The NFL Almost Signed Its First Openly Gay Football Player

Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 HeadshotsDorien Bryant very nearly became the first openly gay player in the NFL, a story in Philly mag reveals. But a combination of bad luck, bad timing, fear, ego and prejudice kept him from hitting the gridiron.

Bryant, 28, came into his own at Purdue University, where he played for the Purdue Boilermakers—making All-American and gaining more regular-season all-purpose yards in Big Ten history than any player not to win the Heisman Trophy.

“We thought he had a future at the highest level,” his old coach, Joe Tiller says.

While he had tried to keep his sexuality on lockdown, eventually Bryant hooked up with a male cheerleader. “It was fun to feel like there was no judgment,” he says of the affair. “I don’t think there were any true feelings. But there was trust.” In his junior year, the relationship went south and the cheerleader spitefully outed Bryant to his friends.“I had to play dumb,” Bryant says. “That could have ruined my life.”

But that wasn’t the end of it:

Weeks later, during a game against Indiana State, Dorien looked up to see cardboard cutouts of his picture next to rainbow flags hoisted in the Sycamores’ student section. Gay jokes and chants rained down during warm-ups.

“That game was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “I remember thinking, I’m not going to be able to do this for another six or seven years.” He posted one of the best games of his career, including two touchdowns. Take that, ISU.

After he graduated, the Pittsburgh Steelers showed interest, but after Bryant had surgery for a hernia and torn adductor, he was cut before he played a single game.

Fear—and a desire to explore his personal life without the shackles of the spotlight led Bryant to decline offers from the Tennessee Titans and the Dallas Cowboys: “I had a great time doing it while it lasted, but I didn’t think I could commingle the NFL life and the life I wanted to live,” he said. … “I loved football. I just loved myself a little more.”

Like Chris Kluwe, Bryant says he knows he’s played with gay teammates:

“I think there had to be a solid six or seven guys, who—I’m pretty sure—I mean, they may not have been gay, but they would definitely get into bed with a guy.” And while he says neither of them currently play in the NFL, he knows at least two Heisman winners he strongly suspects are gay.

He predicts it will be another five or six years before the NFL gets it’s first out player.

“It would have to be a top-five pick, someone exceptional. Someone you just can’t deny.” At training camp, NFL teams invite two or three times the number of players they need to fill their rosters—and look for any reason to cut you. “These franchises have so much more to think about,” Dorien says. “How many fans of the Houston Texans do you think are going to be like, ‘OK, here comes some gay guy playing on our team?’”

Michigan State v Purdue dorien bryantSurprisingly, Bryant has some not-so-kind words for Jason Collins, who came out in the NBA earlier this year:“I don’t think what he did was courageous—at all,”  Bryan reveals. “I’m sure he’ll do the LGBT circuit. … But you don’t play basketball anymore and you never really were anybody.”

Bryant is open about how his own culpability in not making the cut:

But critics say the league also needs to work to create a work welcoming environment, so gay players don’t have to choose between having a career and having a life.

Bleacher Report claimed in a recent story that TK “Several team officials say the largest obstacle to an openly gay player is the resistance of a significant number of NFL owners and a smaller number of general managers and coaches,” reporter Mike Freeman wrote. “Many in the league are fearful of acting or even speaking on this subject. Quite simply, teams remain terrified of signing an openly gay player.”

It’s funny how an organization that revolves around 300-lb men steamrolling into each other in the muddy grass can be terrified of some gays.