All photography by Luke Fontana
When football defensive end player Ryan Russell came out as bisexual last fall, he was the first active NFL player to come out as gay, bi, or queer — and the first out bisexual NFL player ever. In addition to making bisexual history, he was also the only out male pro athlete currently active in the four major leagues, including MLB (baseball), the NBA (basketball), the NFL (football), and NHL (hockey).
Upending tradition, Russell didn't do a traditional coming-out interview but instead wrote a heartfelt essay for ESPN in which he spoke of his recent meet with an NFL team. The athlete knew he came across as a "hardworking, coachable, accountable, and trustworthy player whose priorities are in the right place." But, he wrote, "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. 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."
And that is a "talented football player, a damn good writer, a loving son, an overbearing brother, a caring friend, a loyal lover, and a bisexual man."
After playing college ball at Purdue, the one-time Dallas Cowboys player spent 2016-2017 playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then was signed by the Buffalo Bills for the 2018 season. Sadly, he was one of 35 guys cut from the team when they had to trim their roster to meet league regulations. He remains a free agent.
As Russell's coming out went wide in the media (a follow-up ESPN video interview with him is up for a GLAAD Media Award), sports fans and LGBTQ activists debated whether Russell — who had a shoulder injury in 2018 —would be signed with a new team. Meanwhile, fans of Colin Kaepernick and those NFL players who have been taking a knee to protest racism and police brutality in the U.S. publicly debated why Russell didn't speak more to racism and biphobia while in the NFL itself — and why reporters neglected to ask him about it.
But Russell has been honest about feeling like losing football would eliminate financial support his family needed as well as kill his own career aspirations in the game. And more importantly, with his coming out and talking about who he loves has been groundbreaking for guys like him: a Black bisexual man who needed the confidence to be himself in life.
Now, as his shifts his life to Los Angeles, posting lovey YouTube videos and Instagram pics with his boyfriend, dancer Corey O'Brien, the poet and player — whose collection of poetry, Prison or Passion, was published last April — reflects on his journey just in time for Super Bowl Sunday.
When did you realize that you wanted to play football?
My early years in high school. I didn’t get to play a lot early on because it was me and my mom growing up and I worked a lot of part-time, small little gigs, to help with bills around the house. I didn’t really get to play but one full year. My junior year, I had a lot of injuries. But, when I did play early on, I don’t know, just something kind of clicked.
Do you know why?
I was just stronger than other kids. I was bigger, I was faster. And I realized that a lot of the kind of tension, maybe aggression or rage or confusion I had in my life, was being kind of expelled through football. I had a coach at the time…who was a father figure to me. I’m an only child, so it also gave me kind of a brotherhood feel. I came home one day, and I told my mom, “I love football, and it’s what I want to do.” My mom was working two jobs, and she hadn’t really seen me play at this point. But my senior year, she had taken off work…to come [to homecoming]. She said I just stood out and she could hear the coaches talking about me. She was like, “You were good, you were amazing. It was awesome to watch you do something you love and be successful at it.” So yeah, I fell in love with football.
Was that when your mom first thought you could do this as a career?
We had always talked about getting scholarships. At first, it was just academic-based. I wasn’t really playing sports, and then the colleges started coming, recruiters started coming. She saw the opportunity for a full scholarship. [When] my mother…was raising me, she also was going to school. She earned her master’s …as a single mother and worked two jobs.
She’s always set the example that education is important and that it has a value. She’s like, “Your body will come and go…but they can’t take your degree away. Your mind is going to outlast your body.” So that was also kind of a big part in me choosing to go to Purdue [University] because it was the best [option] in the world. I could play football in the Big 10 conference against Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. And I could also get one of the best public school educations in the country.
When did you first tell her your mom that you were bisexual?
I told her in 2015, so kind of after the first season with [the Dallas Cowboys], going into the second season. I told her, my brother, a few close friends, and family.
I told her [after] a really bad breakup. So she handled it the way that she has handled kind of all of my heartbreaks. She tended to my heart and my soul first... As I started opening up…she started asking questions: when I felt this way, if anything happened where I felt I couldn’t tell her, if she did anything, which I was like, “No, Mom, you did great, I was trying to figure it out.”
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When did you first realize that you weren’t straight?
My first year in college. I was… almost 1,000 miles from home. I didn’t really know anyone. I went from Dallas, Texas, to West Lafayette, Ind. I had always dated women. All throughout high school, I had a serious girlfriend who I was very much in puppy love [with]. When… I went halfway across the country we decided to break up, and I noticed there was this attraction or this magnetism towards not just women but also men. I didn’t really act on it at first. I just kind of let it be to focus on football, focus on the workload of college. Of course, everyone experiments in college and tries to grow and tries to figure out who they are and what they want to be. For me, that just also met with my sexuality.… I told my best friend at the time that I didn’t think I was straight.… He was very nonchalant about it. He said, “Well, you’ll figure it out, I’m still going to be here for you, I’m your brother, I love you. If you try it out and it’s not a thing, cool.” Then we just went on to playing video games.
When you first started dating men, did you experience biphobia or stigma?
