Wade Davis’s mother told him she’d rather hear him say he was dying of cancer than have him tell her he was gay.
It turned out to be years before she would embrace him for who he was, a different dynamic than when Davis came out to his friends in the NFL.
Davis, a former cornerback from 2000 to 2004 with the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks, spoke about his experience as a closeted gay man in pro football at Kansas State University Thursday night as part of K-State For All Week.
“Let’s talk about the two elephants in the room, all right?” Davis said. “First, these pants are not pink, they’re salmon. The second elephant in the room is, yes, I did play in the NFL. I know I’m small, but yes, I did play.”
Davis, 36, lives in New York City and is the executive director of the You Can Play Project, an organization that advocates the eradication of homophobia in high school, college and professional sports.
Davis grew up in Shreveport, La., later moving to Aurora, Colo., and playing college football at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
He said growing up in a Southern Baptist household – where he went to church seven days a week – he knew being gay was deemed unacceptable. But in high school, he found a boy in his class attractive – and from then, he on worked hard to make himself seem heterosexual.
“I became what’s commonly referred to as a bully,” he said.
Davis said he picked the only openly gay boy he knew at his school to bully because he secretly admired the kid’s strength.
“[He] was actually everything I wanted to be,” Davis said. “[His] courageousness scared the hell out of me.”
Years later in his senior year of college, Davis heard a football scout from the St. Louis Rams ask his coach if he was a “ladies man.” Davis said he took that to mean if the scout wondered there was any chance Davis could be gay.
From then on, Davis said he spent years getting girlfriends and doing anything he could to make sure no one found out about him – in order to further his career.
“Only a female can make you straight. Only a female can prove to everyone else that a guy’s a guy,” he said about his thought process at the time.
“Imagine having your dream job, and instead of focusing on how to get better in that dream job, thinking every single day that someone would turn on this film and go, ‘Wow, look at that gay guy,’” Davis said.
Davis said he spent his NFL career hiding his sexuality.
It wasn’t until he was 27 and living in New York City that he found a sense of community in a city gay flag football league.
It was years later before he came out to his mother and his NFL buddies, when his partner told Davis he wouldn’t be with him if their relationship was hidden.
His experience coming out to his NFL friends was easier than telling the truth to his family.
“[The players] were upset because I didn’t believe in their friendship enough and their brotherhood enough that they would still love me,” Davis said. “They still loved me. Our bonds are that tight.”
His mother, with whom he was extremely close, was a different story.
In addition to the cancer comment, Davis said his mother told him, “That’s an abomination, you know. You’re already black. Why do you have to make your life harder than it is?”
After years of a strained relationship, Davis said his mother came full circle when he stood up to her and told her he wanted her in his life, but didn’t need her.
“My mother has met my partner,” Davis said. “She texts him. It’s the craziest thing in the world. They make fun of me all the time.”
Davis, who works with at-risk youth, ended his talk with a call to action – and talked about his friend Michael Sam, the University of Missouri football player who recently came out as gay in advance of the NFL draft.
“Michael Sam, he helped reframe what we think about the Midwest,” Davis said. “That place embraced him. They kept his secret without outing him for an entire year.
“There may be homophobia in the black community, in the sports community, in the Midwest, but that doesn’t make the entire place homophobic,” Davis said.