Michael Sam found his way back to football almost by happenstance.
Eight years after becoming the first openly gay man to be drafted by an NFL team – and six since he last played in a professional game – Sam said he had planned to do some backpacking in Europe this year before later moving to England.
"I was looking for a new start," he told USA TODAY Sports, "a fresh new chapter."
Then the Barcelona Dragons, of the European League of Football, offered him a coaching gig. And he leaped at the chance.
Now, Sam is living in Spain and entering his first season as the Dragons' assistant defensive line coach – teaching technique, assisting defensive line coach Chase Baker and helping out in the weight room on the side. It's his first coaching job and first step back into football since 2015, when he played for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
"Being here and being with the coaching staff, being with the players, it just took me back," said Sam, now 32. "It just felt like I never left the game."
Sam starred in college at Missouri, racking up 11.5 sacks during his senior year en route to all-American and SEC co-defensive player of the year honors. He publicly came out as gay following the 2013 football season, then became the first openly gay player in the NFL when the then-St. Louis Rams selected him in the seventh round of the draft.
After being cut by the Rams prior to the 2014 season, then spending a month on the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad, Sam played one game in the CFL in 2015 before stepping away from the team, citing his mental health.
Dragons head coach Andrew Weidinger said he knew Sam was looking for coaching opportunities recently but isn't sure how he first got on Barcelona's radar. He called hiring Sam a "no-brainer" given his experience and attitude.
"He’s been awesome," said Weidinger, who previously coached in the NFL for 11 years with the Buccaneers and Falcons. "He’s a juice guy. He’s got a lot of juice. He brings the energy."
Barcelona is one of 12 teams in the ELF, which is entering its second season. Other teams are based in Austria, Germany, Poland and Turkey.
Though the contours of the sport are the same, and the league uses NFL rules, Sam said it sometimes feels like "a completely different game here." There's also the language barrier to contend with. Sam said the Dragons have players who speak Spanish, Catalan, French, Slovakian, Dutch and German, as well as English.
"There’s a lot of languages popping around over here," he said with a laugh. "If I’m talking too fast, or any of the American coaches are talking too fast, (the players) relay it to each other so everyone can be on the same page. It may be a page behind or a page forward, but we all get there eventually."
— Barcelona Dragons (@Dragons_BCN) April 28, 2022
Sam said he is trying to learn Spanish himself, with the help of team personnel. "Como tú sientes?" he regularly asks players after practice. "How do you feel?"
When asked if he views this job as a proverbial stepping stone, to one day coaching in the NFL, Sam demurred. For now, he said, he is focused on helping to build up the ELF and hopefully broaden football's reach in Europe. He hopes the nascent league might eventually work out some sort of partnership with the NFL to grow the game and make it more accessible for European kids.
"That’s my dream," Sam said. "I know it’s (a long shot) but that’s what I’m kind of hoping for."
He also hopes the Dragons can set a positive example by succeeding with a diverse coaching staff. Outsports, a website that covers LGBTQ issues and personalities in sports, reported that Sam is likely the first publicly gay male coach in pro football. Barcelona also has a female coach, assistant quarterbacks coach Mónica Rafecas.
With the season set to begin June 5, Sam said his backpacking plans are out the window. Though he does still hope to settle in Europe.
"My focus is to grow this team and this league," he said. "I’ll still try to make this move in some way permanent. That is a goal."
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michael Sam back in football as coach for Barcelona Dragons in Europe