By embracing his sexuality and living his true self, Colton Underwood joins a growing list of gay and bisexual NFL players, including Michael Sam, Ryan O’Callaghan, and more.
“I’m gay,” Colton Underwood revealed on the Wednesday (Apr. 14) episode of Good Morning America. The former NFL player and star of season 23 of The Bachelor “came to terms” with who he was earlier in 2021 and is still processing this revelation. “The next step in all of this is sort of letting people know. I’m still nervous, but it’s been a journey for sure.” Colton, 29, said that these struggles with his sexuality drive him to a dark place – “Looking back even beyond that, [there were] suicidal thoughts,” he said – but now, he’s the “happiest and healthiest” he’s ever been.
Colton’s announcement was celebrated by fans, friends, and coworkers. “We are so inspired by Colton Underwood’s courage to embrace and pursue his authentic self,” the producers of The Bachelor said in a statement. For sports fans, Colton was another high-profile athlete to come out. The NFL has had 15 players who have come out as gay or bisexual in its 100-year history, with most embracing their truth after they’ve retired. The league continues to work at becoming more inclusive and welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community. It launched NFL Pride in 2018, and in 2020, per OUT Sports, expanded partnerships with GLAAD and the Trevor Project and filmed a PSA for National Coming Out Day.
“To all current players who are thinking of coming out, when you are ready, so are we,” the PSA said while featuring past players and current stars (Rob Gronkowski, DeAndre Hopkins) showing support for their LGBT+ teammates. In the wake of Colton’s declaration, here’s a look at the NFL stars who have come out in the past.
In May 2014, Colton signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent. The team waived him, and he signed to the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad. He was only with Philly for a few days – Sept. 3 to Sept. 9 – and later that month, he returned to the Charges, signing with their practice squad. He stayed with the squad for a year. The Chargers waived him in September 2015. In December that year, Colton signed with the Raiders’ practice squad but was released in August 2016. That subsequently brought an end to Colton’s NFL career.
“I put in my retirement papers two weeks ago,” Colton told The Journal Star in 2017. “I had a serious shoulder issue and told myself I should get the surgery done. I couldn’t keep playing on it. I had a good run. I played a kids’ game for a long time. It’s bittersweet, but I’m ready to move on.”
Michael Sam made history in 2014 when he became the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL. The St. Louis Rams picked him in the seventh round, 249th out of 256 players selected in the draft. Despite being an All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year, The New York Times noted that at 6’2”, Michael Sam Was “considered too small for an N.F.L. defensive end, meaning he would have to learn to play as an outside linebacker.”
Before starting the season, the Rams released Sam, giving his roster spot to undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks. Sam signed with the Dallas Cowboys practice squad in September 2014, but the team waived him in October that year. With no NFL squad offering a spot to Michael, he signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in 2015. He made his CFL debut on Aug. 7, 2015, becoming the first publicly gay player to play in a CFL regular game.
A week later, he announced on Twitter that he was walking away from football. “The last 12 months have been very difficult for me, to the point where I became concerned with my mental health. Because of this, I am going to step away from the game at this time,” he tweeted. “Thank you all for your understanding and support.” He currently works as an author and motivational speaker.
David Kopay – who played in the NFL from 1964 to 1972 – is one of the first professional athletes to come out as gay. He made his announcement in 1975 after retiring from the sport. The former running back, who played with the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Washington Football Team, New Orleans Saints, and Green Bay Packers, released The David Kopay Story, a landmark autobiography which made him a public speaker and activity for gay rights.
“I really had no idea of just how big a thing it would become,” Kopay told the University of Washington magazine in 2008. “or for how long I would have to continue to take all that hostility on. That hostility and self-loathing that had so been ingrained in me from my earliest years by the nuns and priests and my parents and society in general. When I first spoke out, you never saw any positive images of gay folks anywhere. Not that I was really identifying with gay folks at the time, but deep inside, of course, I really was.”
“It took me a long time, too long, to accept myself as I really was,” he said. “And then to have to fight for others to come to understand and accept that we all have the same rights and responsibilities in this society — I’m hoping I can at least make a difference in that others in my position will have the freedom to be who they are, and to live the lives they want.”
Jerry Smith spent thirteen seasons with the Washington Football Team, and at the time of his retirement, he held the record for most career touchdowns by a tight end. The two-time Pro Bowl player retired in 1978, and afterward, he came out quietly to a few family members. Sadly, he passed away from AIDS at age 43 on Oct. 15, 1986. In 2014, the NFL Network aired a documentary about him, A Football Life: Jerry Smith.
Ryan O’Callaghan, a former offensive tackle for the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, came out as gay in an interview with Outsports in 2017. Ryan joined the Patriots in 2006 and started six games that year. He spent the 2008 season on Injured reserve and was waived in 2009. He joined the Kansas City Chiefs and played two seasons with the team. After injuring himself in a 2011 training camp, he knew his career was over.
“No one is going to assume the big football player is gay,” he said at the time. “It seemed to go against every stereotype of gay men that he knew of the time. “It’s why a football team is such a good place to hide,” he added. “Football was kind of the cover for my life…Football was the most masculine thing I could do, so I decided to dedicate myself to football.”
Kwame Harris joined the NFL in 2003 when the San Francisco 49ers picked him as the 260th overall draft pick in the 2003 NFL Draft. The offensive tackle played five seasons with the team. He signed a three-year deal with the then-Oakland Raiders but only played one season with the team. He retired in 2010. He came out as gay during a 2013 interview with CNN.
