When Kansas State offensive tackle and NFL hopeful Scott Frantz came out to the nation as gay, he shared that his teammates (to whom he'd come out earlier) had warmly received the news, a sign the most alpha of locker rooms may finally be ready for equality. That's a quick shift considering retired NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan (who came out shortly before Frantz) shared that as recently as 2011 he’d contemplated taking his own life as a better option than letting his sexuality be disclosed while he still played ball. So, with more and more football stars coming out and authentically living in their truths, has the future finally charged onto the turf?
Here’s a list of players in college and pro ball who have proved you can be gay or bi and still run the gauntlet.
Running back Dave Kopay, who signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 1964, would play for five teams before hanging up his jersey in 1972. He would become the first major professional athlete to come out in any sport, telling his story to the Washington Star in 1975 — three years after his retirement. He graced the cover of The Advocate a few months later. Kopay released a best-selling autobiography a couple years after that, but find himself an outcast in the football world for decades, denied a chance to coach because of his sexuality even in the late 1990s. He eventually revealed he’d had a short relationship with a closeted Jerry Smith.
Less than two months before his 1986 death, legendary Washington Redskins tight end Jerry Smith disclosed to The Washington Post that he was dying of an AIDS-related illness. But even in that final interview, he declined to “elaborate on his life style,” as the Post put it. In ensuing years, the player’s homsexuality would be documented posthumously, notably in a short NFL documentary. Coach Vince Lombardi had apparently confided in Smith that he knew of his sexuality but would never let it impact him negatively; Lombardi’s brother was also gay. Smith was part of a star Redskins lineup during the late 1960s. His career 60 touchdowns would set a record among tight ends that would stand for 26 years. Yet he conspicuously has never been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Roy “Sugar Bear” Simmons, an offensive lineman for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, became the second NFL player ever to publicly reveal he was gay. Six years after playing his last game, a Super Bowl, he came out on Donahue in 1992. He would publish a memoir, Out of Bounds: Coming Out of Sexual Abuse, Addiction and My Life of Lies in the NFL in 2006. Simmons, who was HIV-positive, died of complications from pneumonia in 2014.
In 1968, Washington Redskins running back Ray McDonald was arrested for having sex with a man in public, just a year after the Redskins had drafted him in the first round. So Coach Vince Lombardi knew McDonald was gay when he took over leadership of the team in 1969, but made clear there would be no discrimination in his locker room, those close to the legend say. However, Lombardi would eventually fire McDonald for showing up late to a meeting, and the back would never play pro ball again. In 1986, after being hospitalized when a lover stabbed him, McDonald learned he had contracted HIV, and he would die of AIDS-related causes in 1993.
A defensive tackle, journeyman Esera Tualo would play for five teams over nine seasons, with his longest run on the Minnesota Vikings. He would come out to HBO Sports in 2002, where he discussed laughing off gay jokes and slurs for years while he played ball.
Cornerback Wade Davis, who played preseason with the Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins and spent two seasons with NFL Europe teams Berlin Thunder and Barcelona Dragons, came out as gay in 2012, nearly a decade after his retirement. Davis said he concealed his sexuality from teammates while he played. He would later join the staff of the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York, working with LGBT youth.
The most recent retired NFL player to come out, Ryan O’Callaghan, an offensive tackle with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, came out to Outsports this month, revealing that he had long contemplated suicide should he lose the chance to hide his sexuality with the mask of a macho sport. After a career-ending injury in 2011, he battled painkiller abuse and even wrote a suicide note, but after counseling decided to come out first to his family and then the general public.
Kwame Harris played five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and one with Oakland Raiders before retiring from the sport after the 2008 season. The offensive tackle would be outed publicly in 2013 after a domestic dispute with a boyfriend landed him in jail. He would later confirm his sexuality on CNN and sit down with ESPN to discuss the challenges of growing up gay in Jamaica and playing football while closeted.
The world took notice in 2014 when All-American defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay to ESPN while still in college. But he said that had been an known fact in the Missouri Tigers locker room. He famously kissed his boyfriend on camera when he got drafted by the St. Louis Rams and became the first openly gay player ever to get drafted by an NFL team. However, he would be cut before getting an official place on the roster. He did end up playing two years with the Montreal Alouettes, making him the first openly gay player in the history of the Canadian Football League.
A Purdue alum who gained more yards than any other non-Heisman Trophy winner in Big Ten history, Dorien Bryant failed to get drafted in 2008. He signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers later but got cut. He later declined to sign with the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys before coming out as gay at 24, he told Philadelphia Magazine in 2013. He revealed to the magazine that he’d dated a male cheerleader at Purdue who had threatened to out him then.
A center for Wisconsin when the team finished number 5 in the country, Brad Thorson would go undrafted in 2011, then sign as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals, only to end up on an injured reserve list before leaving the league without playing a regular season game. He would later move to San Francisco and join the Fog, a gay rugby team, and pen a coming-out blog post in 2015.
