Growing up while the Pittsburgh Steelers were winning their first four Super Bowls, I realized the dichotomy of my obsession with the team and the burgeoning reality that I was gay. In some ways, I think, knowing the answer to every NFL trivia question was my mask of masculinity.
As I got older, my ability to answer those trivia questions waned somewhat, but not my love for the Pittsburgh Steelers. My partner of 13 years is subjected each fall and early winter to disruptions in his television viewing habits when the Steelers are on national TV; otherwise, when they’re not, I’m hovered over my phone watching, while nodding yes to everything he says. And usually catching hell later when he remarks, “I told you on Sunday while you were watching the Steelers!”
Also getting in the way of my love for football was the fact that there were no openly gay players. Of course there were gay players, but never out. I heard all the rumors. Some might have been true, and definitely there were some that weren’t. I wrote about how I regretted perpetuating the lie about former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart. I still feel awful about that.
I used to fantasize about what might have become of Michael Sam. When he came out after his college career ended, I was in awe. There were many excuses from NFL scouts and administrative personnel as to why Sam didn’t make the cut in the NFL.
He wasn’t big enough to be a defensive end. Normally, in these types of situations, smaller ends and tackles are moved to linebacker, where size isn’t such a big deal and speed is a prerequisite. Some said Sam couldn’t move to linebacker because he was too slow.
Many though felt Sam never made it because the NFL wasn’t ready for a gay player. He did play one season for the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League; however, his dream to play in the NFL never came to fruition. He had brief tenures with two NFL teams — the St. Louis Rams and the Dallas Cowboys — but never played in a regular season game.
So I imagined that Sam did actually make it in the NFL, and he was eventually picked up by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of course he’d play for the Steelers in my imagination! But why Pittsburgh?
The late Steelers owner Dan Rooney was responsible for establishing the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which says that when teams are considering a new head coach, they must interview a person of color for the job. The Steelers don’t just talk the talk. Mike Tomlin, one of the few Black coaches in the NFL, will enter his 15th season as the Steelers head coach this year.
I imagined that the Steelers, arguably the most open-minded of NFL teams, picked up Sam after the Cowboys dropped him and that Sam was moved to an outside linebacker position for the team. He would then go on to become an instant standout along with the Steelers star outside linebacker James Harrison and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier.
And just for good measure, I theorized that Sam would win the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014, supplanting the real winner, Aaron Donald, a rookie defensive tackle for — get ready for this — the St. Louis Rams. What retribution! And that Sam would become the linchpin of the Steelers linebacking corps for years to come.
Well, I don’t have to create a false scenario for a gay NFL player any longer. Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player in history to announce that he is gay (while signed to a team). When the news flash popped up on my phone, from The New York Times, I assumed it was something about the infrastructure bill. And in a way it was. Nassib has now upended the NFL’s all-straight player infrastructure. I was a bit overwhelmed when I read the news.
At first, I thought of that teenage boy back in Pittsburgh who loved football and the Steelers but never in his wildest dreams would he dare think that an active player would come out of the closet. I’m sure there are millions of us gay NFL die-hards who had to read the news twice because our mind couldn’t wrap itself around the incredible truth, and the seemingly unbelievable reality.
Nassib will live his truth, and in doing so, he lights up the eyes and hopes of all the young gay athletes and fans around the country. He took the first step when so, so, so many others would not do so. I can’t imagine the bravery of this young man, but I can imagine him now as an NFL player.
What Nassib’s revelation will do is, hopefully, open the door for others to come forward and do the same thing. Some time ago, I wrote about the tragedy of a former NFL star, the late Aaron Hernandez. The point of the column was that while Hernandez had suffered brain damage and had an unsettled childhood and a briefly tumultuous adulthood, he had deeper demons.
Hernandez was also apparently dealing with the struggle of coping with and hiding his bisexuality. His arrest and conviction for murder, and subsequent death by suicide, stunned the NFL like nothing since O.J. Simpson.
Now we have something much more positive to replace the sad saga of Hernandez as the NFL's most engrossing story. I am sure that Nassib also had to deal with a tremendous amount of stress while trying to keep his secret. Perhaps his teammates knew and coalesced around him? Regardless, whatever pain he might have had about hiding has been relieved.
And he’s relieved the pain so many of us who feel that dichotomy of being an NFL fan and an LGBTQ+ person. It will be wildly interesting to see how Nassib is received in the Raiders' hometown of Las Vegas and when the team takes to the road this fall. My guess is that there won’t be much of a fuss, and that’s probably the way it should be.
Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, there’s a 13-year-old super-avid gay Raiders fan who is crying tears of joy. I will live vicariously through him. Congratulations, Carl Nassib, and thank you!
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.