Ryan Russell, an NFL player who is currently a free agent, came out as bisexual on August 29 in a personal essay on ESPN.
“My truth is that I’m a talented football player, a damn good writer, a loving son, an overbearing brother, a caring friend, a loyal lover, and a bisexual man,” the 27-year-old defensive end wrote in the piece.
Russell is the first out player in the league since Michael Sam came out ahead of the 2014 NFL Draft and went on to play briefly for the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys. But to date, there has never been an out LGBTQ player to play a regular season game in the NFL.
Russell hopes to change that. He is vying to return to the field for the first time since the Buffalo Bills released him during the preseason last year — and this time he can be his authentic self. A major catalyst driving his decision to come out was a meeting in early August with an NFL team that was interested in signing him. Having healed from a 2017 shoulder injury that carried into last year, he was proud to tout his on-field accomplishments and show that he has recovered from his injury.
“But for all the encouraging feelings about the visit, I do have one strong regret that has inspired me to make a promise to myself: This is the last time I will ever interview for a job as anything other than my full self,” he wrote. “Out of love, admiration and respect, I want the next team to sign me valuing me for what I do and knowing who I truly am.”
On the field, Russell has enjoyed moments of success combined with unfortunate injuries that have hobbled his ascent. The 6’5”, 275-pound pass rusher was drafted by the Cowboys in the fifth round of the 2015 draft and saw limited action in his first season, playing in just one game. He was sidelined with an abdomen strain in the final month of the season and the Cowboys released him the following year after he struggled to make an impression in the preseason.
That same month, however, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scooped him up and he went on to play in eight games, recording four tackles and a sack. Russell enjoyed a healthy progression in 2017 when he played in 14 games, including seven starts, and totaled 17 tackles. He tallied two sacks in his final two games despite enduring a dislocated shoulder.
But life in the closet meant that Russell’s on-field performance wasn’t the only thing consuming his mind during those seasons. Russell elaborated on the compromises he made during the early years of his NFL career when he confided in loved ones and still dated both men and women, but did so in secrecy. He said he “had to be strategic and cautious” about meeting men during the season, and that meant he was not always “fully present in the locker room.”
Life on the DL became especially problematic after his first season in the NFL when he said a blogger came across an Instagram story that featured him along with a man he was dating. At Russell’s request, the blogger agreed not to out him, but the situation demonstrated the difficult nature of an NFL player navigating life in the closet.
Following his encouraging 2017 campaign, Russell resurfaced with the Bills during training camp last season — but he did not make the opening day roster. Instead, however, he had an opportunity to focus on his personal life. He grieved the death of his best friend, Joe, who died of cancer, and he moved to Los Angeles and “began writing stories I wish I’d heard more of as a child.”
“I continued to heal and train for football because I knew my best days as an athlete were ahead of me,” he said. “I also began to date openly and freely.”
In the reflective ESPN piece, Russell recalled the struggles he endured as he grappled with his sexuality while growing up. Like many other queer athletes, society’s expectations made him question why he didn’t always fit a particular mold.
“I wasn’t flamboyant, tidy, or any other stereotypes kids are forced to construct their world around,” he explained. “I wasn’t straight, hyper-masculine, or aggressive; I cried quite a bit, and, as a young black man, I didn’t fit the bill. I played football — so I put that in the straight column. I wrote poetry and romance stories — so I put that in the gay column.”
In a YouTube video with his boyfriend, Corey O’Brien, Russell said that his first time with a man came when he was in college at Purdue University.
“I was shaking the whole time and was super nervous and scared about what people would think,” he said. “I slowly started experimenting a little more, but then after that I dated a girl, moved in, had a long relationship with a woman in college and enjoyed that, too.”
Once he reached the NFL, there were times when Russell realized he would not be able to come out. Russell explained in the YouTube video that he was even more discouraged after hearing about Sam’s stint with the Cowboys.
“Just the stories that I heard about how the players handled [gay players], it was that moment that I was like, OK, let’s go back in the closet,” he said.
Although Russell said he never lied about his sexuality, he still felt deceitful about withholding that information — but now, with a new outlook on his life and career, he’s looking forward.
“Today, I have two goals: returning to the NFL, and living my life openly,” he wrote. “I want to live my dream of playing the game I’ve worked my whole life to play, and being open about the person I’ve always been.”