It was August 29, 2019. There were still 11 Democratic Presidential candidates. Alex Trebek had recovered from chemotherapy and announced his return to work filming episodes of Jeopardy. The “bisexual chair,” and the a New Zealand member of Parliament holding a colleague’s newborn in session, were taking over the internet.
Ryan K. Russell remembers the date, off the top of his head, because it was the day he publicly came out as bisexual.
At the time, Russell was primarily known as a former Dallas Cowboy defensive end, and a four-year veteran of the National Football League. Like many tales, there turned out to be more to the story.
Less than a year before, Russell’s former teammate and best friend, Joe Gilliam, passed away from cancer. Russell had just come off of his last full NFL season, and had been released after playing through a torn shoulder ligament for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I lost my best friend on September 11, 2018, around the same time as I felt I had lost my football career,” he shares with LGBTQ Nation in an exclusive interview. “So, it was super hard for me as a person, because I lost the one person who knew me, who accepted me and loved me, and then I lost football – the one thing I was very proud of, the one thing I was presenting to people: ‘Oh yeah, I’m a football player, so my life is great.’
“So, I had to find out what really made me great. I had to really fall in love with myself, outside of what I do, and stop filling this void with other people’s love and affirmations or acceptance.”
Russell (who generally goes by ‘Russ’ and uses the pen name R.K. Russell) moved to Los Angeles and for a time, focused on writing. His debut poetry book, Prison or Passion, was published on April 12, 2019. Eventually, he had to sit down and confront something he learned about himself from his days attending Purdue University in Indiana: he was attracted to men and women.
“I had always written – but sharing it publicly, kind of falling in love with my art, my emotions, my sensitivity, and with my sexuality, who I was and just accepting that.”
Initially, being a desired free agent was “really exhilarating” but then, “terrifying – because in that moment, I thought, ‘okay, I’m going to have to go back in the closet’… that didn’t seem like an option to me.”
So, the decision came. “I kind of knew what sacrificing would feel like, and what that life was like being in the closet, and I didn’t want to do that again, so I felt that, ‘I need to come out – and I’m still going to pursue my football career, because I should, and teams want me, and I’m damn good, and I deserve to be happy in my personal life.’”
Since his coming out, Russell has remained an unsigned free agent, and the NFL has yet to have an out player active on game day. Neither has the NBA, the NHL, or Major League Baseball.
Still, he believes that, as he wrote that day, he can be the first openly LGBTQ player to play in the four ‘major’ professional sports leagues. That’s why the 28 year old still gets up at 5:00 AM every morning, spending at least four hours in the gym every day, keeping himself in shape for when the opportunity comes. He’s far from “wait[ing] for a call” either, he tells us. “I manifest it. I physically pursue it every day.”
“I’m not just sitting here like, ‘yeah, it’ll happen’ – it will happen because I will make it happen, because I’ll finally get an opportunity,” he emphasizes.
“If I didn’t [believe], I would call my agent, retire right now, and start doing the other thousand things that I feel like I am f**king great at,” he laughs.
The NFL, for their part, has made a solid effort to celebrate Russell and further incorporate LGBTQ progress into their social advocacy. Russell helped bring to life the permanent webpage at NFL.com/Pride, and appeared in the league’s PSA campaign for National Coming Out Day 2020. Just last month, Troy Vincent, the NFL Executive Vice President for Football Operations, declared that “The NFL is ready for its first openly out active player.”
“I want to make something abundantly clear,” Vincent opined, “The National Football League condemns homophobia. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind in our sport… we acknowledge and welcome members of the NFL family who have come out.”
Russell commends the league for “taking some big swings…on a corporate level.”
Yet, the dreaded wait for ‘the first’ continues, although someone ready to do it is available, and already in the league directory. While the NFL as an entity, and even many of the players – such as DeAndre Hopkins and Rob Gronkowski, who appeared with Russell in the Coming Out Day PSA – may be ready to make it happen, it doesn’t seem that those in charge of personnel across the league’s 32 teams are. That may not be the sole reason that Russell has not played a down on a football field since August 2018, but it is likely to be a factor.
Despite that, Russell emphatically knows that he would not only fit in a locker room, but that he would be welcomed: “I think that everyone that I’ve talked to in the league, and played with, or was friends with in college and transitioned to the league, are very loving and accepting people. I think any player that comes in… and tries to help the team win, will be accepted.”
