Wade Davis played for the Titans, the Washington Redskins, and the Seattle Seahawks as well as for teams in Barcelona and Berlin. Now, as an openly gay man, he's experienced a rebirth of sorts after joining the New York Gay Football League and working with LGBT youth at the Hetrick-Martin Institute to ensure they feel empowered and happy. Davis spoke with The Advocate about what kept him in the closet, and what he thinks it will take for a gay player to come out while still on a team.
The Advocate: How old were you when you started playing football?
Wade Davis: I started playing football when I was 7. It was one of those things when my mother never wanted me to play because I was very small and skinny. And my grandmother was like, "If you let my grandbaby out there, and let him play football, he's going to be killed." My father actually pushed my mother to let me play.
I grew up in Shreveport, La., which is very rural. My neighbor's backyard was combined, so there was no fence in between our yards, but there was a fence shaped around the perimeter, so we used to have 20 on 20 football games. Actually, we used to play this game called Smear the Queer - it was very funny that we called it that, because the "queer" for lack of a better word, was the guy who had the guts to pick up a football, and run with it, and get dog-piled on by 20 guys. In actuality he was the toughest guy. So we'd play football all day outside, from sunup to sundown. We wouldn't go home to eat. We drank water out of a hose in the backyard. We would literally try to kill each other. I'd come home and my shirt would be torn off, jeans scraped up, but you'd get up and do it the very next day. So that was my introduction to football.
When your father finally persuaded your mother to let you play, was she supportive eventually?
Eventually. It wasn't until I got to high school when she really was supportive. She was just so afraid of me getting hurt. When I entered high school, I was 110 pounds if I was lucky. But I was very, very fast, so she wanted me to run track, but I really loved the game of football. I used to watch football for hours on television. The game of football was so natural for me to understand it, so I understood the game very, very well. It was just one of those sports that I was meant to be a part of.
You've played for several teams, and in different leagues. Which team did you enjoy playing for the most?
My time in Europe playing with the Berlin Thunder was the most exciting time of my life. I was able to bond very well with my teammates. And being in a foreign country playing the game you grew up loving, and getting paid to do that—even getting to experience the world. We went to London, Amsterdam, and all over Spain, playing the game I loved. And that team, we were so very close. We stayed in Mariott in an area of Berlin. And because we didn't know our way around, we were literally sitting in the hotel playing board games, sitting around in the hallways, talking, and telling stories. We really became a big family. Our team won a championship, and I really believe it was because of the bond we had.
I would never imagine a bunch of professional football players sitting around playing Yahtzee.
When we were playing in Spain, we basically sat around for weeks and played Monopoly. I'm not even kidding—every single day for hours. Guys used to get into fights playing Monopoly. They'd hide money, no one wanted to trade. No kidding, in the 11 weeks I was over there, we probably played over 200 games of Monopoly. Easily. I remember these two big defensive line guys got into a fight over Monopoly because one guy thought he was cheating, and the games were so rambunctious and raucous.
Do you feel there was a different perspective playing football in Europe, as opposed to playing in the United States?
Definitely. You can just tell that the European people don't understand the game of football. First, when you say you play football, they immediately think of soccer. You just know that there's just this thing about American football that they just think is tough like we do. When they think of football, they think of rugby, or Australian-rules football, with a lot less padding. So you end up having to defend the toughness of a sport that is seen in America to be the most macho of sports. My partner is Australian, and when I went to visit his partner for the first time, we had that same conversation. They're like, "well, is really that tough? You have all those pads." But what they don't realize is that the speed that people get up to, and then run into each other, are very different from how rugby's played, and you're really in scrums the entire time. So the impact is different.
If someone on your team asked if you were gay, would you have denied it?
I think at that point, I would have said no. There was a point when I was in Europe, when I did have a partner, but if someone would have asked me early on, I probably would have said no, and I would have panicked, thinking that someone saw through my facade, or someone read through all of my posturing. But as I got older, I would have avoided the question, and maybe turned it around on them, and probably even called them gay, but there was never a time when I would have owned it.
At what point did you feel the most pressure to not disclose your sexual orientation?
