He watched himself on the coaches’ film, watching only things he should have ignored. Wade Davis didn’t study his technique or repetitions. He focused on how he was standing.
Why, he asked himself, did he have to stand there like a gay man? Why, when he left the Washington Redskins’ sideline, did he run onto the field into the team’s secondary in such a way? And as he sat there watching the footage, he wondered: What if others saw it, too, realizing the cornerback had a secret?
“Stop running like that,” Davis remembers telling himself, recalling that he promised to never wear certain clothes or stand in that way ever again. “It’s such a terrible place to be when you’re trying to make a team, when you’re more worried about the way you’re running.”
Davis — who is now 36 and the executive director of the You Can Play Project, a group that works to remove homophobia from sports — came out publicly in 2012. He played parts of four seasons in the NFL, the last of which came in 2003 with Washington. He never advanced past an NFL team’s practice squad, and maybe that was because rather than focusing on improving, he saw only the things that might out him. This was more than a decade before University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam announced he is gay, which likely will make him the league’s first openly gay player.
Davis had hinted at his sexuality during his younger years, but he could never say the words. He came closest when he played for NFL Europe’s Berlin Thunder in 2001, but he backed away — lying about himself, as he had done for years.
He kept his secret in classrooms and on football fields, starring as a defensive back and going on to play in college at Weber State in Utah. He spent summers in weight rooms and on tracks, trying to outwork and outrun the perception that homosexuality somehow made him weaker and slower; that he was less of a man because he wasn’t straight.
Davis wore oversize shirts and baggy jeans, fighting even the “metrosexual” label of a well-dressed man, because that swung too close to an identity he hoped to fight off like a cough.
“You just can’t get away from this idea,” he said, “that you’re not man enough.”
He wasn’t drafted in 2000, signing as a rookie free agent with the Tennessee Titans. They cut him, and he played 10 games with Berlin and became one of the Thunder’s most dependable defenders. Davis tried again the next season with the Seattle Seahawks before returning to Europe. He joined the Redskins in 2003, but a knee injury finally pushed him out of the league at age 26.
Afterward, he lied again, to himself and his friends. Only this time, he hid his past as a football player and told anyone who asked that he was gay. He moved to New York, leaving his football apparel in Colorado and refusing to spend Sundays watching the sport he had loved. This was the only way to avoid questions about being gay in the NFL.
As the years passed, he said, he became an activist — shedding his own secrets, owning up to his truths, and marking each day with the hope that for a future generation, these tests will come easier. He joined You Can Play and counseled active NFL players who have come out to teammates but not to the public. Davis won’t say how many gay players he believes to be on NFL rosters, but he says there are plenty.
“Just because the general public doesn’t see these athletes, we make assumptions that the NFL is homophobic,” he said.
For the past year, he has met with NFL representatives at the league’s New York office, preparing for a player to announce he is gay. Davis said the league was receptive and eager, knowing that the day was approaching — and preparing to make that player feel welcome.
Davis said of the league’s message: “How can we change the conversation so people don’t just see him as a gay man but as an amazing athlete who happens to be identified as gay?”
Last month, Davis said, Troy Vincent called. Vincent, a former NFL star who is now the league’s senior vice president of player engagement, told Davis about Sam and his impending announcement .
Davis met Sam and discovered that the 24-year-old possessed a comfort with himself that came much later for Davis — long after he was gone from the NFL. Sam came out to his college team before the 2013 season, and his teammates and coaches protected his secret. If there were incidents or offensive words used within earshot of Sam, he didn’t talk about them. Davis believes that discretion will quickly earn Sam trust in an NFL locker room.
At a dinner in California last week, a gathering meant to prepare Sam for his announcement, Davis and Sam talked about their pasts, about football, about family and about understanding. They ate dinner together with a group of former athletes and then posed for a picture to mark the occasion. Davis was at the far left, with an arm around Dave Kopay, who in 1975 became the first former NFL player to come out.
“Look at how things have moved along,” said Kopay, who played two seasons in Washington. “I mean, they’re changing everything, and thank God, right?”
Afterward, Davis returned to New York and met again Tuesday with league representatives at the NFL office. The representatives asked what’s next, repeating that they want to guarantee Sam makes a team.
Still, Davis said, roadblocks await, for Sam and for the movement. Davis said Sam’s announcement could compel other gay NFL players to withdraw deeper into secrecy; others might find a kind of comfort Davis never knew in football.
“Whenever someone in the world stands up and tells their truth, the world changes,” Davis said. “Something is going to change, but I don’t know what or how it’s going to look. What I do know is that the people will start to look at the NFL from a different perspective.”