“We’ve seen that across ethnicities, across religions, in every other sphere of characteristics of a player. I don’t see why this would be the one thing that is not going to make a team do the work.”
He admits, “I know there’s a big media story, [or] narrative, right now that LGBTQ+ players won’t be accepted, and that they’re a distraction – all these things, without any basis, without any evidence backing it up.”
“That’s one of the reason why I’m very vocal about the NFL and being in the locker room,” he stresses, “because a lot of these people that have assumptions about locker rooms, have never been in an NFL locker room. Not as a player. So, I have a very different perspective.”
The journey hasn’t come without frustration. Russell still is, after all, an athlete with youth and experience on his side. That drove him to write an article entitled “Dear NFL: If You Want to Be LGBTQ+ Allies, Hire Out Players.”
“I am an out bisexual NFL free agent, and I desperately hope that we are finally ready for this change,” he wrote in the article ahead of his appearances on behalf of the league for Spirit Day 2020.
The bold approach to getting the attention to teams was the product of “my own ego – I can admit that needs to be in check,” he explains. He says that it was “not just a call out of ‘hey, come sign me,’” but a declaration to take the “big swing” the league office was willing to take in being pro-LGBTQ.
In short, there’s no excuse not to be, especially when there are out coaches, such as San Francisco 49ers assistant Katie Sowers. Just a few months ago, she became the first out person coaching on the sideline in a Super Bowl. San Francisco, in Russell’s words, are hobbled by “two season-ending injuries to two defensive ends, one of them being the star end, in Nick Bosa – and a roster that, honestly, keeps getting banged up.”
It sounds like a possibly fitting landing spot for Russell – he’s already in California, they’re in need of talent at his position, and the team would already be well accustomed to the media spectacle surrounding an out athlete, in one of the most LGBTQ-welcoming locales in the world. Russell tells us he worked out for the team in 2019, prior to coming out, but wasn’t signed as the team no longer had the need.
So, the wait continues into the 2020-21 season. “With the trade deadline passed, [teams] have to work with what you’ve got [out there in free agency],” Russell believes.
Currently, teams across the league are hampered by player after player coming down with coronavirus. That means Russell’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus – the “most ruthless NFL agent”, who has amassed billions in revenue for clients – could have his work cut out for him soon.
He is known for his “influence” in the sports world, or as a “shark” to some, but Russell feels “confident” in their working relationship: “That is why I stayed represented by him, and he stays representing me – it’s a mutual thing. Either one of us could choose to go our separate ways – we haven’t because we believe in each other, when it comes to work, and that’s all you really need in an agent.”
A former team of Russell’s, the Dallas Cowboys, is also not having a spectacular year — known as “America’s Team”, their current record is 3-8. When they drafted him in 2015, Russell got to play alongside “greats” he grew up watching, namely Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, and Tyron Smith.
“The fans, they treat you like rock stars, I mean, the love – when things are good,” he laughs, “when things are good, the whole city really does bring you up and uplift you. You’re a rock star there.” He was sent to the team’s practice squad in 2016, and then went to play for Tampa for the next two years.
Since then, a majority of the players and coaching staff he knew there have moved on. One constant, at least, has remained: hands-on, lightning-rod team owner Jerry Jones, who Russell had nothing but kind words for: “very positive, though, very good energy. Whether win or loss, he’s always very adamant on picking up the energy and supporting the guys…. I know fans and other people have different opinions, but… I thought he was a good guy.”
In the meanwhile, Russell remains roster-less and although he is actively working on a slew of other things – penning a forthcoming memoir, opinion writing and contributions to Queer Majority and Out Magazine, and as a passion project, picking through the best of poetry submissions among his subscribers.
But he remains ready and prepared to step into an NFL locker room again.
Throughout quarantine, Russell’s daily routine includes his morning of workouts and writing exercises – and “by about 3 to 4 [p.m.] every day,” he takes care of the relationships in his life – namely, his partner, reality personality and professional dancer Corey O’Brien. The two met on the dating app, prior to Russell’s coming out, and had only knew him for a few months when he made his decision.
“To tell someone that you’ve known for a couple of months that, ‘hey, I’m about to make this huge life-changing decision, not just for me, but for you as well’ – and feel nothing but love and encouragement and support was huge for me.”
O’Brien was not only there for him every step of the last 15 months, but the two run a popular YouTube channel together and regularly make joy-inducing TikTok videos and photoshoots when they can.