I wouldn't say I ever felt pressure from my teammates, or anything else. I think all of the pressure was really internalized. I felt like I lived in constant fear of someone finding out, so you start putting more pressure on yourself to hide more as you exhibit more things that were deemed heterosexual. So a lot of the pressure I felt was self-induced. There was only one time that I can remember, where a teammate mentioned me and the term "bisexual" in the same sentence, so I never really felt pressure from my teammates. It was just me being socialized at such a young age to think that being gay was wrong, and that being a football player and being gay would never match.
Was there a specific incident that gave you a reason to feel that way?
I think I grew up very religious. You grow up hearing a lot of disparaging remarks against gay people, so you automatically know that who you are is wrong. So, I grew up with a lot of self-hatred. I think that played a big role in me really investing myself in football, because that was my one safe place. Football was where I had time to be away from all of that and be myself. Though, one time when I was in Tennessee, one of the other players mentioned someone on the team was believed to be bisexual, and that I shouldn't associate with him, because that could hurt my chances of making the team. I don't think he said that because he thought I was gay, but I think he did that because he liked me, and he wanted to make sure that I didn't do anything to hurt my chances of making the team.
Did that player make the team?
He was a veteran, so he made the team. But there was just rumors about his personal life that dictated the thought that, if you were trying to make the team, you definitely didn't want to associate with him, just because your own career could be jeopardized.
While you were with the NFL, were there certain teams you were on, where the atmosphere might have been more welcoming, if you were ready to come out?
No, I don't think there was ever a team where I felt safe about being gay. The thing I tell people all the time, because there's this perception that everyone in professional sports is against you being gay, or that the NFL was against it. It's just that we grow up hearing, and then believing that being gay is not tough. That being gay is not natural. You just have this ideology in your head, that is, "If I own [being openly gay], then I could no longer be this masculine jock guy if I come out."
So what's your work like at the Hetrick-Martin Institute?
So my title here is I'm the assistant director of job readiness. I make sure that we give the tools that young people need to make sure that they're successful on the job. Whether they're working as a teller at a bank, or they're working at a department store, the skills they're going to learn on that job are going to be transferrable to any future jobs they have, and their career. I'm also in charge of our youth advisory board, which is a group charged with understanding the population of HMI. We recommend programming that we should have. When I first got to New York, I got involved with the New York Gay Flag Football League. That was really one of the first times I could be around a lot of guys, like me, who were into sports and were also gay. It was really an empowering part of my life. Someone reached out to me about joining the advisory board, so I started doing that, and I got a chance to speak out around the country. It was something that I felt like I was meant to do. So I started working with other organizations, and I went to speak to our executive director at HMI, and he said, "We have a job opportunity," and asked if I would be interested. At first I thought he was joking, but I said yes.
What sets this job apart from other work you've done?
What Hetrick Martin represents is having the ability to work with youth of color, specifically, and help them understand that they're accepted in the community. This is my second dream job. I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to play in the NFL, and now I have the opportunity to change the life of so many young people, every single day. I mean, they're the heroes. They're the real ones who have the courage to fight, and to be themselves. I look back and I think, "Wow, how did I think I had a struggle when I was afraid to be gay at 24, when these kids are 12, 13, 14 years old, living their truth." It really puts a lot of things in perspective.
There still have yet to be any gay male athletes to come out while actively playing. What do you think may be catalyst that changes that?
I think the catalyst to change that is for people to continue to have conversations about what it means to be a man. I think often times, the association of being a man is heterosexual. The ideology has to change, so we know that you can be a man and not play a sport. You can be a gay man and play a sport and still be as tough and as masculine as anyone else. As long as that conversation continues evolving, and as long as we have more straight allies who say, "I have no problem with any guys who are gay on my team, anyone who's gay in the locker room." It will make it a more inviting place for gay athletes to come out. I think more allies have to come out in their sports first. It's going to take a shift in the perspective of what is masculine.
What advice do you have for a young gay athlete who is considering coming out?
I think my first piece of advice is to find someone in your life who is a true supporter of them. Someone who they know that at the end of the day, they're going to be there for them. No matter when someone comes out there's always going to be detractors. You have to have a support structure in place first. I never felt like someone would support me, but if I had someone like that in my corner, that could have made the difference. And they truly have to be confident enough to get some negative feedback. Focus on the teammates who don't care what your sexual oriantation is, and who will love them no matter what.