Yeah. My first serious relationship with a man, he kind of was my first introduction to LGBT culture. I was relying on his knowledge, his information, and he was one of the people that was adamant that I was [straight] but maybe some gay, or I wasn’t ready and that bisexuality is a safe transition. And that it’s just a transition, not the destination. I kind of took his word for that. [Now] I am more confident in who I love and identify with. My sexuality is bisexual.
Me and all my friends — male, female, Black, white, gay, straight, bi, queer, anything — sit and discuss social injustice. We discuss the intersectionality of bisexuality and color. We discuss interracial relationships. Just like every great friend roundtable discussions, [it] starts with drinks and ends with us hopefully laughing or crying.
Talk to me about Colin Kaepernick.
I’m never going to be against anyone bringing awareness to something they feel needs to change in the world and to make the world better. Protesting and speaking up and taking a stand — it’s a very personal decision for everyone.
What’s the difference between playing football in college and in the NFL?
I mean college is just so hard because you are trying to play… and you’re trying to get a full-time education and you’re trying to figure out what you want to do outside after football.… Once you [go pro]… you have more time to work on [the] craft. You literally have more time to work on what you love.
You dealt with a tough shoulder injury. How much pressure is there to play through the pain and maybe risk lifetime injury?
My situation personally, I was in a contract year, so I was in the last year of my contract with Tampa [Bay Buccaneers]. I wanted to put my best foot forward so that they could see a future with me. Of course, that being said, I played to my injury and probably made it worse towards the end.
Did you deal with depression after your injury and not getting signed?
There were a lot of things, especially at that time.… I lost football for a while. I lost my best friend, Joseph. I lost my grandfather, and that’s just a lot to handle. I can never blame just one thing because life is always a billion things happening and it kind of, these losses, I feel like it created a perfect storm where I did suffer from depression, where I did see a therapist, where I did have to seek outside help and lean on my family members and lean on my loved ones. And that is my story.
Did the therapy, family, and friends help you bounce back?
Totally. Therapy, and also confiding in those loved ones, made me realize I need to do more of taking care of myself. I moved to Los Angeles after Joe passed because this is the city that I had visited every off-season.… I began writing. I had a poetry book that was published.… I had started writing fiction books about young men falling in love and young men trying to define their emotions and discover them and lean into them instead of repressing them or running from them.
I began doing meditation and yoga and working on the spiritual side, which I believe is kind of the higher power in life. I began doing a lot of work on myself.… I started openly dating both men and women. I just really took the time away from football to take care of me.
You’ve talked about confronting anger by defusing it. Do you think our culture is more open now to men expressing their emotions?
I’m seeing a lot more freedom in sexuality, I’m seeing a lot more diversity on the screen, I’m seeing a lot more programs in schools that encourage the arts and creative writing and expressing yourself. The stigma on mental wellness and on therapy, I feel, is changing. We’ve made so much progress.
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You’re the first NFL player to come out after being drafted (Michael Sam was the first out player drafted by the NFL), and now are the only out male professional athlete currently active in any of the four major leagues. If you don’t get signed next season, will players assume it’s because you came out?
I’m not sure. I really don’t know what’s going through other people’s heads. I don’t know what this story is going to be. If [I don’t get drafted]—I hope that doesn’t happen, but I’m a fighter. I’ve gotten the things that I’ve wanted and I’ve dedicated myself to. I’ve been accountable and reliable, and I hold myself to a higher standard. I’ll continue to do that no matter whether there’s vast number of opportunities or whether it’s just one opportunity at one moment, one day.
I try not to future trip. I try not to think of all the possibilities because I’m going to be stressing about things that’ll probably never happen—a million possibilities that will never happen. I’m just taking it day by day and being proud of the things that I’ve accomplished and being confident in who I am moving forward.
Your coming-out will help change things for future generations. How does that feel?
I honestly have not really sat with that for a while. I appreciate the view that people are taking on this and on me, in just the love I’m getting. At the end of the day, I’m just a guy that wants to play football and wants to love the people I want to love.
Do we see a writing career in your future too?
Definitely. I have always been a writer, as I’ve always been a football player, as I’ve always been bisexual. I learned early on that suppressing my creativity was not good for me. I already have the poetry book out. Now I am writing more stories I believe can help people, [that] need to be told, and at the end of the day I also just want to read myself.
How did you meet your boyfriend Corey O’Brien?
We met on the internet as lot of people do — on Instagram. We ended up getting coffee in Hollywood and just talking. You don’t find that often, right? I talk to my mother every day for an hour on the phone, and that’s kind of the only person I’ve ever met where I could just talk every day—and still have things to talk about.
[Corey and I] probably went two days without seeing each other at the most at that time, just talking, getting to know each other. He’s given me a sense of safety and comfort and support that I haven’t had. I am in Los Angeles; my family is predominantly in Buffalo, N.Y., and Dallas. So it was kind of just me and him going through this together, [him] holding my hand through the whole process. I’m very grateful to know him, and I’m better for knowing him.
Besides getting on a team, what are your broader hopes for your future?
I pride myself in being able to be a storyteller and be creative and be an artist and be a writer. I definitely see a writing career in my future. I would love to do some public speaking endeavors where I could just get in front of children, kids, young men, and young women and really see them and talk and also listen. That would be amazing. I mean, I don’t know. Like I said, I’m trying not to future trip.