‘The strongest fear I had ever felt’: RK Russell on coming out in the male world of football | NFL

Back in Texas, everyone I knew had strong feelings about homosexuality. If you were straight, you would use slurs like faggot and pussy boy and rant about masculinity and manhood – things no teenage boy knows anything about. If you were gay, you had to fight for your freedom and sometimes even your life. I only knew of one openly gay kid at Creekview; our lockers were near each other’s junior year. Sometimes I would catch him at his locker, not opening it, not rushing to class, not coming or going, just standing there, staring off into the distance and trying to breathe, hiding in plain sight.

I hid at Creekview, too, I guess, acting happy when I was spiraling, being popular when I was filled with self-loathing.

At that point I had only been with women. I had had sex with women, had even fallen in love with them. I enjoyed sex, though I had it too young. Maybe I was trying to fill a void of affection, or maybe I thought that through sex I could become a man.

The Yards Between US

With consistent performances and big plays, I was on the radar of NFL draft scouts. On paper, I had a realistic path to achieving a dream – but I wasn’t sure whose dream it was. The questions in my head grew louder. Self-doubt about my sexuality and my identity overflowed into worries about the future.

As I played my role at Purdue and blindly searched for meaning in private, I felt like I was living a double life before I even knew how each of those lives worked. I had hidden my creative side from my teammates throughout middle school and high school – and I was doing it again with my college teammates. I worried that a young man who wrote poetry, drew pictures, and enjoyed slow songs about love would be seen as less masculine and, therefore, less of a football player. Being actually queer seemed like an instant, irreversible verdict on my belonging, on my right to exist in the male world of football.

When I first heard the news about Michael Sam coming out, I remember I tried to differentiate us in my mind as much as possible. He was gay, not bisexual, so naming his identity publicly seemed more clear-cut, or maybe he saw it as his only choice. He was SEC Defensive Player of the Year, so he would have gotten a shot at the NFL regardless. I was in the Big Ten, and Purdue wasn’t one of the top schools in our conference: my future opportunities weren’t so obvious.

Also, he had someone. The video of Sam and his boyfriend kissing when he was drafted played every hour on the hour that draft day, exposing what a lot of my peers, teachers, and family really thought about two men kissing. But I did all these mental gymnastics because deep down, I knew that in the most significant ways, we were the same. We were both different from what we were told from birth that a football player should be. We were Black, which meant society already judged us more harshly. And we both wanted to play in the NFL more than anything. Our very being threatened our biggest dream. I was afraid for him. I was afraid for myself.

The potential consequences of my worlds crashing into each other – would both of those sides be obliterated? – was the strongest fear I had ever felt. All the success I found on the field I attributed to my dedication, my hard work, my masculinity, my sacrifices. All the failures I blamed on my duality. A bad game was never just a bad game but a knock on my personal world, my creativity, my emotions, my sexuality. In our first four games of 2o13, we went 3–1, and I was having runaway success at my position. But when conference play began, we started losing and kept losing. What was the point of working so hard if we couldn’t win when it counted? What was the point of coming so far in my career if my sexuality would make me unwelcome in the NFL? What was the point of being good if it wasn’t good enough?

During an evening of playing Madden with Joe in our dorm room, something finally broke open. Joe and I would often play sports video games, but when Purdue football was struggling, our matches got a little more competitive; we randomly selected our teams for the video game. Joe landed on the Atlanta Falcons, me on the New York Jets. Joe liked teams that paired a strong running game with a vertical attack, and he was gashing me with Michael Turner, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez. I was being overpowered – but I wasn’t even trying. Before long Joe realized I wasn’t even putting up a fight. He knew I wasn’t the type to quit. Not virtually, not in real life, never. So even a lackluster Madden effort alerted him that something wasn’t right. He didn’t turn to look at me or put down the controller, but he asked me what was wrong.

I didn’t know what to say. Honestly, a lot of my time in college up to this point had been trying to figure out what I could say. Everyone talked about their problems, but what if the problem was me?

In that moment, I remembered that Joe and I both loved Frank Ocean more than any other musical artist. When Channel Orange was released, and Frank revealed he was bisexual, Joe had hardly flinched – a piece of knowledge that felt like a sign, or just enough of a push.

Practically shaking, I asked Joe if he felt like we were close as a team, if we jelled well.

Joe took a deep breath before answering. “Sometimes. Some people really care, and others don’t give a fuck. They come to practice high and drunk and are just used to losing.”

“How well do you think you know everyone on the team?”

“I know them well enough. I know who is here to win,” he said with a shrug. It was that simple for Joe: he didn’t care about anything other than a man’s character and a teammate’s work ethic.

“What if they were gay?” I asked. The word gay didn’t quite fit me, but at that time, I thought no other description did. As I let the word slip out of my mouth, my video-game quarterback was being sacked. I felt suddenly afraid of what I’d done. I could feel each heartbeat pulsing through my temples. I didn’t look away from the television.

“If he’s here to win and he respects me, I could care less.”

It was an answer that should have made me feel better, but it wasn’t enough.

“What if he was your friend, also?”

Joe took a shaky breath, but I wasn’t sure if it was because he had just thrown an interception to my cornerback or if he was picking up the increasingly blatant subtext.

The Jets were a good matchup for the Falcons, because they had a stout defense. Even as I agonized over my words, I’d managed to focus on Madden a bit. The turnover gave me some momentum, and my guys were suddenly marching down the field.

Joe, eyes still glued to the game, asked me, “How close of friends?” The world outside of Madden had stopped. My running back had just pushed through a huge hole in Joe’s defense for a touchdown, but I couldn’t hear the simulated announcers shouting. I wasn’t sure how much of what I was saying applied to me. Did it even matter? What if this was just some kind of phase, and my attraction to women won out in the end? What if I married a woman, and this was all for naught? What if the rest of the team found out? What if the truth stained me in some way that everyone in the locker room could see? Would I lose my chance at the NFL and financial security? Would I lose my scholarship? Would I lose my best friend? Why did I have to know what Joe thought about a queer player, what he thought about me?

In a voice barely above a whisper, I answered, “What if it’s your best friend?”

As my question hung in the air, the screen showed the updated score, and Joe went back on offense. On the first play of the drive, he sent Julio Jones up the sideline on a go route. Matt Ryan took his drop step, stepped up, and launched the ball as deep as virtual-humanly possible. True to his real-life version, video game Julio Jones seemed to climb into thin air to grab the ball, and then dragged my defender briefly before breaking free for a touchdown.

Joe responded firmly, “If he’s my best friend, then that’s all that matters. We’re best friends.”

His answer felt like salvation.

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“Overcoming my greatest fear: RK Russell shares his experience of coming out in the male-dominated football world”

Former professional football player Wade Davis has written for ESPN on his experience hiding his sexuality while playing for Purdue University. Davis said that even the sight of a fellow gay student at his Texas school would leave him feeling nervous that someone would “think I was queer, too.” Davis, who is now the Director of Professional Sports Outreach for LGBTQ charity, the You Can Play Project, and an activist for queer athletes, recalls his time at Purdue University with shame, writing: “I got really good at playing the straight man. I wasn’t technically lying about my sexuality, but I wasn’t telling the whole truth, either.”

#LGBTQ #homophobia #comingout #football #selfdoubt #identity #Masculinity #NFL #MichaelSam #creativity #duality #FrankOcean #friendship #acceptance #equality #mentalhealth #courage

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