With Albert Breer on vacation, we have guest writers filling in for his Monday Morning Quarterback column. This column comes from Sam Rapoport, the NFL's senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
My first draft of this column was trash.
Subconsciously, I wrote an entire 1,500-word essay as the person I thought you would all want me to be. It fit the mold. It was corporate and it was boring.
You see, I grew up reading The MMQB. I submitted questions to the column when I was in high school, hoping Peter King would answer one. So when Albert Breer asked me to tell my story on one of the biggest platforms in football media, I froze and was transformed back to the first 10 years of my career in football—when I acted like the person I thought everyone wanted me to be.
I’ve known I was gay, unequivocally, since I was five years old. I looked at my parents, and I wanted to be my father. I felt like a boy and, at times, I thought I was one. I spent my youth trying to figure out how to end my life so no one would find out I was a “mistake.” Even now, that word is hard to type.
Although 40% of LGBTQ+ youth attempt suicide, I wasn’t in that camp. I just wanted it to be over. I spent my life from the ages of five to 29 planning how to end my life when I turned 40. To my young, undeveloped brain, 40 was the age when I wouldn’t be able to hide anymore, the jig would be up and too many people would be asking me why I wasn’t married yet. I recently listened to NFL legend Ryan O’Callaghan speak about his experience and, interestingly, he had the same thoughts growing up.
I turn 40 in two weeks, and this coming birthday has additional meaning to me. I will be celebrating it in my backyard, with my phenomenal wife and gregarious three-year-old son.
I have always been a football junkie. I have played touch, flag and tackle football at the highest levels offered for women my whole life, and I was a huge Cowboys fan growing up. I was, and am, in love with the sport. And football has loved me back.
As a senior in high school, I decided I couldn’t attend the prom because I would have had to go with a boy. So, I told my parents and friends that I had a football tournament two hours away at the same time. I drove those two hours and sat in an empty football field for four more. This sounds sad now, but it was survival and it felt great at the time. Thank you, football.
Working in football was always a dream of mine, and I achieved that when I secured an internship at the NFL league office in 2003. (I actually mailed a football in a package with my résumé enclosed, if you can believe it. Hey, it worked.) During my first week of work, Emmitt Smith walked by me in the hallway. I knew in that moment that the NFL league office was where I wanted to be. This season will be my 19th there.
However, I operated as two different people during the first 10 years of my career in football. One of those people was thriving professionally, young in her career, and the other was barely surviving and petrified that someone at the office would find out her truth.
I spent 10 years being the person I thought everyone wanted me to be.
I wore skirts and heels. If you know me now, that’s laughable. I only wear men’s clothing. I skipped every holiday party, happy hour and opportunity to bond that I possibly could, and when I had to attend one for whatever reason, I was not O.K. I had to write down my lies to keep track of them. My anxiety came to a head.
Then came Feb. 2, 2013.
Many people in the LGBTQ+ community know their date. That’s mine. I was there for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, and it was time.
I was standing outside the Mahalia Jackson Theater after the 2013 NFL Honors show had concluded. It was the first time I had brought a girlfriend to an NFL event without pretending that she was my friend and leaving our hotel room at different times so no one would find out.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, of all people, saw me in the corner of his eye and walked over.
I had been lucky enough to build a relationship with the commissioner before he ascended to the top job. Who better than him to be the first person in the NFL I would tell? Even if I couldn’t yet say the words.
So, I grabbed my girlfriend’s hand and held it.
Heart pounding. Out of body. Hands sweating. Holy s---. Paralyzed. Oh my God, this is happening. You can do it. No, don’t do it. O.K., yes, do it. He used to beat up kids who teased his gay brother; he’s been an ally for decades. You’re going to survive this.
As he was walking over, I saw a smile on his face I had never seen before. It was a fatherly, warm, unusually big smile that I will never forget.
He gave me a big hug, like a first-rounder on draft night. We chatted about the show for a few minutes. I did it.
Many people think that you come out and then it’s “mission accomplished.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.
I have spent the nine years since that day coming out. Coming out to my colleagues, to owners, head coaches, general managers and others. Sometimes it’s easy now; sometimes it’s still very difficult.
I have spent the last nine years trying to figure out who I am in the office, after I spent so long being someone else—the person who wrote the first draft of this essay, which thankfully you’ll never see. I now wear men’s clothing in the office, talk about my wife and son regularly, and proudly wear my identity on my sleeve wherever I go. What makes a person different makes them great, right Coach Gruden?
Many people in the LGBTQ+ community are familiar with this quote from the writer Alexander Leon:
“Queer people don't grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we've created to protect us.”
Carl Nassib’s announcement that he is gay changes the world. It took 101 NFL seasons for this to happen.
It changes my world, but more importantly the world of young kids, especially athletes, who can finally see an active gay NFL player. Our players are superheroes and incredible humans. Now more kids can envision themselves as one of them.
Many came before Carl to heat the water for this moment: David Kopay, Jerry Smith, Ray McDonald, Roy Simmons, Jeff Rohrer, Esera Tuaolo, Kwame Harris, Michael Sam, Wade Davis II, Ryan O’Callaghan, Ryan Russell, Dorien Bryant, Martin Jenkins, Brad Thorson and others. Their courage to come out, no matter when they did it, is heroic.
Our office, rightfully so, calls all players who formerly played in the league, “NFL legends.” Those 14 men are my legends—and legends to all football fans in the LGBTQ+ community.
I don’t know Carl, but I’m excited to meet him. I watched his facial expressions and body language in his coming out video. I saw freedom. I saw a calmness. I saw a man who is who he is, and also who just wants to play ball.
As Carl navigates these new waters of freedom and authenticity, I hope he quickly finds the real him and doesn’t have to do as much copying, pasting and deleting as some of us have. I hope the guy who teaches his teammates about compound interest, index funds and money management can do so while also talking about his boyfriend, husband or partner. I hope he now gets to be the person and player he is and not the person and player for whom he thought the world wanted to cheer.
I used to think football was for one kind of person. It isn’t.
Carl Nassib is football. Lamar Jackson is football. Ron Rivera is football. Kim Pegula is football. Younghoe Koo is football. Jennifer King is football. Robert Saleh is football. The LGBTQ+ community is football. We are on the field, we are fans, we are coaching, we are in the front office. We love the game, and we are part of the game, as much as everyone else.
I had to go back through this column a few times to make sure I stayed true to my commitment to writing this as myself. I found a lot of parts that made me uncomfortable and questioned whether I should include them—which is exactly why I kept them in.
I think this final draft is me.
It has been an amazing opportunity, a dream come true and an agonizing few days writing this week’s Monday Morning Quarterback column. (Writing is hard!) Thank you for reading, and here’s to more great progress—in the NFL and on this planet—in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.