“I definitely value my relationship, very highly, and I understand now that I don’t have to sacrifice one for the other,” Russell beams.
“I don’t have to sacrifice my career for it – I shouldn’t have to, and no one should have to.”
Beyond “going through the COVID blues every once in a while like everyone else,” Russell believes that O’Brien has “become my rock, my foundation. I’m really lucky to have him.” Like much of America felt over the Thanksgiving weekend, he says they “just want to get out and see live music and go see family and just have fun.”
Outside of his partner, Russell also makes sure to “talk to my mom an hour every day during her lunch break, and yeah, just try to unwind.” Noting he’s a huge Shonda Rhimes fan and has just finished watching HBO shows Lovecraft Country and Insecure, Russell’s enjoying his added TV time these days: “I try to be in bed by 9, if there’s a good show – 10 pm – if I really want to torch myself the next day, then 10:30. But then, I hate myself.”
He wants everyone to know “how big and accepting the queer sports community is,” noting fellow LA resident and sports journalist LZ Granderson as a non-athlete in the realm — although he swears he has no insight on any other athletes planning to come out.
“There’s a lot of people in the league…I’m hopeful,” he says, “I always want people to live their truth and love themselves, and be proud in who they are, and share that to allow other people to be proud and support them. But no, no gossip from me.”
Russell is friends with fellow out athlete Jason Collins, who came out as a free agent in 2013, before retiring from the NBA the next year. He calls him “just a great dude, so I love [him].”
He’s also in complete awe of fellow out athlete Megan Rapinoe, who just became engaged to WNBA star Sue Bird, and he recently appeared in an Instagram Live stream with: “I don’t think she knows how inspirational she is, which is hard to say, because she has a lot of swagger and confidence, but I don’t think she really knows how much she’s touched my life, and she’s someone I love to connect with and I love to talk to, and always feel like I learn something from connecting with her.”
He has not yet been able to connect with Michael Sam, another defensive end who, to date, has been the closest to any other out football player to reach a pro NFL snap. He came out prior to the 2014 NFL Draft, and was selected by the Rams – located in St. Louis at the time – but he was cut days before the season began. He also was in Dallas, on the practice squad, a year before the team drafted Russell.
Unlike Russell, Sam essentially got a cold shoulder after his ‘stint’ in the league. He’s expressed that he believes he received “a raw deal” from the NFL, and has not reconnected with the league in the same way other now-out, ex-players have.
“He didn’t get to play in the regular season, but he was kind of the only example I had of someone that was trying to be out and in the league,” Russell recalls, “…and it didn’t really work for him, someone that was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, All-Conference…he couldn’t make a roster.
“…I just know, that was the only model I had, and it didn’t work for him.”
But for Russell, the LGBTQ sports community is much bigger and important now than those opposed to it. People assume a lot about him and his life – for example, former NFL star Larry Johnson claimed that Russell was the latest to fall for the “effeminate agenda” supposedly pushed by professional sports.
Russell finds those notions irrelevant. The only opinions he’s concerned about is those in an NFL team’s front office. Despite all he does, he knows he can get on the field at anytime. “For me, it starts and ends with football. I am very focused. No one on this Earth, professional athlete or otherwise, was put on this Earth to do one thing. We all have multiple talents, multiple gifts, we’re all multi-faceted.”
He pointedly declares, “if a team has any doubts, they can fly me out for a workout and see for themselves.”
Like many of the stories that were atop the news on August 29, 2019, much has changed for Russell in the 15 months since.
A small example: the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign at the time said Russell’s coming out was “creating more space and opportunity for young LGBTQ people to dream big and to pursue their goals.” The Secretary was Sarah McBride, who is now a Senator-elect in the State legislature of Delaware.
As a Black, bisexual man, the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris “feels really good” for Russell after he supported their campaign and helped to get out the vote with LGBTQ Nation. “I’ll be fully transparent – because that means someone that I’m not for and honestly, isn’t that for me, is getting out of the Presidency,” he adds, and specifically celebrates Kamala Harris for “breaking boundaries.”
While his NFL status has remained stagnant, he sees “no problem” with jumping onto a roster, even mid-pandemic. In fact, “if anything, it might be a little easier [to start playing now],” he says, citing less heckling fans and the fact that he’s already been on top of his health, like any athlete normally is.
While it may still seem a long shot to some, a woman (Sarah Fuller) played in a college football game for the first time just yesterday. Russell may be closer than ever.