These 15 other LGBTQ football players paved the way for Carl Nassib to play while out

Carl Nassib playing for the Cleveland Browns during a game in 2018.
Carl Nassib playing for the Cleveland Browns during a game in 2018.Photo: Erik Drost

Carl Nassib is slated to take the field tomorrow, beginning his sixth season in the National Football League (NFL), and his second with the Las Vegas Raiders. Of course, though, this season will be different and much more groundbreaking than Nassib’s previous years, simply because he will become the first player to take an NFL field while being openly gay. Nassib came out via Instagram in June.

But while Nassib will complete that milestone, he is not the first LGBTQ athlete ever in the NFL. Several players have come out after they last played a NFL game, and some even came out prior to the opportunity of taking the field.

Related: NFL declares “Football is gay”

According to Outsports, there have been 15 other out athletes in total that participated in NFL official activities or played in NFL games.

That doesn’t even include the several NCAA and college-level football players that came out, the women that played in pro football leagues outside of the NFL such as the NWFL and FWA, and out players that played football in flag football leagues or leagues outside of America, such as the Canadian Football League (CFL). Even Caitlyn Jenner, before her reality show days and current attempt to foray into politics, first became an athlete in hopes of making it to the NFL, and played college football in the NCAA.

LGBTQ people have long become a part of football, and it’s in no small part to these trailblazers, just like the one that Nassib is becoming, which is why he is nominated as one of LGBTQ Nation‘s Hero Celebrity Who Made Us Proud this year.

But for LGBTQ people in the NFL, it all started when Dave Kopay

Dave Kopay

Kopay was a running back who played for five teams between 1964 and 1972, voluntarily came out in 1975. Kopay later told much of his story to Perry Deane Young, who wrote his biography, The David Kopay Story, that became a bestseller in 1977. His journey inspired many others and is cited by other athletes who decided to come out.

“I hear from people all over the world that my coming out has empowered them in their search for self,” he has said.

Today, Kopay is 79 and residing in Los Angeles. He’ll hopefully get to see the fruit of the labor that he and other out athletes have given for LGBTQ people to succeed.

Jerry Smith

While playing in the NFL, Kopay had relationships with women and men, and later he publicly shared he had a relationship with a fellow NFL player. That was later revealed to be Jerry Smith, who died of AIDS in 1986.

Smith played in the NFL for thirteen seasons as a tight end for the Washington Football Team.

Sonny Jurgensen, his teammate for much of that time who was at his side while Smith was on his deathbed, later told Sports Illustrated, “We had some ‘check-cashers’ with the [team]. You know, guys who made their living playing professional football. Nothing against them, but they weren’t football players. They weren’t one of us. They weren’t Jerry Smith. He was a football player. He was one of us.”

Although Smith never came out publicly, people in his life knew and he even owned a gay bar in Austin, Texas. His “double life” was chronicled in the NFL documentary A Football Life: Jerry Smith, available to watch now.

Ray McDonald

Another player for Washington who later came out was Ray McDonald, a running back who only played two seasons in the NFL. He was infamously cut from the Washington Football Team by then-coach Vince Lombardi (known for his disapproval of homophobia) because he was late to a meeting.

McDonald’s career was shortened in part by injury thereafter, but also by the fact that he was arrested for having sex with a man in public in 1968, which outed him publicly. He passed away from AIDS-related illnesses in 1993, much of his life in between being a mystery.

Roy Simmons

Roy Simmons became the second NFL athlete to publicly come out in 1992 while appearing on the Phil Donahue Show. Simmons also revealed he was living with HIV in 1997. The offensive guard played for the Giants for three years, and then became the first known LGBTQ person to participate in a Super Bowl, as a backup for the Washington Football Team in 1983, his final year in the league. He then went to play in the United States Football League for a year.

Simmons was ostracized by his family, abused as a child, became housing insecure and abused substances prior to coming out. After coming out, he wrote his autobiography, Out of Bounds, published in 2006.

Simmons passed away from pneumonia in February 2014.

Esera Tuaolo

Esera Tuaolo was a journeyman defensive tackle in the NFL from 1991 to 1999, and he recorded the last tackle of Super Bowl XXXIII (33) in 1999.

After retiring, Tuaolo came out in 2002, as the third NFL player to voluntarily come out after the end of their playing career. He has not only become an advocate since coming out and the author of the autobiography Alone in the Trenches: My Life As a Gay Man in the NFL, but he jumped into a second career competing with another talent of his.

In 2017, Tuaolo wowed judges as a contestant on The Voice. He made Blake Shelton’s team in Season 13 before being eliminated midway through.

“When I finished in the NFL, I came out to my family. When I said those words for the first [time], when I said that I was gay, it was like this huge mountain just crumbled,” Tuaolo said in his introduction on the show. “I felt light as a feather, but when I jumped on the scale I was still that 6’4”, 300 pound Samoan that’s gay and played in the NFL.”

 

Dorien Bryant

Dorien Bryant was the once-standout wide receiver from Purdue University known as “The NFL’s (Almost) First Out Player.” He was outed while at the school right before graduating from Purdue and heading to the NFL Draft in 2008, but he denied his sexuality publicly at the time.

He went undrafted, but was signed later to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but never played.

Bryant came out on his own in 2013.

Wade A. Davis II

Wade Davis never played in an official NFL game, but he did play in the NFL’s NFL Europe league — and even won a World Bowl with the Berlin Thunder in 2001.

