When Carl Nassib came out as gay during last year’s Pride Month in June, he did much more than become the first active NFL player to be publicly out. He paved the way for other NFL players (and football players at every level) still living in the closet in fear of how their teammates and coaches will respond.
We know there are others in the league that are afraid to do the same. Ryan O’Callaghan, the former New England Patriots offensive lineman who came out after his career, has said that there is likely at least one closeted player on every roster. He knows this because many of them have reached out to him. It’s only a matter of time before more embrace their sexualities in public.
While the NFL has done a better job showing it supports the LGBTQ+ community, it’s up to the players and coaches who make up the NFL locker rooms to truly create a safe place where all are welcome. They would do well to take notes from the great Vince Lombardi, who had a gay brother and once said to teammates of one of his gay players, “if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.”
Progress is on the way, even if it takes time. ESPN polled 51 active NFL players in 2014 before Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL, and 44 of those players said a teammate’s sexual orientation didn’t matter to them. However, 32 of them said they had teammates or coaches use a homophobic slur and 25 said an openly gay player would feel comfortable in an NFL locker room.
Nassib was far from the first gay player to wear an NFL uniform, he’s merely just the first one to come out while playing. Throughout the league’s history, a number of former players have come out after hanging up their cleats. Here’s all 14 of them, in order of when they played.
Dave Kopay (1964-72)
Kopay was a running back who played for a number of teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers, mostly serving as a back-up.
He’s considered a gay pioneer after he came out to a newspaper in 1975, which made him the first pro team sport athlete to come out — not just in the NFL. His 1977 autobiography, “The David Kopay Story,” revealed many of his struggles and became a best-seller. He’s now 79. He’s served as a Gay Games Ambassador. When Nassib came out, Kopay told OutSports he was ecstatic to hear the news.
“That’s really big news. It’s fabulous. This is incredible.”
Jerry Smith (1965-77)
A two-time Pro Bowl selectee and First-Team All-Pro in 1969 (when he played for Lombardi), Smith caught 60 touchdowns as a Washington Redskins tight end. That stood as the position’s all-time record by the time he retired.
Smith reportedly came out to his family in secret after retiring. His former teammate, David Kopay, revealed in his 1977 book that the two once had a fling, essentially outing Smith and confirming his sexuality. Smith moved to Austin, Texas, in the 1980s and opened a gay bar. He died of AIDS complications in 1986, becoming the first former pro athlete known to die of AIDS.
He told The Washington Post 51 days before he died that he was battling the disease because he wanted some good to come from it.
Ray McDonald (1967-68)
Washington’s first-round pick in 1967, Ray McDonald didn’t have a lengthy career but had a tragic story. He was “late” to a team meeting by coach Vince Lombardi’s standards in 1969, and that cost him his job. In 1968, he was arrested for “having sex with a man in public.” Soon after, that’s when Lombardi warned players to not give him any crap for being gay. Much like Smith, McDonald died of AIDS complications in 1993. He learned he had the disease only after he was stabbed by a lover in 1986.
Martin Jenkins (1977)
Jenkins attended training camp with the Seattle Seahawks as a defensive back in 1977. That was the extent of his NFL career. It was far from the most important work he would do, though. He quit football and became a lawyer after earning a degree from the University of San Francisco Law School in 1980. Jenkins, 68, later became the first openly gay justice on the Supreme Court of California in 2020, a position he still holds today.
Roy Simmons (1979-83)
Simmons played a few seasons on the offensive line for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, and he played in Super Bowl XVIII with Washington.
Called “Sugar Bear” by his teammates, he struggled during his NFL career with drug abuse over concealing his sexuality. He was sexually assaulted by a man he didn’t know well when he was a young boy. Simmons became the second ex-NFL player to come out publicly when he admitted it on “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1992. He learned he was HIV positive in 1997 and died at 57 in 2014. The following year, he was inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.
He once said regarding the NFL and not coming out: “The NFL has a reputation, and it’s not even a verbal thing — it’s just known. You are gladiators; you are male; you kick butt.”
Jeff Rohrer (1982-89)
What would you say if I told you a former Dallas Cowboy married the man of his dreams? That’s what Jeff Rohrer did in 2018, when he used the engagement to also come out. That made him the first NFL player to marry someone of the same sex.
Rohrer played for the Cowboys in the ’80s and played in 83 games. He told OutSports that he thinks the locker room would have accepted if he came out during his career, but he wasn’t sure how ownership would have viewed it.
Esera Tuaolo (1991-99)
“Mr. Aloha” was a big, 277-pound defensive tackle for the Packers and Vikings, among other teams. He played in 111 games and recorded 200 tackles and 12 sacks. He also recorded the final tackle of John Elway’s career in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Tuaolo publicly came out in 2002. He’s said he had constant anxiety during his career over fears of being outed. He’s still in the game in his own way: he hosted a Super Bowl Inclusion Party last year, which was sponsored by the “Hate Is Wrong” anti-bullying organization.
Wade Davis (2000-03)
Davis never played in a regular-season NFL game, but he attended training camp for teams like the Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins. After coming out in 2012, Davis has done great activism work for organizations like the “You Can Play” project. His writing has appeared in numerous major outlets and in 2014, he became the NFL’s first LGBTQ+ inclusion consultant.
Kwame Harris (2003-08)
Harris grew up in Delaware but chose to move far from home and play offensive line for Stanford after his parents had trouble accepting his sexuality. The 2003 first-round pick played in 86 games for the 49ers and Raiders. He told ESPN his declining play may have been due to the pressures of hiding who he was. Harris came out as gay to CNN in 2013 following a domestic violence case against his ex-boyfriend.
Ryan O’Callaghan (2006-11)
O’Callaghan played in 51 games as an offensive lineman with the Patriots and Chiefs, but he will always be remembered more for sharing his incredible story. In a coming out story in 2017, O’Callaghan revealed his plan after football was always to kill himself. He also revealed his addiction to painkillers. He now heads the Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation, which “provides scholarships, support, and mentorship for LGBTQ+ athletes of all levels.”
Dorien Bryant (2008)
A four-time All-Big Ten wide receiver at Purdue, Bryant was a college star. When he was a junior, a relationship he had with a male cheerleader became public and led to gay jokes and cardboard cutouts of him the next game. He went undrafted in 2008 and was signed by the Steelers, but he was released after a failed physical. He came out to Philadelphia Magazine in 2013, saying he had offers from other NFL teams after he was cut. But he wanted to find himself first.
“I was just afraid I’d be 30 and still not know who I am,” he said. “I know that 30 isn’t the be-all-end-all … but it is in gay years.”
Brad Thorson (2011)
A lineman at Kansas and Wisconsin in college, Thorson attended training camp with the Arizona Cardinals in 2011. He came out in a blog post in 2014, thanking athletes like Michael Sam and Jason Collins for helping him gain the courage. The response he got was overwhelmingly positive.
Colton Underwood (2014-16)
Before he was famous for jumping the fence and making Cassie’s life a living hell on a wild season of “The Bachelor,” he was donning an NFL jersey. He bounced around on a few NFL practice squads before becoming a TV star. Underwood often talked about his virginity on “The Bachelor,” and he didn’t come out as gay until 2021. He’s now engaged.
Ryan Russell (2015-18)
Russell isn’t gay. He identifies as bisexual, but I felt the need to include him here. He briefly played defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys. He came out as bisexual in 2019, saying he felt selfish for doing so because he didn’t want to be a distraction.