Meet the gay and bisexual former NFL players who came out after retiring

While Carl Nassib made history as the first to come out while actively playing in the league, others have previously spoke about their sexual orientation after retiring.

Split screen of three former NFL players who have come out as gay or bisexual. Left is Jerry Smith, middle is R.K. Russell, right is Dave Kopay.
Image: Left to right - @WilliamSingourd via X, @rkrelentless via Instagram, @WilliamSingourd via X

On June 21, 2021, Carl Nassib made history by becoming the National Football League (NFL)’s first openly gay active player. The moment was rightfully celebrated as a milestone for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the sport, but what many failed to acknowledge, or rather who they failed to acknowledge, were those who paved the way before.

Although Nassib was the first to publicly identify as gay while being fielded in the NFL, other players have come out after retiring.

Dave Kopay is known as the first to do so, revealing his sexuality in 1975, three years after hanging up his boots. The running back enjoyed a near decade-long career in the league with teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers. Kopay also played for the Washington Redskins (now the Washington Commanders) alongside two other players who later came out as gay, Jerry Smith and Ray McDonald.


Kopay and Smith are said to have had a brief affair while teammates, but the latter kept his sexuality private while in the NFL. After Smith retired at the end of the 1978 season, holding the record for most career touchdowns by a tight end, he came out to a few family members and moved to Austin, Texas to co-own a gay bar called The Boathouse.

Smith was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and told the Washington Post in a bid to raise awareness and combat stigma. He died later that year aged 43 of an AIDS-related illness, and the NFL Network produced a documentary about his sexuality.

Ray McDonald joined Washington in 1967, and his sexuality was said to be somewhat of an open secret. At one stage, he was coached by the now-legendary Vince Lombardi, who had a gay brother and was known to be accepting of LGBTQ+ people.

“Lombardi, when he came, understood that Ray McDonald was gay,” the coach’s biographer David Maraniss told the NFL Network.

Similarly, former running back A.D. Whitfield said, “People more or less knew he was gay…In the first year, there were all kinds of stories about incidents around town.”

The footballer was even reportedly arrested for having sex with another man in public.

Ray McDonald died three days before his 49th birthday in 1993. Although his obituary cited the cause of death as sickle cell anaemia, it was later revealed to be from an AIDS-related illness.


Roy Simmons also played for Washington from 1983 to 1985, after being an offensive lineman with the New York Giants for three years. He announced he was gay on The Phil Donahue Show in 1992, and around 1997, he learned he was HIV Positive.

Simmons died in February 2014 at the age of 57 due to complications related to pneumonia. In 2015, he was inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.

Jeff Rohrer was a linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys from 1982 to 1989, and he tied the knot with Joshua Ross in 2018, making him the first NFL player to enter a same-sex marriage.


Elsewhere, Esera Tuaolo was active between 1991 and 1999 with teams including the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers. In 1998, he played in the Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons. 

After retiring, he came out as gay on HBO’s Real Sports and in 2006, he released his autobiography Alone in the Trenches: My Life As a Gay Man in the NFL.

Since coming out Tuaolo has been an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community and, as well as being a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation, he has worked with the NFL on combatting homophobia.

He met his former partner Mitchell Wherley in 1995, and the pair later adopted twins, a boy and a girl, before their relationship ended in 2007. 



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A post shared by Esera Tuaolo (@mraloha98)

Delaware Sports Hall of Fame inductee and ex-Newark All-Stater Kwame Harris played with the San Fransisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders between 2003 and 2008. Although he knew he was gay during his time in the NFL, he didn’t believe the two were compatible and he kept his sexuality a secret until he was outed in January 2013. 

“Now when I look back in hindsight, if I could have done it differently, I’d like to think that I would find the strength, or find the fortitude or the grace to make the hard decision,” Harris said to CNN. “You want to escape this despair, this turmoil. Maybe your mind goes to dark places sometimes, but I would just say I’m happy today…it does get better.”

He added, “I want people, whether they’re gay athletes or athletes who are still in the closet, or youths who aren’t quite sure what their sexuality is, to realize that not only is that not unique, but those feelings are common feelings…Don’t feel incredibly alone in having these questions.”

Ryan O’Callaghan played in the NFL from 2006 to 2011, including at the 2007 Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. He came out publicly as gay in 2017, and has since openly discussed how he struggled with his sexuality, including in his autobiography My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life. He also founded the Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation, which offers scholarships to LGBTQ+ youth.



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A post shared by Ryan O’Callaghan (@ocallaghanryan)

Ryan Russell played in the NFL from 2015 to 2017 but came out publicly as bisexual in 2019. He said that while playing football, he didn’t want to risk losing everything by revealing his sexuality.

“I was finally in a place where I could provide for my mother, who had sacrificed so much for me. It felt almost selfish to come out,” he said.

“I thought, ‘I don’t want to be a distraction to my team, I don’t want to jeopardise our success on the field, and also my personal success or financial status’.

“I could only think of things to lose. I could never think of things to gain. Now I realise none of those reasons are worth my own health and wellbeing.”

In 2021, Russell wrote an article for The Guardian opposing the anti-trans laws being proposed in several US states, saying, “sport is one of the strongest conduits to help show society what it is capable of when we come together, but it has to be used for the better of all of us”.



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A post shared by R.K. Russell (@rkrelentless)

As per Outsports, there are also six known gay or bisexual footballers who attended NFL training camps but never played in a regular season game. They are Wade Davis, Dorien Bryant, Martin Jenkins, Brad Thorson, Michael Sam and Colton Underwood.

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