The cornerback would come out publicly in 2012 to Outsports and SB Nation, and now he is the Vice President of Inclusion and Product at Netflix.

Kwame Harris

Kwame Harris played as an offensive tackle for six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, before a short time playing in the now-defunct United Football League (UFL).

Born in Jamaica and not accepted by much of his family when coming out in his youth, Harris only came out publicly in 2013 to CNN after being charged with domestic violence in a dispute with his partner at the time.

“I’m a number now – and we need more numbers,” he later told ESPN.

Michael Sam

Michael Sam was widely understood to be the first ever out athlete to enter the NFL when he came out before the NFL Draft in 2014. He infamously kissed his boyfriend live on television after being drafted by the St. Louis Rams,

Sam was cut from the team at the end of the preseason. He was never placed on the team roster.

Four days later, Sam was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys, joining their practice squad. Seven weeks later he was dropped by the Cowboys as well.

He eventually played in the CFL, making him the first out athlete to play in that league, but left football by 2016.

During a speech in 2019, Sam told University of New Mexico students that he believes coming out right after his college career hurt his chances of being picked up by a major league team.

“The NFL gave me a raw deal,” he said. “It was tough to forgive them. I love football. Football gave me an education and gave me the opportunity I so desperately needed at the time. I really am grateful for the sport.”

Brad Thorson

Brad Thorson was a college standout offensive lineman who was signed by the Arizona Cardinals but didn’t make the team, and tried to forge a career in the CFL before quitting football in 2011.

He came out in a blog post on July 4, 2014, writing, “I’m gay. I’m also an athlete. For years, I struggled to unite these two identities in my own mind. Not until after my professional athletic career came to an end did I allow myself to understand my sexuality. Now, three years later, I’m finally ready to share that with people.”

Ryan O’Callaghan

Ryan O’Callaghan came out in a profile published in OutSports in 2017 after a career playing as an offensive tackle for the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs for five seasons.

“All the people I was most concerned about were fine. It was so much easier and better than I ever imagined,” he recalled.

He has maintained that he believes the NFL is now ready for an out player.

“I think teams are ready. Guys just have to understand he’s gay. It doesn’t mean he wants to date you, he just wants to be your teammate,” he said at the time of his coming out. “It’s not a big deal, it’s really not.”

His autobiography, My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life, co-written by Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler, was published in 2019.

Ryan K. Russell

Ryan Russell — known by the pen name R.K. Russell — played three seasons as a defensive end and linebacker from 2015 to 2017 with the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and was on the Buffalo Bills prior to the 2018 season, when a shoulder injury led to an end of his season.

That year, Russell came out as bisexual. He wrote his story and published it first-hand for ESPN.

“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,’” Russell told LGBTQ Nation in an interview this past November.

“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,” he added at the time.

He still has hopes to play again in the league, but for now he is continuing to write and advocate for LGBTQ inclusion with the NFL. He is currently dating professional dancer Corey O’Brien.

Jeff Rohrer

Rohrer was a longtime linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, making him the first out defensive player in the league’s history. He accumulated 7.5 sacks in 83 professional games.

He came out in 2018, by announcing that he was marrying his partner, Joshua Ross, at 59 years old. He is the first, and currently only, NFL alum known to enter into a same-sex marriage.

“They just love me, they always have. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s changed,” he said of how his family and NFL community have treated him while knowing he was gay.

Martin Jenkins

Martin Jenkins never suited up for a NFL game, but he was on the Seattle Seahawks’ team in 1977, the team’s second season in the league, as a defensive back. He later went on to become a lawyer and a judge.

In 2020, he publicly revealed he was gay in an interview with the Advocate, as he was being appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) as the first out person on the California Supreme Court. He said that “it’s an interesting notion” to be the first out LGBTQ person nominated to the state’s highest court.

“I compartmentalized in college, when I went to the NFL, through law school, through all of it, and in my mind, I wasn’t gay for a long time,” he said, explaining that he tried to suppress his feelings.

Today, he’s in a loving relationship with his partner.

Colton Underwood 

Colton Underwood has become more familiar for appearing on multiple Bachelor series, but he also was in the NFL for three years, although he never took the field has come out as gay. He officially retired from the league in 2020, just a year before coming out in April.

Discussing his decision to come out, the ex-football prospect reportedly fought back tears in a profile when explaining how much he has relied on the guidance of fellow out football player Michael Sam, expressing regrets that he didn’t come out at the same time Sam did in 2014.

Carl Nassib

Nassib made sports history when he came out as gay in a June 21 Instagram post, making him the first active NFL player to do so.

He acknowledged that his life is great – “I have the best life, I have the best family, friends and job a guy can ask for” – but also seemed weary of criticism that he was coming out just to get attention.

“I’m a pretty private person so I hope you guys know that I’m really not doing this for attention,” he said in the video. “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.”

He added that he was donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project, which fights LGBTQ youth suicide.

Nassib hasn’t spoken much about his identity after that announcement, although he thanked fans for their support at an August press conference.

“I was definitely surprised by the big reaction. It was incredible,” he said. “I thought nobody would care. But it was such a good feeling to have all the support. I was glad I could do my part to help bring visibility and representation to my community.”

Earlier this month, he became the first out NFL player to get a spot on a team’s NFL active roster when the finalized their 53-man team ahead of their first game of the season on September 13, on Monday Night Football against the Baltimore Ravens.

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