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NFL free agent Ryan Russell comes out as bisexual

NFL player Ryan Russell came out as bisexual in a personal essay published on Thursday. He is currently the only athlete in one of the four major professional sports leagues to openly identify as LGBTQ.

Russell shared his story with ESPN, saying that earlier this month he met with an NFL team that was interested in signing him as a free agent. "This was a big moment for me because, other than the love for my family, playing football again in the NFL is my dream," he said.

Russell, who grew up in Texas and played for Purdue, was first drafted in 2015 by the Dallas Cowboys. He then played two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Russell missed all of the 2018 season due to a shoulder injury.

Despite this, Russell believed the NFL team thought he could be successful. "What they know about me, they like — but there was one very important detail about my life they weren't familiar with," he said. 

Though the team ultimately told Russell they didn't need any help at his position, "I feel positive about how I presented myself that day: a hardworking, coachable, accountable and trustworthy player whose priorities are in the right place."

"But 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," Russell continued.

New Orleans Saints v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ryan Russell #95 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sacks Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints in the second half of a game on Dec. 31, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. Joe Robbins / Getty Images

The football veteran admitted he has not been fully honest with teammates and coaches and he wanted the rest of his career to be "steeped in trust and honesty."

"My truth is that I'm a talented football player, a damn good writer, a loving son, an overbearing brother, a caring friend, a loyal lover, and a bisexual man," he revealed.

Russell says he now has two goals: to return to the NFL and to live his life openly. He explained that he kept his "two worlds" separate for a long time: his football world, which was filled with opportunity, and his personal world, which, like many young adults, he was still trying to figure out.

"Pursuing a career in the NFL is such an intense challenge that I began to compromise my personal world — and my personal happiness," Russell continued. "Though I confided in close friends and family and gave myself permission to date both men and women discreetly, I deprived myself the basic privilege of living an open life."

Russell also talks about a time a blogger messaged him on Instagram with evidence that he was dating a man. He says he panicked and wrote the blogger back. "If the blogger outed me, I was sure that would kill my career, one that was supporting not just me, but my mother and grandfather," Russell said. "He'd eradicate a childhood dream that was the product of years of work and sacrifice."

"After hearing me out, know what that blogger told me? That he would grant me this favor, but that I should be more careful," Russell said, pointing out how unfair it was that while many LGBTQ people can thrive in public life, they are often invisible in professional sports.

"Nobody should need a favor to live honestly. In nobody's worlds should being careful mean not being yourself. The career you choose shouldn't dictate the parts of yourself that you embrace."

Russell opens up about the fear of being outed and convincing himself he should hide his sexuality. His third season was his most successful, but nursing an injury prevented him from playing last year. "Now, after the injury, losing my best friend, Joseph Gilliam, to cancer, and battling severe depression, truth became a part of my survival," he reveals in the raw essay.

While this could have been Russell's darkest year, he says it ended up being the most fulfilling. He moved to Los Angeles and started writing — and he also started dating "openly and freely." His focus now is on bringing his two worlds together.

The day of his essay's publishing, Russell shared a photo on Instagram of himself and another man, with the caption: "Love is faithful / Love is kind / It does not brag or boast / But when I tell the world / You're mine / I tend to brag the most."

The man in the photo Corey O'Brien, a professional dancer, who also posted the snapshot on Instagram, writing: "This man is the top headline on @espn this morning for speaking his truth as a player in the NFL and as my boyfriend. I couldn't be more proud."

Russell simply commented, "Mine."

Before Russell, there have been few professional athletes who were open about being gay or bisexual. 

NFL player David Kopay was the first major professional team-sports player to come out, in 1975, after he retired. Jeff Rohrer, who came out well after his retirement in 2018, became the first NFL player, current or former, to be in a same-sex marriage, according to the New York Times.

There were also several college football players who came out and were later drafted into the NFL. Notably, Michael Sam came out after his college career ended then became the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL. He played for the Rams in 2014.

Russell vows that having LGBTQ players who are comfortable living openly will no longer be an issue for the NFL — not on his watch. 

In his essay, Russell says he wants to be best version of himself — the best partner, friend, and teammate. His goal is to be a signed player, then a Pro Bowler, then a Super Bowl champion. He knows to achieve these dreams, he has to be open and honest.

"Whatever I was to you before this letter, I'm still that now. We just know each other a little better," he ends his essay.

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