A University of Pittsburgh offensive lineman from 1977 through 1979, Ed Gallagher repressed his sexuality until 1985, when he had his first sexual encounter with a man, then attempted to kill himself 12 days later. Left paralyzed, he would go on to publish a book and to found Alive to Thrive, becoming a spokesman for the disabled and advocate for human rights. He died in 2005.
A kicker for the Nebraska Cornhuskers who played from 2003 through 2005, Eric Lueshen told Outsports he was open about being gay and suffered relentless bullying from a handful of teammates. While he said he never kept his sexuality a secret, a “conspiracy of silence” left the matter unspoken in the media.
A kicker for four seasons with the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, Alan Gendreau, openly gay from age 16 on, would end his college career as the lead scorer in Sun Belt conference history. But he failed to get drafted or signed to an NFL team.
Conner Mertens, a placekicker at Willamette University in Oregon, publicly came out as bisexual in 2014, the first Division III college football player to do so. His baseball-playing boyfriend would come out the next week. Mertens today is active with the You Can Play Project, encouraging LGBT youth to stay active in sports.
Chapman University defensive end Mitchell Eby in 2014 would come out to teammates in a speech that resulted in applause, he told Outsports. He made the decision to announce he was gay, the first active Division III player to do so, after connecting with Conner Mertens through You Can Play, he said.
Arizona State lineman Chris Sarafin in 2014 came out as gay to local LGBT publication Compete, making him the first Division I player out of the closet. The move quickly brought messages of support from the athletic department and university officials, and the writer for Compete told The Arizona Republic that the school in fact approached him about breaking the story.
Brian Sims in 2000 was named co-captain for the Bloomsberg University football team in Pennsylvania, making him the first openly gay college football captain in NCAA history, according to Outsports. Sims, post-football, entered politics and in 2012 became the first openly gay politician ever elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
An offensive lineman for Princeton, Mason Darrow came out in 2015. Last fall, he helped Princeton capture an Ivy League title, the second during his college career. He’s now pursuing a front-office job in professional sports.
My-King Johnson, a recent grad of Tempe High School in Arizona, is set this fall to be the first openly gay scholarship player recruited to play major-college football, taking the field with the University of Arizona. He tweeted earlier this month, “First week of college football is done. Getting into the swing of things. Loving it down here in Tucson.”
Kansas State offensive tackle Scott Frantz came out during a July 12 interview on ESPN. He revealed he came out to teammates the previous year during a team-building exercise before he even told his family, and had kept his sexuality secret during recruiting because he feared it might be an issue (though coaches say it would have made no difference). Frantz started all 13 games last year as a freshman and already enjoys attention from NFL scouts. He and My-King Johnson are expected to be the only out players taking the field for Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (previously Division I-A) teams this year — at least so far.
Linebacker Kyle Kurziolek came out this year, his senior year playing for the University of St. Francis, and may be the first active player to come out after receiving an athletic scholarship, according to Outsports.
Marian University center Darrion McAlister came out to The Indianapolis Star in February. He said he wanted to enter his final season of college ball living openly and honestly, and emailed the newspaper shortly after Kurdziolek, a friend and opponent on the field, came out publicly.
Wyatt Pertuset, a special teams player and receiver for Capital University, will be a sophomore this season. He came out to Outsports in May, where he announced hopes to be among the first out players to score a touchdown and to receive an All-Conference honor.
During his senior year, Augsburg College linebacker Scott Cooper gave a speech at the school’s chapel on National Coming Out Day in 2013, and at his last game would be introduced on the field alongside his partner, he wrote in Outsports.
In a heartfelt essay published by ESPN in the fall of 2019, the NFL free agent came out as a "talented football player, a damn good writer, a loving son, an overbearing brother, a caring friend, a loyal lover, and a bisexual man."
"Today, I have two goals: returning to the NFL, and living my life openly," he wrote at the time. "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."
Since then, he has urged the NFL to become more diverse and inclusive of out, LGBTQ+ players. "I am proud to be an out bisexual Black man, and it's time the NFL was proud to have me and others like me as an active part of their family," he wrote in an essay he penned for Out last year after participating in the NFL's Coming Out Day PSA. "I appeared in this month’s PSA alongside my brothers to make sure that our message is clear. Football is for everyone and since I came out in August of 2019, I have dedicated myself to ensuring that is the case."
The Raiders lineman made NFL history during Pride Month 2021 when he came out as gay in a heartfelt Instagram post, becoming the first active NFL player to come out as member of the LGBTQ+ community.
"What’s up people," Nassib said in his Instagram video. "I’m at my house in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now but finally feel comfortable getting it off my chest. I really have the best life, the best family, friends and job a guy can ask for."
"I’m a pretty private person so I hope you guys know that I’m not doing this for attention. I just think that representation and visibility are so important. I actually hope that one day, videos like this and the whole coming out process are not necessary, but until then I will do my best and my part to cultivate a culture that’s accepting and compassionate and I’m going to start by donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project. They’re an incredible organization, they’re the number one suicide-prevention service for LGBTQ youth in America and they’re truly doing incredible things. I’m very excited to be a part of it and help in any way that I can and I’m really pumped to see what the future holds."