“I had to worry about maintaining this mask,” he said in a 2013 feature with ESPN. “If someone asks what I did on a weekend, I had to have a story, and I had to be consistent with that story. At the same time, football requires such complete devotion that I couldn’t get distracted.”
“I’m just a number now — and we need to have numbers,” he added. “I felt those two things were incompatible. No one was telling me not to come out, but the implicit rules are much stronger than the explicit ones — the shame implied by secrecy. I don’t want other gay athletes to feel this way.”
Roy Simmons played in the NFL from 1979 to 1983. In 1992, he went on The Phil Donahue Show to announce that he was gay. Five years later, he learned that he was HIV-positive. He shared his story in his autobiography, Out of Bounds, in 2006. “I’m sure there are those out there who are suffering, and if I help just one person, it’s worth it,” he told The New York Times in 2003. ”You have to free yourself, and let it go. The secrecy and all that stuff brings on sickness.” Roy passed away on Feb. 20, 2014.
Ray Douglas McDonald played a single season with the Washington Football team, from 1967 to 1968, per Out Sports. Injuries played a part in cutting his time short.“People more or less knew he was gay,” says former running back A.D. Whitfield, who played for Washington from 1966-69 per Sports Illustrated. “In the first year, there were all kinds of stories about incidents around town.” He died on May 4, 1993, three days before his 49th birthday. His obituary in the local paper listed his death as sickle cell anemia, but it was later revealed to be HIV-AIDS.
“You just want to be one of the guys, and you don’t want to lose that sense of family,” Wade Davis, a former member of the Tennessee Titans, told Out Sports in 2012 (h/t ESPN). “Your biggest fear is that you’ll lose that camaraderie and family.” Wade played on a series of practice teams – the Titans in 2000, the Seattle Seahawks in 2001, the Washington Football Team in 2003 – and played games the Berlin Thunder and Barcelona Dragons as part of NFL Europe. He retired in 2003 after getting hurt in a training camp. Since then, he has become an activist for LGBTQ+ causes, a public speaker, and an adjunct professor at NYU.
“Have I lied to teammates, coaches, trainers, front-office executives, and fans about who I am? Not exactly,” wrote Ryan Russell — a former defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Buffalo Bills — in a 2019 essay for ESPN. “But withholding information is a form of deceit. And I want the next part of my career — and life — steeped in trust and honesty. During the season, you spend more time with your team than with your own family; truth and honesty are the cornerstones of a winning culture. 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.”
Ryan saw on-field action with the Cowboys and Bucs. He signed with the Bills in 2018, but the team cut him before the season began.
Esera Tuaolo became the third former NFL player to come out as gay in 2002. The defensive tackle nicknamed “Mr. Aloha” played with the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, and Carolina Panthers. He hung up his uniform in 2002 and felt free to be honest with the world – and himself.
“I played nine years in the NFL as a closeted gay man,” Tuaolo told NBC News in 2018. “When I came out, I started speaking out against hate, bullying, and homophobia in sports. I’m proud to represent the LGBTQ community, and it’s always been a dream of mine to foster a positive relationship with the NFL and to create something like a support group or an event where people can come and be who we are and educate others on inclusion.”
Former NFL linebacker Jeff Roher announced in 2018 that he was engaged to Joshua Ross, his partner of two years. The ex-Dallas Cowboys player (he spent seven seasons with the team before retiring in 1989 following his release) was previously married to Heather Rohrer. They had two children together before calling it quits.
“People are born gay, as I was, though being gay was just something that had no place during the course of my football life,” he told The New York Times in 2018. “But when I got divorced, I said the hell with it, I’m going to do what I’ve always wanted to do. Then I found Josh, and began to openly live the life I was born to live.”
“I’ve given at least five people heart attacks with this news,” he added. “But for the most part, many of my closest friends, including some of my former teammates with the Cowboys, could not have been more happy and supportive.”
Martin Jenkins had a brief career in the NFL, joining the Seattle Seahawks as a cornerback in 1977 as an undrafted free agent, per Sports Illustrated. He competed in two preseason games but was waived before the regular season began. At that point, he chose to pursue a career in law. In 2020, he made history as becoming California’s first openly gay Supreme Court justice.
“I compartmentalized in college, when I went to the NFL, through law school, through all of it, and in my mind, I wasn’t gay for a long time,” he told The Advocate in 2020. “I just kept pressing it down, pressing it down until in some shape or form it just became nonexistent. Once in a while, it would rear its head, but it never went away. How could it?”
Dorien Bryant was expected to make a splash in the NFL after setting records during his time at Perdue. However, injuries and a feeling of burnout ended his career. He signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2008 but was released in May 2008 due to a failed physical. Dorien, who was outed during his time in college, told Philadelphia magazine in 2013 that he’s made peace with what happened. “Everything I set out to do, I had achieved,” he says. “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.”
“I’ve been told many times that the process of coming out is cathartic,” Brad Thorson wrote in 2014, per Out Sports. Brad went undrafted in 2011 and signed with the Arizona Cardinals that year. He was put on injured reserve when he broke his foot, and the Cardinals released him. He joined the CFL’s Roughriders the following season but realized that his football days are over.
“Yet since coming to terms with my sexuality, I found it arduous and unnecessary. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself. So today, I’m putting it in writing and not looking back,” he wrote in 2014. “I’m gay. I’m also an athlete. For years, I struggled to unite these two identities in my own mind. Not until after my professional athletic career came to an end did I allow myself to understand my sexuality. Now, three years later, I’m finally ready to share that with people.”
This article originally appeared on Hollywood Life