By Katy Dara
What would you do if being your true self meant there was a chance you couldn’t pursue your dream?
On Tuesday, Feb. 4, students and community members gathered in the Campus Center Ballroom to hear NFL player Ryan Russell tackle that question and many others.
Ryan Russell came out as bisexual in an August 2019 ESPN essay. He is the first openly LGBTQ player in the NFL, and the only male athlete in the four major professional sports leagues to self-identify as LGBTQ. He first started exploring his sexuality in college.
“College was the time to kind of figure [my sexuality] out,” Russell said. “It was hard because as football became more a part of my life and the aspect of going to the NFL became more real, the idea of even entertaining a sexuality other than straight started to dwindle away. I remember kind of making a conscious decision of if I get drafted, then I will live a certain type of life...and that was just a sacrifice I thought I had to make for football, like not drinking on weekdays or going to sleep early.”
While he accepted being closeted at least until retirement, everything changed two years ago for Russell.
“In September of 2018, my best friend Joe passed away. He had stage 4 spinal glioblastoma, which is a very rare form of cancer,” said Russell. “At that point for me, it was just like it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is you’re living a truthful life, that you’re living a fulfilling life, and that you’re living your life.”
Being an openly bisexual man in the NFL can be difficult, but after his loss, being open and truthful began to help Russell heal internally.
“The one thing that I do know how to do is be a teammate, so I decided to be a teammate for myself. That’s when the healing began,” he said. “You need to be unapologetic to the world, but apologetic to yourself.”
Russell is also a writer and published poet. His first book of poetry, Prison or Passion (2019), reflects on the struggles of growing up without a father and the strength that comes from creating one’s own definition of manhood. He is currently working on a memoir, which he describes as “challenging.”
“Writing has saved my life,” Russell admitted. “For me, the relationship between the writer and the writing is the purest relationship there is.”
A defensive end, Russell played football for Purdue University, the Dallas Cowboys (2015) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2016-17). While he plays off-season and on the practice squad of the Buffalo Bills, he is currently a free agent.
As for a future in the NFL, Russell said, “Football is definitely in my future. I see a bright future somewhere, I just don’t know where.”
Ryan Russell’s speaking engagement was part of UAlbany’s Sexuality Month, an annual spring series of the Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program of the Center for Behavioral Health Promotion. Cosponsors included the Division of Student Affairs, Student Association, UAS, and the NYS Writers Institute.