You’re not planting those seeds. You always get the negative guys. You always get guys, it doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s the schedule, the food, they’re going to complain. Guys are complainers. You’ve got to have the strong leadership in the locker room to kind of quiet that and make sure it’s a positive message moving around.”
Sam told his teammates at Missouri prior to the season that he was gay, and Leonhard said the fact that it didn’t leak to the rest of the country was a credit to the players and coaches in Columbia.
“They respected him and his decision to tell them and kind of left it up to him to tell everyone else. That is a sign of a close and good team. I think that definitely can be the case in an NFL locker room that he’s in. I think we’re kidding ourselves if just because no ones come out, you think that there’s no gay players in the NFL now. Obviously I think we’d be kidding ourselves to think that way.”